Editor’s note: How does a church under pressure stay renewed in the gospel of grace? For 70 years, house churches in China have grown amidst cultural marginalization, political disenfranchisement, and periods of active persecution. In recent years, a growing movement of Reformed, urban house churches have begun to articulate an important theology of ‘walking the way of the cross’ which shapes their ecclesiology, evangelism, and discipleship. As North American churches navigate the increasing pressures of a polarizing culture, there is much to learn from our brothers and sisters in China.
This essay is adapted from a seminar at the summer 2023 PCA General Assembly.
Why We Should Listen
Today, there are about 100 million Christians in China. This is an astounding work of the Holy Spirit over the last 70 years. When the Communist Party came to power, all Western missionaries and church structures were kicked out. Everyone thought that was the end of the church in China. In historical documents, by and large, people had the attitude of, “That’s it, the mission failed.” But when China opened back up, we discovered that had not been the case. God preserved his people, and they endured under great hardship. As China opened, the faith grew like wildfire. From the 1980s on, there was exponential growth of Christianity and of conversions.
China is far away and culturally very different from the majority culture North American experience – but it is probably not as different or as far as you think. In today’s world, urban city dwellers deal with many of the same questions.
We should be paying attention to what is taking place there, and we should be learning, because God is clearly doing a great work. God is pouring out his Holy Spirit onto China, and revival is taking place there. If we long to see revival in our own backyards, we need to pay attention to what is taking place where he is working.
China is far away and culturally very different from the majority culture North American experience – but it is probably not as different or as far as you think. In today’s world, urban city dwellers deal with many of the same questions: how do you raise a second and third and fourth generation in the gospel? How do you endure in a secularized space? How do you push back against your congregation’s materialism and the realities of living in a successful, wealthy place?
If you took a pastor from Shanghai and a pastor from Chicago and put them in the same room, there would be significant cultural differences, but the big issues that weigh on them are similar enough that they could have a productive conversation and learn from one another. A rising issue the North American church is thinking about is cultural marginalization when Christianity is not the majority faith. What does it mean to endure and be the church? How do we live as a marginalized faith community? This is something the Chinese have lived and thought and talked about for decades. It is a new reality and conversation for us, but not for them. There is a lot we can learn from them about how to love your city when it doesn’t love you back.
When I think about my kids, I want them to grow up learning from the great tradition of Western, Reformed theology. I want them to read John Calvin and the great heritage we have – but I also want them to pay attention to their brothers and sisters around the world who understand what it means to be a faithful disciple on the margins, and to hear what they have to say about living and enduring.
American culture, in particular, is bent on getting people to forget the reality of suffering…This, though, is quite different from what I see with brothers and sisters in China.
Suffering, Discipleship, and Union with Christ
I don’t think anyone likes to think about suffering. But American culture, in particular, is bent on getting people to forget the reality of suffering. We pretend it is not there. That was really pressed home on me through the pandemic. It was like we were so allergic to talking about suffering until we were forced to be in it, that we didn’t know what to do. This, though, is quite different from what I see with brothers and sisters in China.
As an example, I have had many conversations with those in the church who talk about suffering as a necessary component of our walk with Christ and discipleship. As a white American, everything in me reacts like, “What are you talking about?!” It took experiencing a certain degree of suffering in my own life to be able to hear what they were saying, not as deeply disturbing and weird, but recognizing there is truth and wisdom in it.
When I really started listening to what they have to say, I discovered these ideas are rooted in their understanding of the Christian’s union with Christ. We all love “union with Christ” – but I am not sure we love the implication that this union with Christ comes with a call to walk the way of the cross. This is something Chinese brothers and sisters talk about all the time. They remind us of the words of Jesus in Matthew, that a servant is not above his master. Our Savior’s life on earth was marked by suffering, and we are not above him. Paul also talks about the church filling up the afflictions of Christ. These are not new ideas or theology. But it isn’t in the water of our discipleship.
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I am not sure we love the implication that this union with Christ comes with a call to walk the way of the cross. This is something Chinese brothers and sisters talk about all the time.
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It has become very beautiful to me to see how much the Chinese marinate in this theology. They are living a life in the wilderness with many difficulties, and they lean on this doctrine of union with Christ in a profoundly beautiful way. I think what enables Chinese Christians to do this is that union with Christ is not only married to suffering with Christ. Suffering in union with Christ is how we receive the wellspring of grace in our lives. You cannot endure hardship and suffering without being able to draw from the deep well of God’s grace. That is what keeps your heart soft in the middle of great opposition.
In my own life, we went through a really hard time from 2018 through 2022. Part of it had to do with the pandemic, and loss we experienced in that stretch. For me, it was incredibly important to hear from Chinese believers, saying, “Press on” and, “Keep going,” and, “You have the resources you need, in your union with Christ, to endure through this time.”
I often hear pastors talk about using their time in the backseat of a police car on the way to the station for questioning as a time to repent of their own idols. You are only able to take that posture in times of hardship when you live in the reality that you are united to Christ, and his grace is abundant in your life.
Hannah Nation is the Managing Director of the Center for House Church Theology. A prolific writer and student of missions history and World Christianity, she is inspired by this historical moment and the privilege of witnessing a new chapter in church history unfold across China.
Pray that the Lord will use suffering and hardship to help you know him more and experience more of his grace.