The Chinese Church Under Pressure – Part 6, Not Survival But Faithfulness

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What is the Church?, Part 1: The Question Is Not Survival, But How to Remain Faithful

China is facing an unprecedented transformation in society, culture, economy, and religion. How should the church think and make decisions: pragmatically or based on a biblical model? We need to look at the current situation from a biblical perspective, building a model based on scripture to examine how we should interact with the world and culture.

In this series, let us first concentrate on the gospel’s missiological, cross-cultural influence. Then we will also look at biblical theology, especially that of the kingdom and the eschatological perspective of Christ’s resurrection reign. These show us the church’s calling, and help us derive principles to follow as we consider the church’s strategies and actions.

The Organic Formation of the Institutional Church

If we compare China with Hong Kong, Taiwan, or North and South Korea – all East Asian nations with Confucian cultures – we find the transformation going on today in mainland China today is more intense than it is elsewhere. In this perhaps unprecedented transformation of a large country with a huge population and millennia of history, the issue of the model of governance is one of the greatest challenges. The authoritative model of governance, which has been in place for several millennia, is clashing with modern concepts of governance, and we do not know how it will change. China’s internal resources are already exhausted, but we do not know what the future will look like. Under this pressure, the authoritative regime faces a crisis of legitimacy.

Simultaneously, the gospel is entering Chinese culture as China transforms. As Chinese Christians, we assume the gospel has completely crossed over into our culture, but experience tells us this process is still happening. It is harder than expected, and the challenges are many. Recent events attest to this. We see the annual debate about whether we should celebrate Christmas, though that is only a peripheral question. The new religious regulations and the questions surrounding flag-raising, registration with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, or acknowledging “who’s the boss” are all fundamentally questions of faith.

According to Andrew Walls, the process of Christianity’s globalization is expressed on three levels.

#1: The first is the organic formation of the institutional church; that is, the establishment of individual churches and denominations, with organization of governance and pastoral models, including elders, deacons, and even ecclesial properties.

#2: Under the teaching of this visible and institutional church, growing and maturing Christians start to share their faith through their lives. As they share, they may start organizations or ministries, such as Bible studies at their workplaces. This is the second level – structural development by Christians in various segments of culture.

#3: The third level is when Christianity leaves marks on the culture. These marks mean that even non-Christians who live in the broader culture are influenced unconsciously by the religion. For example, in America the phrase “giving my two cents worth” means sharing your humble opinion, like the two cents given by the widow. This saying is a mark of Christianity on the culture. Thus, the celebration of Christmas reflects the fringes of such a mark, but it is manifested in an acute way when the gospel is preached. The core issue (who the Lord is) and the peripheral issue (whether we should celebrate Christmas) are simultaneously manifested in our culture as Christianity is preached.

If we judge the transformation of China and the culture-crossing progress of the gospel from these three levels, China is still mainly at the first level. At this level, cultural contact is through the formation of the visible church and its influence on the surrounding culture, communities, and local and national structures of governance.


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We Should Not Hide for the Sake of Survival

From the very first generation of house churches, the biggest challenge for the Chinese church  was to identify whether individuals truly believed. This question still matters, but it is no longer the main focus.

The main question for the institutional church now is whether to register with the government. Registration implies raising flags and singing the national anthem. It implies being under surveillance and control. Two areas the government is seeking to control are the place of worship and the qualifications of a pastor. The government’s questions of “Who is the boss?” and “Do you love me?” are the core challenges faced by the visible church today.

This is going to be a long-term challenge. Things might be better in a couple of years, but we will still face the challenge of the cross-cultural progress of the gospel over the long haul. China’s transformation is yet to be completed, and it will be a “three-steps-forward-two-steps-back” shuffle. We have to make adequate preparations. The best and most crucial preparation is not a practical, short-term, “underground church survival” plan, only to resurface after the tide has passed. The older generation stood up for the gospel and for Christ; should we hide today for the sake of survival? Are there other factors that dictate what we should do? This is the great challenge for church leaders today.

Core Beliefs and the Blessing of the Gospel

In this process of gospel culture-crossing, it is important to discern the biblical model for our identity and relationship with the world and culture. This is based on the gospel, on theology, and on biblical revelation. The focus today must be on faithfully adopting principles, strategies, and actions from a biblical perspective. In my interactions with urban pastors, the crucial question for most is not whether they can survive or how to survive, but how they can remain faithful to the gospel and to Christ. Their concern is what kind of blessing God will bestow through this persecution. They want this blessing to be a resource and gift for the theological education of churches over the next 10 to 20 years, and to offer this resource for the benefit of the universal church.

We start again with Andrew Walls. Walls did not talk only about the three levels of the gospel’s culture-crossing, but he also made a very interesting observation: except Christianity, none of the world’s major religions have left their places of origin. Even Buddhism never went much further than East Asia.

Judaism, Islam, and even Buddhism: all employ external, cultural forms to strengthen and protect the core of their religion. Only Christianity is not tied to any external forms or cultural expressions as a means of protecting its religious core. For example, some places use unleavened bread for the Lord’s Supper, while others use regular bread. There are core articles, but many different external expressions.

The second phenomenon Walls observed is that, among the world religions, only Christianity continues to transcend surrounding cultures. As Christianity enters a new culture, it takes root in and uniquely expresses itself in that culture. Because Christianity does not have to maintain “external elements” – that is, it does not require others to come under its cultural tent in order to join the religion, but it seeks to cross into other cultures – Christianity faces a huge challenge. With every cross-cultural engagement, Christianity must first strip away the external elements of its native culture in order to return to the core beliefs: the faith of the cross, the incarnation, and the death and resurrection of Christ. With those core beliefs, Christianity then must face unprecedented challenges in the new culture, challenges it did not previously encounter in its native culture.

The Gospel Continues to Move Forward

The gospel gives a life-giving, cross-shaped answer to these challenges, producing new momentum and dynamics as it buds and produces gospel seeds and fruit in the new culture. Christianity must face the aspects of the culture which have the greatest need of redemption, and it must speak to that culture. Through this it actually gains new momentum. When a culture desperately needs the message of the cross (not the prosperity gospel, but the central message of Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection) and it is given, the gospel not only crosses and transcends cultural boundaries, it produces long-lasting fruit.

When this fruit is at the peak of budding and growing, Christianity will begin a new process of culture-crossing. In the native culture, the gospel has already influenced mainstream culture and entered mainstream society. This may produce complacency, and a departure from the original message of the cross. The gospel may actually begin to decline in its native culture. But it is gaining new life in a new culture, and it continues to move forward.


Read the whole series below:

A Historical Review

Synopsis: The current round of religious persecution in China is fundamentally an issue of ultimate allegiances. “The government used to be laissez-faire, but now they need to hear everyone say: ‘I love you.’”

Synopsis: Modern day China is the result of a clash between cultures. Before its engagement with the West, China viewed the world according to two categories – its kingdom and the barbarians outside. 

Synopsis: A discussion of the authority structures that exist in China due to the long legacy of Confucianism. Authority belongs to the emperor as given by heaven and total loyalty to superiors is necessary for the Chinese system to function. 

Synopsis: A two-millennia old system of governance does not easily change overnight. “Yuan realized the universal and interconnected Chinese system could not be transformed into a republican or parliamentary system simply by changing it on paper. In a public discussion in America, he said: “If we do not even have citizens, how can we have a republican system?”

Synopsis: In the past, while China was busy getting rich, the government had confidence in its full legitimacy to rule and there were fewer questions of loyalty. But now, in this time of reconstruction, they ask: “Do you love me? If you do, you must raise the national flag. If you love me, you will register [your churches].

What is the Church?

Synopsis: When a culture desperately needs the message of the cross (not the prosperity gospel, but the central message of Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection) and it is given, the gospel not only crosses and transcends cultural boundaries, it produces long-lasting fruit. 

Synopsis: Chinese pastors are asking the question, “What is the church?” The answer is crucial for determining their response to the government. As they try to define their theology of the church, these pastors are going beyond considering its attributes, to trying to understand the very nature of the church.

Synopsis: In the light of Genesis 3, the most important question to ask is not, “How can we be saved,” but rather, “How can the creative will and plan of God to make a perfect humanity be fulfilled?” The answer is the one-and-many humanity God is calling to himself to make up the church.

Synopsis: Today’s church is the construction site for the new creation God is building and which will be revealed in the final day.

Synopsis: The persecution and challenges the Chinese house church currently faces are no different from those faced by the early church in Acts. The authorities of this world always challenge the church with the same question: “Who do you love?” The extent to which the church’s response to this question is informed by its union with Christ will determine its faithfulness to the Lord in the face of persecution.

Synopsis: Moving forward, we must ask: are we protecting ourselves, or are we doing it for the gospel? A lived-out ecclesiology will inevitably encounter suffering.

Translation provided by Moses, Jane, Ryan, and the China Partnership translation team.

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Further Reading

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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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