Why Should We Learn From Chinese Christians?

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 In historical documents, by and large, people had the attitude of, “That’s it, the mission failed.”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.

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Further Reading

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Nanjing: Bringing the Gospel Into Life
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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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