Editor’s note: Yang Mingdao is the collective pseudonym for Chinese voices within China Partnership. This series is drawn from an update given by a Chinese theological teacher at a recent gathering. It has been edited from transcriptions of the original talk.
This series focuses on the current state of the Chinese house church as it reassesses its identity in the midst of increased pressure on religious practice across the nation. Still, believers are determined to press on, and remain focused on God’s grace even in the midst of pressure. Make sure you check back for the second half of the series next week.
What is the Chinese house church? Some of you may think, “House churches are in houses.” But nowadays, the “house church” is more of an ecclesiological position, meaning such churches are not registered churches. They started in houses once, but today any church that is not registered to submit to government authority is considered a house church [regardless of where it meets]. When I was young, in high school and college, our house church literally met in my parents’ house with seven or eight people. Now, although still considered a house church, there may be hundreds of people gathered together [on any given Sunday]. Many of the house churches rent places to worship. House churches are a church movement that considers Christ, not the government, to be the head and the center of the church.
Christ called us for the mission of the Great Commission: to disciple and plant churches. If someone says, “I’m gospel-centered, but I’m indifferent to people’s souls, I’m indifferent to mission, I’m indifferent to church planting,” then that is a false gospel. We want to see the fruit of gospel-centeredness. This means bearing fruit through visible and tangible church planting.
[In China], we are seeing this happen organically, by word of mouth. One pastor suddenly rehears the gospel, and his heart comes back to life. We have heard this story again and again, as pastors say, “I have felt the loving gospel in my life again.” When that happens in a pastor’s life, he shares it with others; he cannot stop.
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In the midst of current persecution, a gospel-centered pastor does not forget the core mission of the church, which is gospel preaching, evangelism, church planting, and discipleship.
Gospel-centered pastors know they are fighting for the lives of the lost. This type of pastor has the power of a dragon and the humility of a panda. This is gospel-centeredness. This is what we are praying, laboring, and fighting for. A true gospel movement wants to call people back to the gospel and invites them to be theologians of the cross. Christ is the center, he is everything. Leaders must minister and pastor the church in Christ, by Christ, and through Christ.
There is uncertainty about the future in China. We don’t know what the future is. These days a lot of people are asking: what is happening in China? There are three things we are facing.
First, political and ideological pressure and persecution from the government. This is a nationwide phenomenon. For the first time in thirty years, the government listed Christianity as a national security threat in their national security white paper in 2015. The second major challenge is economic and social instability. China is at a turning point, deciding which direction she will go. Looking at the data, economic performance indicators are going south, which puts a lot of stress on society. Many middle class people are talking about leaving China and buying property outside of China. People are voting with their feet. The third challenge we face is a personnel crisis. This can happen at any time, as leaders from outside the country are rejected for visas or denied entry, and those who are Chinese citizens can be detained within China.
To demonstrate the political and ideological pressure, the very famous Chinese monks at the Shaolin Temple recently had to raise the national flag to show they love the country and the Party. This was the first time in their 1,500-year history they have complied with the requests of government officials to do this kind of thing.
This has also happened for Christianity. Recently, in Three Self churches (or government-registered churches) have been forced to sing red songs, songs that praise the glory of the Communist Party and the nation state. That is why the house churches have not complied with the government: they cannot do it. This is happening now, but it is not new.
We face pressure, but we believe all this pressure is God’s means to help and mold the church’s growth. Throughout China, as I have traveled to different places, almost every pastor tells me, “Yes, there is great pressure and persecution, but we pray the pressure and persecution will not be removed so quickly. Give us more severe pressure and persecution, for a longer time, so God can purify the church and can call us to be theologians of the cross, not of glory. This is the means God is using to shape the churches into Christ-likeness.”
Churches are not complying with the government’s order to change. They are resistant to these demands from the government, and sense that this is not only time for them to stand up for Christ, but it is also time for them to reflect. For many years, Christianity in China has been an individualized, personal faith. Now that the government is pressuring the churches as a whole, they are wondering: what is church? What does it mean to worship as one church on Sunday? This is an opportunity for them to mature and advance their doctrine of how to be a church.
Throughout this time, Chinese churches have developed a sophisticated theology of suffering. First, they believe suffering is the norm for the resurrected life. If you are resurrected in this fallen world, if Christ lives in you and you have the Holy Spirit, there will be suffering. Suffering is not new; it is just Christ-likeness. Second, Chinese churches think suffering is about identity, mission, and hope in union with Christ. If we are united with Christ, then suffering is natural; we will experience what Christ experienced in this world. Third, they believe suffering is not about seeking after suffering, but rather about following of Christ. Whenever one follows Christ, there will be different forms of suffering. What they are now experiencing is normal. Fourth, suffering is the agony of the process of recreation. God is recreating us. He is recreating pain and birth, and that process means suffering. Fifth and finally, suffering is the pathway to find resurrection joy. Suffering is an integrated component of a Christian life. We cannot escape it; it is a tool in God’s hands used to shape his church.