Editor’s note: This interview originally appeared in April 2020 as a part of the “Church in Outbreak” series of the Redeemer City to City podcast. In mid-March, many churches around the U.S. were prohibited from gathering for weekend services, and churches scrambled to move online. As churches struggled to figure out next steps, Brandon O’Brien interviewed a friend of City to City who works with Christian leaders across China.
Yang Mingdao is the collective pseudonym for Chinese staff within China Partnership.
This interview has been edited and condensed for both clarity and brevity.
Brandon O’Brien: I’ve been watching a couple of things with interest from my perspective here in the U.S. For a while, there has been growing intensity from the Chinese government on the enforcement of unregistered churches in China. It has been happening for several years, but it seemed to really pick up in December of 2018 with arrests at Early Rain Covenant Church and some others.
One of the things that is interesting and instructive about China is that you are dealing with two crises at one time: one is a crisis of persecution, and one is the crisis of this coronavirus that is now a global pandemic. Could give us a little bit of background and describe the government interaction with the churches at this point?
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Yang Mingdao: The Early Rain situation in Chengdu, China, was something that really caught the eyes of the West; a lot of people know about what is going on. That is a very extreme case in China. Early Rain has its own background because the pastor, Wang Yi, has been very vocal about what is going on in China. He was a very popular author, or liberal arts scholar, in China.
We have to see [the ERCC situation] in a church-and-state relationship persecution background. However, we need to broaden that beyond 2018. A new religious regulation was published and implemented in February of 2018. By the end of that year, you had the Early Rain thing. We have to look at the whole thing in the context of modern Chinese history.
If you look into Chinese history over the past 180 to 200 years, there is great conflict between China and the West. In the context of the current Chinese Communist Party, toward the end of the 20th century, the regime and all Chinese people – not only the elite – had this awareness: how can we save China as a country? The modern consciousness of a nation-state had not developed until that time.
They are asking: how can we save China? The Communist Party did two things. One, through very rigorous methods, they saved China from the West. They established the modern state government in 1949. They are, in one sense, an independent, self-governing government. From that perspective, they saved China. From another perspective, in this modern clash of the past 180 years, Chinese people and culture have been gradually adopting a lot of Western ways of life, including industrialization. Later, people tried to do the press, book printing, publishing, and education. All these things are more and more adapted to China. But the political system and ideology has always been one of the battlegrounds. With that background: what is Christianity? What are the churches?
It is a really interesting position for the churches. The church is the first civil society or civil body which will say: “Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus Christ is our King, not the Emperor. My life belongs to Jesus Christ, and the church is loyal only to Christ Jesus. Christ is the head of the body, his church. Not the Emperor, not the Communist Party.” That is a great challenge to the governing philosophy, not only of the Communist Party, but of two thousand years of philosophy. The Emperor can make an edict for your death and you can’t say no: this is the structure in China. That is the number one thing, the church a challenge to the government. Christianity is deemed part of the West in China. The Chinese Communist Party can see that the church is a potential threat.
The church in China has been in a very difficult situation politically, culturally, and spiritually. They need to be faithful to Christ, and in the meanwhile, they do have persecution from time to time.
O’Brien: A lot of churches around the world used to meet in large gatherings. A lot of places in the world are adjusting to this new reality. A lot of churches in China were adjusting to limit restrictions for the last year or so as they were adjusting to these new, more aggressive enforcements of regulations.
What has changed now with the coronavirus outbreak in China? How has the worship, prayer, fellowship, et cetera of Christians in China changed again in response to the coronavirus outbreak there?
Yang: The coronavirus broke out in China at the end of January. From the end of January, almost all Chinese cities had social distancing orders on the central government or provincial level. This not only impacted the church, it impacted everybody’s life. People are are shut in their home. They can maybe walk in their subdivision, but largely they cannot walk out of their subdivision. You are just shut into your small community.
For Sunday worship, people had started to have smaller gatherings, like 50 people, retreating to their houses. But after the outbreak, it was not possible for 30 or 50 people to go to your house. Even for a family gathering, it’s not possible. You are not allowed. After that, I think it was the same as in the States: people went online.
Before coronavirus, because of the [political] pressure, some churches had started to practice that already. Let’s say you are a 200-person church. After you have broken into four smaller groups, how do you do Sunday service? Some had already started to have four sites and had the preacher preach at one site, broadcasting to the different sites. They also had smaller gatherings, but joined the same worship online. Coronavirus pushed the level further down. Basically, it was every individual house, everything individual family.
I had the privilege to preach to one church before coronavirus last September. We had a large number of people in different locations. On your screen, there may be 20 or 30 different windows, and in every window there was one smaller group. One group can go up to 20, 30, even 50 people. I preached to the same church in February. There were 200, 300, even 400 different windows. I could not see all the windows, there were so many pages. Every family unit is coming online, having Sunday worship. It is a challenging time, but people are creative and persistent to continue Sunday worship.
The churches we know have a great emphasis on the nature of Sunday worship. They ask questions like: “What is the nature of a church? What does it mean to be a church? What does it mean to do Sunday worship as one body, a local body of Christ interacting and communing with God on Sunday?” That is a heavenly privilege. People long for that and, because of that, Sunday worship continues, just in a different form.
Weekly Bible study and weekly fellowships are also taking these online forms. We learned from most churches that, after they started online, more people joined Sunday worship and Bible study, at least for the first 4 to 6 weeks. Some people had stopped coming to a physical, in-person meeting on Friday or Saturday night or on Sunday. Now, the coronavirus shut everybody in at home and they had nowhere to go. Christian fellowship, Bible study, and Sunday worship, draw a crowd online, and people listen. They participate. There are even more people coming to seekers’ group to study and talk about faith. That is very encouraging, at least in the first two months, and we hope that can continue. The church needs to be creative.
You draw people in: but can you keep them? Long-term virtual gathering will damage the church. How the church can handle that? That is the current situation. People are asking those kinds of questions now.
In China, the church pays a great price for insisting on loyalty to Christ alone, above political party, government, or monarchs. Do Western Christians also have to pay a price for unwavering allegiance to Christ alone? What might that type of fidelity to God look like in your context?