Time to Shine: The Chinese Church, Church Planting, and World Missions

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” – Isaiah 60:1-3

It’s Sunday afternoon in Beijing. Outside, people are enjoying a warm spring day, a welcome respite before the harried work-week begins. But inside an office building in a newly-developed section of Beijing, nearly two hundred Chinese are crying out to God. A young man in his early twenties plays the guitar as he leads an enthusiastic worship team.

“Lord, have mercy on China!” they sing in Chinese. The congregation follows along, reading the PowerPoint slides on the projection screen. After singing, the believers bow in prayer. They intercede for the church’s two missionaries sent to other parts of China. They thank God for his blessings and faithfulness in the past. And they pray for their pastor and his upcoming sermon, that God would use it to touch the lives of those in attendance, including nearly thirty newcomers.

The text for the pastor’s sermon comes from 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:9. He speaks of the reality of evil and people’s need to be aware of the battle that is raging. The service concludes with communion, announcements, and more singing. In many ways, it resembles Christian worship services in other parts of the world—except that some of those in attendance are among the brightest minds in China.

A Void to Fill
The spread of Christianity in China over the past few decades has been called the “greatest church growth since Pentecost.”1 When Communists took control in 1949 and commenced expelling foreign missionaries, there were an estimated 700,000 Protestant believers in the Middle Kingdom. In the years that followed, Christians in China endured intense persecution. Many thought the Chinese Church was crippled beyond repair. An American visitor in the early 1970s claimed there was “scarcely a visible trace” of Christianity in China.2 That’s certainly no longer the case. Although accurate estimates are hard to come by, there are perhaps as many as 130 million Christians today, according to one Beijing government official. A remarkable work of God has taken place.

But until recently, that work took place mostly in China’s countryside, among farmers and peasants. That is partly due to the fact that, until recently, the vast majority of China’s population lived in rural settings. But it’s also because, for many years, China’s urban intellectuals were resistant to the gospel. Christianity was viewed as a foreign ideology and often associated (sometimes, rightly so) with Western imperialism. Following World War I, Western powers ceded German colonies in China to Japan, prompting a great outcry—known as the May 4th Movement—among China’s intellectuals. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai.

After civil war resulted in Communist victory, many of China’s intellectuals thought the future was full of promise. China was finally rid of foreign influence and could rise to her fullest potential. But things soon began to change. The Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957-1958 resulted in the imprisonment of many intellectuals. Then, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) took most of China’s scholars out of university classrooms and into labor camps or factories, only to return to their academic posts in the late 1970s. Subsequent events, plus the emptiness and corruption caused by the rise of materialism in China, have left many intellectuals with a sense of disillusionment.


  
Many urban intellectuals have filled their ideological voids
with faith in Christ.

Time to Shine?
Thankfully, many urban intellectuals have filled their ideological voids with faith in Christ. As one example, in the mid-1990s, Beijing was home to only a handful of urban house churches. Today, there are perhaps between six and ten thousand such fellowships. Shanghai, China’s most populated city, has seen growth as well, with possibly as many as 400,000 believers.3

To be sure, some of the churches in Beijing target the migrant workers behind the capital city’s building boom. Others host rural believers who have moved to the city. But a sizeable number of the urban churches are filled with white-collar, well-educated business and academic professionals. Many will be, or already are, China’s leaders in their respective fields.

They are part of the nation’s emerging middle and upper class. They feel comfortable in international settings. They’re sophisticated and tech savvy. And they’re spiritually hungry. While different from their rural brothers and sisters in many ways, the growth rate of their churches is reminiscent of the gospel’s advance in China’s countryside in previous decades.

“However big the place you meet, the place will be filled with Christians,” said John*, a leader in one of these churches. “It’s just a matter of time.” This new demographic hopes to, perhaps, bring a new structure to China’s Protestants. Most Chinese believers are either members of the government-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) or the unregistered, not legally recognized, house church. The majority of China’s Christians attend the latter.

But some urban house churches are attempting to obtain another kind of status. In March 2005, the Chinese government issued new religious regulations that seemed to make it possible to legally register as a house church apart from the government-controlled TSPM.

With the conviction that the church should operate in a legal manner, some Chinese urban believers have quietly looked into this new legal standing. They like the thought of being within the confines of civil law, but apart from the government-controlled TSPM; similar to the churches in Hong Kong and most developed countries. However, few churches have been able to test the new law as the government thus far has been cautious to implement it.

Still, the Chinese government could be warming to the idea that Christianity can play a positive role in their goal of building a “harmonious society.” Similarly, urban intellectual believers are saying it’s time for China’s house churches to come “above ground” and “shine” the light of the Lord on China and the world. If this idea of a legal, yet free from government control, church moves forward, it could be a breakthrough and, hopefully, a win-win situation for both sides.

“We should shine on the whole society, the whole country, so that we can reform society, not in a political way, but in a spiritual way,” John encourages. Urban Chinese believers hope Christianity can make a positive contribution to China’s emergence on the world scene. By doing so, they hope to bring Christianity into the greater Chinese public’s consciousness. Controlled by neither foreigners nor the government, China’s urban house churches dream of starting their own seminaries, forming missions-training structures, and providing holistic, social ministries to benefit China’s people and the world.

One encouraging development in recent months has been a greater collaboration among China’s urban house churches. Last fall, urban church leaders from all over China met in Shanghai to discuss the future of the Chinese Church. On New Year’s Eve, several of Beijing’s urban house church networks participated in an all-night prayer gathering. Those same networks have organized a 24-hour, seven days a week prayer chain among their members. Their topic: Revival in Beijing and China.

“The Lord is doing his unifying work,” John exclaims. While the shows of unity are encouraging, they haven’t gone without notice from China’s government. John says some urban house church leaders have been questioned by police. Having seen the role of Christianity in the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, China’s government is sensitive to unified, organized, and committed groups of individuals such as churches.

However, most church leaders have no political motives and have openly dialogued with the authorities in an attempt to alleviate their concerns. The good news is that, at least for now, the authorities seem to be listening. Currently, the urban house churches, in general, are experiencing little outright persecution.

This year, with the Olympics in August, authorities in Beijing are taking a “watch and wait” approach. What the authorities will do after the Games is still unclear. So while this year could be a good year for church growth and expansion, next year—when the Olympics are over and some of the international attention on China has subsided—could be a “willing to be persecuted” year, according to some house church leaders.

To the Ends of the Earth
Persecution and hardship have been marks of the Chinese Church for decades. Western believers may find it odd that some Chinese church leaders, while not asking for pressure from the government, also do not run from it. Throughout Christian history, God has used persecution for the purifying and preparation of his Church. Many observers think the past decades of sacrifice in China may have laid a foundation for a future work involving the Chinese Church: the evangelization of the more than six thousand unreached people groups in the world.

In recent years, missions and the Chinese Church has often been associated with a movement known as Back to Jerusalem (BTJ). The original “Back to Jerusalem” band was formed in the 1940s on the idea that the Chinese Church is called to take the gospel through the largely unreached areas of Western China, Central Asia, and back to the Middle East and Jerusalem, where the gospel was first heard. While a trickle of Chinese believers headed westward at the time, this movement eventually fell silent for nearly fifty years. More recently, a renewed vision of the BTJ movement has been promoted among some rural house church network leaders with a vision to send 100,000 Chinese missionaries toward Jerusalem and the Middle East.

The vision received much publicity through the popular book The Heavenly Man, the miraculous story of a believer from rural China.4 Some Chinese churches have rallied behind the idea, but the movement is still largely in its infancy and is primarily active among rural networks made up of members with only an elementary or middle school education level.

“In fact, the new BTJ movement is probably more popular outside of China than within” says Joe*, a foreign Christian working with house church leaders in Beijing. He says urban Chinese Christians do not see themselves as alone in the completion of the Great Commission, nor do they see the advance of the gospel heading in only one direction.

“They don’t want to be seen as carrying the final torch,” says Joe, “but as participating with global brothers and sisters to accomplish the Great Commission together, taking the gospel to the ends of the earth—yes, toward the Middle East, but not exclusively.” Joe sees the emergence of the urban intellectuals as a positive sign for future mission work. Whereas China’s rural Christians might struggle with a lack of financial resources, learning new languages and adapting to foreign cultures, urban Chinese Christian professionals and academics already familiar with working in international environments seem better-equipped to deal with such issues.

“Culturally, they’re more prepared and sensitive,” explains Joe. “Their financial resources, long-term viability…who they are as people will have a longer, larger impact.” China expert Tony Lambert, in his latest edition of China’s Christian Millions, concurs:

While acknowledging the zeal and effectiveness of the rural believers in their own cultural milieu, it seems more realistic to accept the fact that educated Christians in the cities and those with business contacts overseas are much better placed to pioneer the first steps in cross-cultural mission—first within China, and then, as they gain experience, to the wider world.5

However, it won’t be an easy road. Like all prospective missionaries, China’s future cross-cultural workers will probably struggle with issues of leaving their home culture, learning a foreign tongue, and living as Christians in sometimes harsh spiritual environments. For China’s urban house church missionaries, that loss may be felt more acutely. Not only will they be giving up potentially lucrative careers, but they also risk crushing the hopes of family members from rural areas who look to them for the entire family’s financial security.

“It’s hard for them to turn their back on that,” says Joe. For now, it’s premature to say a wide-ranging mission movement is taking off among Chinese intellectuals. But a church-planting movement certainly is—and it has missions at the forefront.

One Beijing house church leader thinks it will be his children’s generation that may see a burgeoning mission movement from China to the rest of the world. He foresees the next ten years as a time of church planting among the Chinese within China, followed by a period of ten years time to reach out to China’s numerous minority people groups and, then, ten years after that to be the time for the Chinese Church to send out workers into the spiritual harvest fields around the world.

In the meantime, the Chinese Church continues to grow. As it matures, missions will hopefully be a natural outflow, says Joe. He points to the development of the South Korean Church (see box below) as evidence. If China follows a similar pattern, watch out.

“It could be tens of thousands of Chinese missionaries,” Joe says. “Maybe we could forecast twenty to thirty years from now, when the Chinese urban house churches are fully mature, what you will see is a mission movement in our lifetime that will impact the world.”

*Some names have been changed. Any resemblance to the names of actual persons in similar positions is not intended.

Endnotes

1. Lambert, Tony. 2004. “The Changing Face of China’s Church.” Mobilizer Magazine. Summer, 7-11.

2. Lambert, Tony. 2006. China’s Christian Millions. Oxford: Monarch Books, 27.

3. China’s Christian Millions, 268.

4. Brother Yun and Paul Hattaway. 2002. The Heavenly Man. London: Monarch Books.

5. China’s Christian Millions, 198.

China: The Next South Korea?

Thirty years ago, Christianity fever was rampant in South Korea. The Church nearly tripled in size during the 1970s, the “great decade” of Korean church growth.1

However, although the Church was exploding, South Korean mission involvement was minimal. In 1979, there were just ninety-two missionaries sent from South Korea.2 Today, South Korea is the second-largest sending Church in the world, with around seventeen thousand missionaries serving in 189 agencies.3 And Korean churches and missions are not planning to stop anytime soon. They have ambitiously resolved to send out one million tent-making missionaries by 2020 and 100,000 missionaries by 2030.4

Could China be the next South Korea? When looking at the future of the Chinese Church, some observers point to the development of the South Korean Church as a possible model to follow. There are several similarities. Both are Asian. Both countries—and churches—endured a tumultuous first half of the twentieth century. Both churches experienced periods of persecution leading to unprecedented church growth. Christians in both countries are known to be passionate about prayer and evangelism. (Many of China’s urban house churches have been strongly influenced by Korean Christians.) And both countries hosted the Olympic Games at a pivotal time in the country’s history.

In his article, “A Survey of the Korean Missionary Movement,” Timothy Kiho Park, director of Korean Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes “explosive church growth, marvelous economic growth, continued immigration to many countries of the world, seeking higher education and accumulated missionary experience have enhanced the missionary movement of the Korean Church in recent years.”5 But while China has many parallels to Korea, the differences are numerous as well, and big enough to assume that a Chinese missionary movement will probably look somewhat different.

Perhaps the biggest difference to consider is the two countries’ political systems. China’s Communist government is not likely to allow mission structures and possible parachurch sending organizations to operate unhindered. Sending missionaries from China will be a bit more complex than from Korea, although it should be noted that for many years South Korea’s government placed restrictions on citizens’ foreign travel. With the 1988 Olympic Games, South Korea was forced to open politically, allowing Korean Christians to travel to previously off-limits areas.6 How the Olympics will affect the Chinese government is still anybody’s guess.

A second major dissimilarity is the size—both geographically and population-wise—of the two countries. South Korea is about the size of Hungary and has forty-five million citizens. China is roughly the size of the United States, but with 1.4 billion people! Thus, China is a much more diverse setting, which is reflected in the Church and would also affect missions from China. In fact, there is still much mission work to be done among China’s numerous minority groups. Third, the South Korean Church is generally better-educated than the Chinese Church and has had more exposure to the outside world, especially when compared to house church Christians in rural China. Of course, the demographics of the Chinese Church are changing, as seen in the recent church-planting movement among Chinese intellectuals.

Given the above factors, the South Korean Church has produced a wealth of seminary-trained, theologically-educated missionaries. A Chinese mission movement, however, is likely to send more lay members, tentmaking professionals, and bi-vocational missionaries. Still, China’s emerging group of educated and more affluent Christians may be the catalyst that allows the country’s future as a mission-sending Church to follow a similar pattern as the South Korean Church. Perhaps the missing ingredient is time. It took the Korean Church nearly thirty years from the incredible church growth of the 1960s and 1970s to mature into becoming a major player in global missions. At least one Chinese urban house church already has a “30-year mission strategy” that eventually leads to worldwide outreach.

Considering the vast numbers of Chinese Christians, the prospects of what kind of effect Chinese missionaries may one day have on the 10/40 Window and other unreached areas is alluring. Numerous media outlets have discussed China’s recent emergence on the world scene politically and economically. Why not spiritually as well? Imagine a world where the majority of missionaries are either Chinese or Korean. Could the twenty-first century be the era of Asian missions?

Endnotes

1. Kim, Myung-Hyuk. 1983. “Korean Mission in the World Today and Problems.” Korean Church Growth Explosion. Eds. Bong-Rin Ro and Marlin L. Nelson, 127-135. Seoul: Word of Life Press.

2. Kiho Park, Timothy. 2002. “A Survey of the Korean Missionary Movement.” Journal of Asian Mission 4(1): 111-199.

3. Kang, Samuel, 2007. Missions Movement and Masterplan of the Korean Church. June 9. 120.

4. Moll, Rob. 2006. “Missions Incredible.” Christianity Today. March.

5. 2002. Journal of Asian Mission 4:1.

6. Moll, Rob. 2006. “Prophecy and Politics.” Christianity Today. March.


Peter Sung (pseudonym) works in and around China with Chinese intellectuals and business leaders.