Observations of the Chinese Church in Transition

 In China, Church Planting, Discipleship

Article featured in 2013 East Asia Insight Q3

The Chinese church continues to grow and respond to new challenges and opportunities in an ever-changing social landscape. But much work remains.
Chen’s Story
It is one of the highlights of Chen’s year: the annual baptism retreat. Every spring, members of his Chinese house church retreat to the suburbs of the large city where they live. The joy and hope on the new believers’ faces is contagious and a reminder of God’s faithfulness to the church.
Three years ago, Chen and some fellow members of a large urban church in China were commissioned to plant a new church to reach college students and young professionals in their area. Initially, there were a couple dozen attendees. Now, nearly 200 gather every Sunday. They just moved into a bigger space, but they expect to outgrow it by the end of the year. It is a common refrain for house churches in China: Get a bigger space and the church almost immediately grows to fill it. Chen, one of the church’s young leaders, is encouraged that the church has not only grown in number, but also in depth of faith.
With the growth comes increased attention from the authorities. Chen gets calls and visits from police on a regular basis. “Just to talk,” he says nonchalantly. The police warn against any undue influence by foreigners who attend the church. They also recommend that once the church gets to a certain number of people, it should divide into another group. If a church gets too big, the police in Chen’s city fear it might cause—or give the appearance of—social disorder. This is not the young church’s intention, of course. Far from being a source of social disorder, the Chinese church is not even known by some urban dwellers.
China’s Urban Church
“I don’t know of any Christians or churches here,” said Li, a well-educated, well-traveled Chinese urbanite. Such a statement may come as a shock to some, especially since, according to Operation World, the church in China may have as many as 100 million believers. By one local Christian’s estimate, as many as one million believers meet for fellowship in Li’s city. How could she not know about them?
Such a question may belie a misplaced assumption about China and the urban church. Just because the Chinese church may have 100 million people (still less than 10 percent of the population) doesn’t mean that the average Chinese person on the street is aware of how God has grown his kingdom there—or even cares. If Li, a seemingly well-informed urban resident, cannot name a single Christian in her area, you can imagine that the need for the gospel is still great, even in China’s modern, tech-savvy, globalized cities. Many in China have heard of Christianity. Relatively few have heard a clear, biblical explanation of the gospel, attended a gathering of believers or seen the deep impact Jesus can have on a person’s life.
Zhao and Bao Bao
That is not due to a lack of zeal or effort on the part of the Chinese church, though. Consider a young Chinese Christian couple, Zhao and Bao Bao, for example. Zhao works full-time as an assistant pastor at their church. Bao Bao works full-time in business, but is very active in ministry as well. Their stress level is high—too high at times—but they have a heart to see God use them and their church to grow God’s kingdom in China, and beyond. They hope to support a church member who the Lord has called to serve overseas as a missionary in the near future.
One of the ministries with which Bao Bao is most involved is the church’s fledgling children’s ministry. Strong models of “Christian families” or “children’s ministries” are relatively new in some parts of the Chinese church. Many believers are first-generation Christians. They want to glorify God in their parenting, but struggle with what that looks like on a daily basis.
Just like parents in the West, parents in China face a complex set of issues in raising children in an environment that is often hostile to spiritual growth. In China, parents often face pressures to provide the maximum amount of education and extracurricular activities for their child in order for them to attend one of the country’s top universities. As in every culture, there is a tension between what is biblical and what is not. In the context of a parent-child relationship, the stakes are high and some parents feel overwhelmed.
Churches are seeking new ways to train and prepare parents. Christian books on family and parenting (at this point, usually translated from English) are hot sellers in Christian bookstores in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Praying for Chinese Christian families is a much-needed ministry.
Changes in China
In terms of change, China is a place of dazzling statistics. The economy has grown at a breakneck pace for the past 25 years—on average, more than nine percent each year, far and above the pace of every other country. The Chinese population has experienced upheaval as well. More than 50 percent of Chinese now live in an urban area compared to less than 20 percent in the early 1980s. In sum, more than 300 million people have relocated. These shifts have created opportunities as well as serious social problems.
With as much change as China as a country has experienced in the past few decades, the Chinese church has transformed as well. As the Chinese government faces the complicated situation of being a budding superpower, the Chinese church, too, must address new challenges. As Chinese society changes, so does the Chinese church.
Looking at the dynamic past and present of the Chinese church reveals the constant faithfulness of God. He will build his church and the gates of hell will not overcome it (Matthew 16:18). He has placed the current generation of Chinese people in specific places at this pivotal time in history, for his purposes (Acts 17:26). Join us in praying with joy at what God has done and hope in what he will continue to do in China—and beyond.

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