Chinese churches

My husband has a line, which he often shares with visitors to China that, The only thing that’s true about all of China, is that nothing’s true about all of China.  

In other words, in a nation of over 1.3 billion people, where rural and urban areas reflect dramatic differences in wealth, health, and education, where climate runs the gambit from tropical to tundra, and where the sheer number of ethnicities and languages confound, it’s really difficult to generalize about, well, anything.  I often tease people from the U.S. that they would freak out if I used New York City, or Kentucky, or Idaho to generalize about all of America or all Americans to my Chinese friends, and usually we start to understand that these local contexts matter a lot.

I start with this anecdote in broaching the sticky subject of churches in China today, noting that my own experiences are limited, but they’re definitely helping me understand the complexities over here.  The recent experience Evan and I had taking part in our second English Exchange Camp with pastors and teachers from the TSPM in Jiangsu province and the Outreach Foundation reminded me how different ministry is in China versus from the context from which I come.  Each pastor who took part in our exchange ministered to a minimum of 1000 people (some as many as 5000 congregants), and often traveled to several meeting points each week to preach and to teach.  Many of them lived or have been living away from their spouses or children, because of the demands of their jobs, for years.  Unlike the PCUSA to which I belong (in the developed world), in China, the registered church is expanding rapidly, and there are far too many sheep for the tired shepherds.  That said, we also met many young seminarians willing to take on this challenge, and were surprised to hear many young people talk about how they were third, fourth, of fifth generation Christians, fulfilling a lifelong dream of their grandparents (to become a church pastor or leader) who had suffered during the cultural revolution.

An urban church in Jiangsu province.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells another story of the church in China, that of the expansion and defiance of the unregistered church.  From this angle, Christianity is testing the Communist regime, and there are many outspoken voices (who have been around for decades) that also criticize those who belong to the registered church as spiritual prostitutes, sell-outs, or fakes.  My experience has been quite different, but then, my husband and I also often quote another famous saying, “show me a church, and I’ll show you a church with problems.”  Every church has problems, and neither the registered church nor the unregistered church in China is without exception.

Still, I think it’s important to point out that in our work with the registered church (with whom we work exclusively), we’ve been energized by the real faith of the pastors with whom we fellowship, and we’ve been impressed with the way in which local governments are coming alongside and supporting the churches, especially in rural areas, where they see the church as a resource in the fight against societal ills (drinking, gambling, corruption, and violence).

It’s also true that it’s never easy to paint the lines between registered and unregistered churches as some Christians in China faithfully participate in both, and every church at one point begins as unregistered.  (Don Snow, a longtime mission co-worker of the PCUSA, does a great job going beyond the binary of registered and unregistered and speaking about what he’s learned during his time in China about the complexities of Chinese church life.)

In just a few weeks my husband will travel back to Yunnan with Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship to visit minority churches, and I’m sure he’ll have yet another perspective to add.  Whatever the difficulty of synthesizing these perspectives, I feel encouraged by the work that God is doing and hopeful for peaceful growth for the churches in China in the future.

A rural church off in the distance in Yunnan province.
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8 thoughts on “Chinese churches

  1. I think this a great overview of churches in China, and it’s always good to see that others are learning from Don. I had the chance to work with him during my five years in China, and was sad when he left Nanjing. I hope your husband enjoys his trip to Yunnan and his time with Christians there.

      1. Hi Tom. Thanks for your comments, and sadly this is the first year that we won’t be making it to Jiangsu in the summer (we’ve been in Nanjing the past two summers). Glad you’ve had a chance to learn and connect with Don, and I hope our paths might cross in the future. I always appreciate your measured blog posts and your depth of engagement with both faith and culture.

  2. I hope Churches don’t spread in China, Christianity is a foreign religion that discriminates against it’s non believer’s. Also because it destroys cultures.

    If these so called Christians really want to help China, they should stop trying to convince people to worship a Messiah. What could really help with charity for people living in poverty, without preaching at all as it’s not necessary.

    1. I’ll try to respond to both of these comments together. I hope you’ll both continue to explore some of my other thoughts on faith and culture on this blog, because as both a minister and an anthropologist I have a healthy respect for both. I’m also a big proponent of listening and service (as opposed to conversion and coercion), so I can identify with the concerns there. JustinChina, it’s always interesting to hear different perspectives and from different areas of China, as one of my own comments in this post is on the sheer breadth and diversity of China. I do resonate with your comments that there’s a lot of misunderstanding in the United States about the reality of church and religious life in China, and that was one of the reasons I thought a post like this could be helpful and provocative. You’ve both really got me thinking about ways to continue blogging on these topics with more clarity.

  3. just found your blog via another…and i realize it’s old. having lived in China for many years, and seen both sides of the fence, it has always struck me that the need to have a clear cut line between 3-self and “underground” churches was more important to Western/American Christians than it necessarily was in actuallity to those who live the decision in China *currently/recently* (of course, historically the difference was much more important to the Chinese believers who were oppressed). I feel like Americans embraced the ‘romance’ of the idea of ‘underground’ churches during the height of the cold war as a sign that somewhere, someone was sacrificing all for the body of Christ, thereby validating, and making us feel better in our own comfortable worlds. I think that narrative has carried forward to the current situation of today somewhat. Being frank…it was also a bit of a cottage industry amongst ministries: “donate today to help get bibles smuggled to …” that helped propel the, not myth exactly, but idea, anyway. Even relatively recent books such as this: http://www.amazon.com/Safely-Home-Randy-Alcorn/dp/141434855X/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1337762452&sr=8-8 (a deluxe edition, natch) propel along this narrative. I haven’t read this book, to be honest, but just read these reviews, and it becomes painfully obvious that Christians are reading it for the emotional jolt that they need…much like i need my 4 cups of coffee a day.
    But especially for younger Chinese believers, the two aren’t an either/or proposition, many dabble in both, with little pressure to choose betwixt the two. Perhaps in different geographies/provinces/valleys, its different. For example, Fuzhou, close to taiwan, is often targeted by Taiwanese ministries because of the traditional ties…is perhaps an exception because…well…taiwan. But my impression is that as long as you aren’t Tibetan, or FLG, there is little need to be less than out in the open. Of course one could ask why 3-self churches aren’t more active in supporting other, more abused groups…but that’s another post!

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