The Church in China – An Introduction

A Chinese translation of this article is available here

This article is intended to be a brief introduction to the church in China for Chinese who have become Christians while overseas and want to understand something about the church in China before returning there.

A common misunderstanding by many Chinese today is that Christianity only came to China very recently. In actual fact the first documented arrival of the Christian faith to China is during the Tang dynasty in 635AD[i]. In order to understand what was happening in China, we must first understand what was happening to the Christian church in Europe and the Middle East.

The early church began with the Apostles and early believers after Jesus ascended to Heaven.   The New Testament, and especially the book of Acts, gives us this history. By the mid to late first century, the Christian church was experiencing persecution both from the Jews and from the Roman Empire. This state of persecution continued until 312AD when the Roman emperor Constantine become a Christian and established the Roman church[ii]. Christianity went from being illegal and persecuted to being legal, protected and effectively the religion of the state. The church came out of hiding and took a very prominent place in Roman society. Rome ruled the Western world and influenced society and culture from the Middle East to Britain.

In 1054AD[iii], political and theological disagreements that had developed in the church caused a split. The western Roman church continued to be led from Rome and was called the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church established itself under leadership based in Constantinople (in Turkey). Both these churches insisted that their leadership came directly from God. The Bible was only available in Latin or Greek (translation into common languages was forbidden) and could only be read by specially trained priests.

By 1500AD, the church had added a lot of its own extra-Biblical traditions and practices that contradicted the Bible. In the 1500’s, men such as Martin Luther set out to reform the church and return it to the teaching of the Bible. However, they were expelled from the church and formed a new church, which came to be known as the Protestant Church.

These events are what led to the three main strands of today’s Christianity: the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Protestant Churches. The Catholic and Orthodox churches each have a single leader and clear hierarchy. They are fairly unified and each identify as a single unit spread around the world. Protestants hold the Bible, not man, as the final authority, and this has resulted in further divisions on issues of church government and theology that have brought about different denominations (e.g. Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist etc.).

This also explains why the first three waves of Christian mission to China were Catholic missions. The Protestants took around 300 years to establish themselves in Europe before they began to look at taking the gospel message into other parts of the world. Although they were the last to come to China, they had the greatest impact and the Protestant church in China is much larger than the Catholic church.

In 635AD[iv], a Nestorian (a subgroup of Catholics) Christian by the name of Alopen came to China and met the Tang emperor Tai Zong in Chang An. He presented the emperor with a copy of the Bible in Syriac, which the emperor could not read. The emperor asked Alopen to stay in China, translate the Bible and teach about Christianity. There is a stone monument in the Museum of Stone Tablets in Xi’an, which was carved in 781AD[v]. It tells the story of how the Christian gospel came to China in 635AD. Unfortunately, after Tai Zong died future emperors did not look kindly on the Nestorians and in 845AD[vi] foreign Nestorians were expelled and Chinese believers were forced to give up their faith.

Between 1245 and 1253[vii] Pope Innocent IV sent Franciscan missionaries to China followed by the Jesuits who arrived from 1580s[viii]. Both these groups are sub-groups of the Roman Catholic Church. The Jesuits were particularly effective scientists and missionaries and took the time to learn Chinese so they could communicate directly. Men like Matteo Ricci and Ferdinand Verbiest became famous, even working as advisors and tutors to the emperor.

The first Protestant missionaries arrived in the early 1800s[ix]. It was very difficult to get access to China. By the emperor’s decree, the only foreigners allowed in China were traders and businessmen. These could also only live in Guangzhou for a few months of the year and had to spend the rest of the time in Macao. Macao was a colony of Portugal and the only missionaries allowed there were Catholics. The only way the early Protestant missionaries could get to China was to work as translators for the traders and businessmen. This created a lot of problems later, as Chinese misunderstood the work of Protestant missionaries, seeing them as connected to the dishonest traders.

After two opium wars and the resulting unequal treaties, China became open to foreigners and missionaries were able to live in China, evangelise and build churches. Many of these early churches relied heavily on support and management by the foreign missionaries. One very famous missionary was James Hudson Taylor who founded the China Inland Mission, which had more than 1000 Western missionaries ministering in inland China. The late 1800s and early 1900s were a very difficult time for China with civil wars, natural disasters and other problems. These missionaries endured many hardships in order to bring the gospel to China. By 1949, there were just under 1 million Protestant Christians in China.

In 1949, after many years of civil war, Mao Ze Dong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Shortly afterwards all foreigners, including missionaries, were asked to leave. The Chinese church was left to stand on its own. In 1951, Wu Yao Zong formed the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM)[x], which on behalf of the government took over management of the churches. “Three self” stands for “self-governance”, “self-support” and “self-propagation”. The goal of the Three Self Patriotic Movement was to break connections with foreign influence and to bring the church into alignment with government policy.

In 1966 the Cultural Revolution began. The TSPM was disbanded and all churches were closed, ransacked and then used for other purposes.   TSPM leaders and pastors were arrested and sent to labour camps. The church disappeared from public view, but brave Christians continued to meet secretly to encourage each other. This ‘underground’ church was persecuted and life was difficult for Christians, who had to keep their faith a secret. Bibles, hymnbooks and all Christian literature were confiscated and burned. Some Bibles were hidden, copied by hand and then shared around. Christians memorised parts of the Bible and would recite whole passages in meetings to encourage each other. The Church continued to grow during this time, although it was largely invisible to the public eye.

In 1978, Deng Xiao Ping became the leader of China and began a program of opening China to the rest of the world. In 1979, the Three Self Patriotic Movement TSPM was restarted under the leadership of Ding Guang Xun. In 1980 the China Christian Council CCC was established to liaise between the TSPM and protestant churches. The two organizations are known as “Liang Hui”[xi]. Their role was to again oversee the church on behalf of the government. Through the 1980s, church buildings were slowly returned to churches and services began again. Pastors were released from labour camps and some of them agreed to serve as pastors under the TSPM. Seminaries were started by the CCC to train new pastors.

In 1949 there were less than 1 million Christians in China. Today (2016) it is estimated there are 70-100 million[xii]. Of these, around 28 million[xiii] attend the TSPM churches and the rest attend unregistered house churches.

The government sought to close down the house churches that had started during the Cultural Revolution and to bring all the Christians under the TSPM churches. However, they faced two main barriers:

Firstly, there were far too few TSPM churches to fit the greatly expanded number of Christians. The number of Christians had grown dramatically under persecution and now churches were bursting with people wanting to attend. The government did not want to acknowledge this growth and initially refused to allow any new churches to be built or established. With limited meeting points it just wasn’t possible for all of China’s Christians and those who were exploring faith to be able to meet in TSPM churches. Most TSPM churches had (and still have) large congregations with sometimes more than a thousand people crammed into each service. To this day, at the end of a service people leave quickly to make way for the next congregation, which is waiting outside. Since it is illegal to meet outside of officially registered premises, it can take years to build relationships that provide needed fellowship, and many people feel lost and overwhelmed in these large and impersonal churches.

The second barrier was a lack of trust. During the Cultural Revolution, the government had used the TSPM structure to identify and then arrest or persecute Christians and church leaders. Even after 1979, government control and interference in TSPM churches was obvious and the government regularly makes the point that the church must come under party leadership and serve party interests. This is problematic for those who believe that Christ is the head of the church. In the 1980s many TSPM, CCC leaders and even pastors were not actually Christians but were government employees placed in positions to monitor and report on what was happening. Although this has changed in recent years with the majority of pastors now being evangelical, many Christians find it difficult to trust the TSPM and so chose to continue to meet and worship in unregistered house groups. In some places there is mutual acceptance and understanding between house churches and the TSPM with members attending both groups. However, sadly in many places suspicion and lack of trust keep these two groups very separate.

At its beginning the house church movement was largely based in rural areas and made up of uneducated farmers. Several large networks of house churches developed in different parts of China, some of them including thousands of Christians. More recently, there has been dramatic growth in the cities and the centre of gravity has moved to the urban church. The standard of living in China’s cities has improved and these city churches are made up of educated people with more resources than their rural counterparts. Many urban churches are able to support a full-time pastor and rent a facility for their meetings, although because they have no official status the pastor’s job is not recognised by the state and the meeting location cannot be registered as a church.

House churches are officially illegal, with the government calling all such groups to either register with the TSPM or to disband. In practice it can be difficult or impossible to register, and in most cases house churches are tolerated as long as they meet three criteria[xiv]. Firstly, they need to be small with only 30-40 people; secondly, they should have no foreign involvement; and thirdly, they should avoid making political comments or criticising the government. At another level, the attitude of local authorities will affect how much freedom house churches in each area will be allowed.

Due to rapid growth and the need to have small numbers in meetings and despite the increasing availability of seminary training, there is still a shortage of trained leaders and pastors in the house churches. Many churches are led by brothers or sisters with no training at all – just a desire to serve God and a passion for the church. Many leaders have only been Christians a short time themselves and may be unsure of the Bible, even though they now have to teach others. Some have been leading for many years and may have developed bad habits, they may be lax on pastoral issues or demanding and bossy in their leadership. Many of them suffer from overwork and become burnt-out.

It is often hard for house churches to provide everything that people have come to expect from a church. Untrained pastors may preach long, boring or even unhelpful and unbiblical sermons. In many places in China, people with musical ability are rare and the meeting location may require keeping noise to a minimum to avoid disturbing neighbours (who may report the church to the police). In this case, the quality of worship music during the service may be disappointing and discouraging. Again, because of a lack of space and suitable people, there may be no Sunday school or children’s ministry and parents may be expected to hold their children on their laps during long services.   Forty people may be crammed into a small living room with the windows closed to keep the sound in, even during the stifling heat of summer.

These factors make it difficult for those who have spent time in churches overseas and have expectations of established churches with trained and experienced leaders. A Chinese student overseas may have experienced a lot of overt care and love that was directly communicated to them. Back in China, Chinese don’t feel comfortable with overt expressions of emotion and will often express love and concern in an indirect manner. This may lead the Chinese returnee to feel they are not loved or cared for.

Due to security concerns, it is difficult for churches to connect and cooperate, so many leaders find themselves on their own when grappling with difficult issues in their churches. Sometimes, in isolation, their own understanding of the Bible may become warped and they may develop some unorthodox theology.

There are a number of cults that exist in China and particularly target the house churches. Cult members infiltrate churches and seek to steal members or split the church[xv]. House churches are unable to go to the authorities and because few house churches communicate with each other the cult member is able to move on to another church and start the cycle again. For this reason, house churches can be cautious about accepting new members.

In spite of these problems, the house churches in China are vibrant examples of the body of Christ. Functioning under persecution and stripped of many of the resources and privileges enjoyed by the Western church, most Christians are very sincere about their faith and service to God. Fellowship between Chinese believers is deep and meaningful as they encourage each other in their daily walk.

The best way to find a church in China is to go through an introduction. Once you have investigated and decided that the church teaches the truth and appropriately loves it’s members, then be committed to it and attend regularly. House churches are like families where everyone is expected to help out. Look for ways to serve the church and its members using your talents and abilities. The church you find in China is going to be very different to the church you attended overseas. In many ways it may seem inferior.   However your role is to love, accept and serve. Try not to compare, criticize and complain, as this won’t help you or the church. Remember that you are going through a difficult time of transition, so be patient with yourself and stay connected to your Christian friends and mentors overseas until you settle into life and church in China.

For further information about specific people and events in the history of Christianity in China please go to the online ‘Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity’ English: http://www.bdcconline.net/en/  Chinese: http://www.bdcconline.net/zh-hans/

 © Thriving Turtles, 2016. www.thrivingturtles.org


[i] Daniel H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 7.

[ii] Tim Dowley and Pat Alexander, eds., The History of Christianity, Rev Sub edition (Oxford, England ; Batavia, Ill., USA: Chariot Victor Pub, 1990).

[iii] Patheos, ‘Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy’, Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith, 2008, http://www.patheos.com/Library/Eastern-Orthodoxy.

[iv] Bays, A New History of Christianity in China.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid., 12.

[viii] Bays, A New History of Christianity in China.

[ix] Ibid., 43.

[x] Ibid., 164.

[xi] Ibid., 189.

[xii] Louis Bush and Brent Fulton, China’s Next Generation: New China, New Church, New World. (China Source, 2014), http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00I3NWT00?keywords=China’s%20Next%20Generation%3A%20New%20China%2C%20New%20Church%2C%20New%20World.&qid=1456715781&ref_=sr_1_1&s=digital-text&sr=1-1; Kukmin Daily, ‘China Will Have the World’s Largest Christian Population in 2030’, 22 June 2016, http://www.kukmindaily.co.kr/article/view.asp?page=&gCode=7111&arcid=0010724477&code=71111101.

[xiii] Kukmin Daily, ‘China Will Have the World’s Largest Christian Population in 2030’.

[xiv] Bush and Fulton, China’s Next Generation: New China, New Church, New World.

[xv] Ibid.

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