How One Trailblazing Congregation In China Is Reshaping the Face of the Nation’s House Church Movement

A Sunday worship service at Chengdu Early Rain Reformed Church / Zhongming Jiang
A Sunday worship service at Chengdu Early Rain Reformed Church / Zhongming Jiang

A Christian school. A pro-life ministry. A presbytery. One trailblazing congregation in southwest China is launching politically taboo initiatives and reshaping the face of the nation’s house church movement—under a government’s wary eye

The spicy smell of mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper permeates the air in Chengdu in southwest China, wafting out of restaurants selling wontons and noodles drenched in red chili oil.

On one busy main street past a fruit stand advertising hand-squeezed orange juice, around the corner from a men’s clothing store blaring Korean pop music, stands an unassuming low-rise office building that now houses one of the most influential house churches in China, Chengdu Early Rain Reformed Church.

On a sunny Sunday, about 700 congregants shuffled into the newly purchased office space that’s been renovated into a spacious church auditorium. Accompanied by a piano and robe-clad choir, young and old sang the hymn “Whiter Than Snow” in Chinese, before listening to a sermon on God’s design for marriage. That afternoon, the church’s singles ministry held a formal debate on whether Christians should allow their parents to set them up with a nonbeliever. The audience of about 100 murmured at each point and counterpoint.

Early Rain does not fit the common assumptions about house churches in China. It meets in a commercial space, not in a home. Its members don’t keep to themselves—and they are not low-key. A quick online search reveals the church’s address and sermon podcasts from Pastor Wang Yi. The weekly bulletin spells out the church’s finances, its meeting times and locations, and its pastors’ phone numbers. The church started a presbytery, a seminary, and a classical Christian school. Next year it plans to open the country’s first Christian liberal arts college. Ministries reach out to the most marginalized in Chinese society—the politically sensitive, the unborn, the orphaned. Early Rain is also the first house church to use legal means successfully to counter government persecution.

Early Rain has its detractors who claim Wang goes too far in pushing the government’s buttons. They say churches should remain faithful within the space the ruling authorities carve out. Yet more urban churches are following in its footsteps: More are renting or even buying office space, reaching out to the community, and applying their faith to social and political problems. More are seeing the need for the structure and accountability brought about by denominations.

Yet as a trailblazing church, Early Rain is in the crosshairs should the government decide to crack down on unregistered churches. The church leaders temper their expectations and plans with the possibility that the government could shut them down at any time. Despite the risks, these bold believers continue the work God has called them to and believe that no church can fall outside the will of the Father.

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June Cheng