My host touched the ‘down’ button in the elevator of a high-rise apartment. Its door opened and we stepped out into underground parking. We maneuvered around cars and crates in the musty and dark basement. Then, to my surprise, I saw through a door a red cross with children’s toys scattered about. The pastor welcomed us into his ‘house church,’ a small room seating 70 adorned by a small pulpit.
Later that day across the city—in China, there are more than 40 cities with populations over five million—we visited another ‘house church.’ On the side of a commercial building was a cross, publicly announcing the church’s presence. Arriving on the sixth floor, we entered an amazing 7,000 square foot complex fitted with multiple offices and a 600-seat auditorium.
Saturday night in another city, my translator punched in floor five. We were greeted and shown a spacious sanctuary seating 350, its platform lit with colored floodlights as the worship band prepared.
Just down a hall, I poked my head into its seminary facility.
Sunday, again in a high-rise commercial building, I spoke to two congregations, who met in a 120-seating worship center, surrounded by Sunday School rooms.
Monday, I rode a high-speed train to yet another city where a young couple took me to a commercial high rise. Meeting with a dozen of their senior staff, they told me that in 2016 the government shut down their former rental space in preparation for the meeting of the G20. The police rationale was they wanted all unregistered (aka ‘house churches’) churches closed so as to prevent protest. A year later, this same church was up and running in a new rental space with multiple staff and a worship area for 75, housing two house churches.
When Is a House Church Not a House Church?
To understand the Church in China, it matters what terms mean: Three Self churches are ‘registered churches’ and house churches are ‘unregistered churches.’
Three Self Churches are Protestant churches registered with the government. The government pays for many of their buildings and funds the education of its pastors. They are public, many located in urban areas, often with spectacular architecture and sometimes with congregations of a few thousand.
House churches (formerly referred to as ‘underground churches’) are smaller, who in the past mostly met in homes to escape the control of the police. Today, at least in the city areas, they are larger—between 50 to 600 attendees—and most often rent space in commercial buildings. They are not registered with the government, and in most cases, are not allowed to own a building or buy commercial space. They get no money from government and, in some cases, are harassed and even shut down. At the same time, there are still many small groups who meet in homes.
The Three-Self Journey
Early missionaries to China, concerned that the gospel would become a Western import, formulated the idea that for the Church to become strong, it should be run by nationals, managed in three areas: in evangelism, in leadership, and in funding. This became known as Three Self and in time was turned into a government policy and department.
After the Communist Party took power in 1949 and as missionaries were forced out, the Church went underground, using homes for their meeting places. Mao took the idea of ‘three-self’ and turned it into an organization called the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and policy, insisting churches live by the three-self principle and register with government.
As windows closed, we feared the worst. However, after Mao’s death, and as China slowly opened, the opposite was true. When the Church went underground to survive, the idea of ‘three self’ (of indigenous leadership, personal witness, and self resourcing) resulted in a Church that was strong and vibrant. Mao accomplished what he never had in mind: a strong Church.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today – Brian C. Stiller