More than 3,500 attended a Reformation conference in Hong Kong this spring.

Wenhong didn’t think anything of it; everyone got baptized in the dark in China in the 1980s.

She had come to Christ two years before, after secret Bible studies with her English teacher from America. When Wenhong attempted to connect with the one other Chinese Christian she knew—a high school teacher—she was immediately shut down. (“She said, ‘How do you know? Let’s be quiet. Don’t say anything about it,’” Wenhong recalls. “She was so scared.”)

Wenhong’s father told her that if she talked about God, he’d kick her out of the house. So she quietly hid her Bible under her pillow and read once everyone else fell asleep.

After college, she moved to the city of Guangzhou to be near her American boyfriend (now her husband of 28 years), and he connected her with an international church. She told them she wanted to be baptized.

“On a cold November night, at 8 p.m., we were supposed to meet in the parking lot outside of a prearranged hotel, and then get on a van, and they would drive us all the way outside of the city and baptize us in the reservoir,” she said. “But we didn’t know anything different. I thought everyone was baptized like that.”

Wenhong remembers house-church meetings in living rooms, with the curtains pulled tight. She remembers walking past a group of people exercising in a Shanghai park in the 1990s and realizing they were actually a house church disguising their fellowship time.

So when Wenhong walked into the auditorium of the Reformation 500 conference in Hong Kong this spring, and saw more than 3,500 attendees (most from mainland China) gathering and worshiping in the open, she could not stop her tears.

“It’s amazing to me that they even got out of the country,” she said. “There is such a difference, an openness. Wow.”

“You just stood there thinking, Is this really happening?” China Source senior vice president Joann Pittman said. “Ten years ago, nobody would even have imagined such a thing was possible.”

The conference was hosted by the Chinese church-planting Grace to City network, and was their largest yet. The 3,533 attendees came from 15 different countries. About 77 percent were from unregistered churches in mainland China, said China Partnership’s Jeff Kyle, who helped organize the conference. Of the nine main speakers, six were Chinese.

One of the American speakers was John Piper, on his first trip to Hong Kong and China.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime gift to be part of such a gathering,” he told TGC. “I pray that the Lord may blow with his Spirit on the ripples from the pebbles we dropped in that pond.”

Seven years ago, Piper was scheduled to speak to Chinese house church pastors, among others, at another international conference.

Piper made it; the pastors didn’t.

“My memory of Cape Town 2010 (the Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization) is still pretty fresh, where we learned that the 200 church leaders from mainland China were refused visas to attend,” he said.

Anticipation was high for expected Chinese house-church participation at Lausanne; it was to be their first public, international appearance since Communists took over the country in 1949. But when the pastors showed up at airports across China, authorities stopped them at customs. The government charged that the private invitations were “a rude interference in Chinese religious affairs.” (The official Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church leadership was not invited when they could not commit to evangelism, Open Doors reported.)

“So my first thought is that it seems like a sea change in official leniency that several thousand mainland church leaders would be permitted to attend a conference where the Christian gospel is just as clear and global missions is just as urgent,” Piper said.

But things aren’t that simple, he said.

“It might have been the timing—maybe it wasn’t a sensitive time,” Pittman said. “Maybe the government was preoccupied with other things. Somebody might try something like this in October, and it would go completely differently. Maybe if you tried it eight years ago, it wouldn’t happen—but now you can.”

Persecution

China’s persecution of Christians spiked during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, with churches destroyed and pastors imprisoned or killed. When the government began loosening economic and social restrictions in the early 1980s, crackdowns on religion lessened also.

“The government sets the boundaries within which you can practice,” said Pittman, who has written about the often chameleonic nature of life in China. “The problem is that those boundaries are rubber and invisible. You only know the boundary when you hit it.”

Many of those boundaries are drawn by local authorities, who are fairly autonomous in how they interpret national laws. Even then, the policies aren’t as important as how strongly they’re enforced, she said.

From 2014 to 2016, one eastern province tore crosses off more than 1,000 official and unofficial churches. In early 2017, a northeastern province expelled dozens of South Korean missionaries without explanation (though most blamed China’s opposition to the American missile shield planned for Seoul). And in 2015, more than 150 Christian human-rights lawyers across the country were arrested for defending Christians and other minorities.

Some worry those incidents reflect Chinese president Xi Jinping’s call for tighter control on religion, which is playing out in proposed new restrictions disallowing many religious activities—such as providing a venue for religious services, publishing any religious materials, or accepting any donations for religion—unless approved by the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

“If we look at the news reports, you can say, ‘Oh, wow, things are getting tighter,’” Pittman said. “And yet, it still seems to me it’s pretty status quo. . . . The tightening is there, but I would not say I have seen much evidence yet that the actual space has started to shrink.”

After all, not one of the Chinese laypeople and church leaders signed up for the Reformation 500 conference was prevented by authorities from attending, Kyle said. At the first Grace to City conference, in 2014, about a dozen were stopped.

This conference, like virtually all unregistered church activities, wasn’t secret from the government. Many pastors of unregistered churches have relationships with their local authorities, often providing requested updates on church activities, conferences, or travel plans.

That transparency on the part of house churches has only emerged in the past dozen years, Pittman said, and came about as house churches popped up among the educated, wealthier, urban Christians.

“The urban house-church movement is made up of young people who have grown up in the more open era,” she said. “They didn’t have the persecution the rural church experienced. There are [unregistered] churches in Beijing and Shanghai that have websites. . . . It’s a very different environment.”

Three-Year Growth

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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition – Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

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