Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Church in China 

My life verse, the scripture God set as a banner for my life when I was a young child, is one I memorized in Sunday School when I was in Kindergarten or first grade:

"I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD." (Psalm 122:1)

Church is boring for any kid, I suppose, but for me, even though I sometimes found myself getting bored, there was something about church that I always felt drawn to. I guess it was because I really believed that I could meet God in that place, and to me, nothing could be greater than to be able to hear God speak to me.

This "life destiny," if you will, was confirmed a few years later, when Dad wrote the following in the flyleaf of my confirmation Bible:

"One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple." (Psalm 27:4)

The church, and what it represented has always seemed to me to be the focal point of everything important in life. In my childhood, it was the repository of my dearest hopes. And when I was taken to America with my other brothers and sisters at the age of 13, it was the cause of my deepest disillusionment. Perhaps I was not totally objective. I didn't really want to go to America. Adjusting to American culture was not easy. America has a very complicated culture, and I had come from a culture that was ever so much simpler. I grew up in the countryside of Northern Japan, during the time of relative peace and prosperity that followed World War II. America was respected then, not only because the Americans had defeated the Japanese, but because they had treated the Japanese kindly. The result of this was that, even though Japan is not thought of as a Christian country, we, as Christian missionaries were well received.

Although we were never treated with hostility, Christianity was not popular in the Japan I knew as a child. So the Christianity I grew up with was relatively simple. There was usually only one Christian church in the community, and Christians were known as precisely that. They were called "Christians," not "Lutherans," or "Baptists," or "Pentecostals." So when I went to America, and saw the way Christians seemed to be divided into so many splinter groups, I was disgusted. I began to wonder about the meaning of it all. How do you determine what is really genuine, when so many who call themselves Christians are identifying more with a particular "brand" of Christianity, than with the person of Christ? In other words, how can we encourage a lost world to see Jesus of Nazareth as the answer to the deepest questions of life, if we ourselves identify most strongly with something that really has more to do with a particular Christian club than with the church as the earthly expression of the Body of Christ?

When I was in college, I came across a couple of books by Watchman Nee that had a profound influence on my thinking. The books were called, The Orthodoxy of the Church, and The Normal Christian Church Life. Watchman Nee has been known for quite a few years as a gifted devotional writer, but the books that I was drawn to were not in that category. They are not devotional books, and would not ordinarily be found in the many Christian book stores throughout the United States that sell the devotional literature that Nee is so well known for. I was interested in them because they addressed a subject that was deeply important to me, and because in them, Nee dared to take a position rejecting the institutionalized sectarianism that Western Christians seem so hopelessly addicted to. In other words, he dared to repudiate what I found so revolting about American church life.

During the time that Watchman Nee lived and taught in China (the years between World War I and World War II), his teaching and writing created quite a stir among Evangelical Christians from the West. More than a few missionaries left their own organizations and joined his "movement" Actually, Watchman Nee never intended to start a movement, but it was clear to all that a movement had developed around his ministry. Watchman Nee felt a spiritual responsibility for these people, and tried to address their needs. One of the ways he did this, was to publish a hymnbook, which he called, "Hymns for the Little Flock." The name stuck, and Watchman Nee was identified from that time on as the leader of the "Little Flock" movement.

At one point during this period, the missionaries called him in and talked with him. Their most important question was, "Do you think missionaries have a place in China?" Watchman Nee assured them that missionaries would always be welcome, but that they should come as teaching elders in the local churches. I remember reading this when I was in college. I thought it seemed fair, but I could also understand how the missionaries would tend to react to this. Western missionaries in China were used to being in charge. They were not entirely comfortable being part of something that they did not control. And I suppose in one sense, they could be justified in asking where Watchman Nee got the authority to decide how they should fit in. What is most interesting to me, though, is that the type of church life that has developed in China today is one where Western Christians who insist on being in charge are pretty much non-effective. Missionaries are not allowed in China today, but Western Christians are welcome in every church I have visited. Several of the churches I have visited either provide translation, or provide English language services.

Watchman Nee was arrested in 1951 or 1952, and he spent the next 20 years of his life in prison. I am not clear about whether or not he died in prison, but if he did get out it would have been shortly before he died. His imprisonment was, for the Communist Party, the ultimate act of hypocrisy, because Watchman Nee, more than any other personality on the Chinese landscape, embodied what the "Three Self Patriotic Movement" was supposed to be about. When the TSPM was set up, it was stated as being, "self governing, self supporting and self propagating." That's exactly what Nee taught. But he also taught a type of Christianity that was a deep threat to the Communist system, because it was genuine. Persecuting people like Watchman Nee gave credibility to those who charged that the TSPM was just a thinly veiled attempt to wipe out Christianity. I don't argue much with those who make the charge, as long as they are talking about the church during the days just following the Communist revolution of 1949, because whether or not it was true, it sure looked that way, and the Communist party is as much responsible for that impression as any other entity.

The problem I have is with those who try to dismiss the TSPM today with the same charge. It is a view that misses a very important year in recent history. The year I am referring to is 1989. During that year, a truly revolutionary wind blew through the Communist world, and changed the landscape in ways that were every bit as significant as the original Communist revolutions. It started when Hungary decided to take down the fence that separated them from Austria. People from all over Eastern Europe took vacations to Hungary and simply walked into Austria. The trickle became a flood, and the flow of refugees started a stampede. The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union fell, and with it, other Communist governments throughout Eastern Europe. In China, this revolution erupted in Tiananmen Square when students from Beida and other universities thronged to the square to express their demands for more democracy, something they did not understand, but knew they wanted. As I have said before, in discussing this issue, the students lost the battle and won the war. They were forcibly removed from the Square, and their movement was broken up, but China was forever changed, and could never be the same.

What is the nature of this transformation throughout the Communist world with respect to the church? It varies, of course, depending on which country you are talking about, but generally speaking, the change in attitude was characterized by a gradual acquiescence to Christianity as a more or less permanent fixture on the landscape of modern society. What this meant in China, was that the government changed from a posture of hostility to Christianity, to a recognition that Christianity was here to stay, and that the focus should be on control and regulation rather than elimination. This major sea change has had a dramatic effect on the Christian community. The government, being Communist, and essentially atheistic, began to adopt an approach which, while still characterized by a determination to be "in charge" of religion, was much more livable, because it is at the same time characterized by a disinterested "hands off" approach toward religious activities, as long as there is not a perceived attempt to challenge the authority of the government. This is essentially the balance. China is not like America. China is a controlled society. Religion, like other areas of Chinese life, is controlled by the government. But China is also not like North Korea. Or more importantly, China is not like China during the Cultural Revolution. So you do hear of clashes between Christians and the government from time to time, especially in cases where a religious group is quite obviously trying to establish a separate ecclesiastical authority outside the purview of the Three Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council. But it simply is not the case that Christians are being arrested or harassed simply because they are Christians. We can argue all day about the pros and cons of such a status quo. If there are aspects of this that I like or dislike, I do not choose to discuss them here. I am merely describing the situation.

Now then, as to the way church life is expressed in China, I will talk about the Church in China in three different areas. First, the Three Self Churches, second, the house churches, and finally, since I have been involved in them personally, the international churches.

The Three Self Churches. Ironically, the Three Self Church today functions very much according to the outline that Watchman Nee laid down for how church life was supposed to be expressed in a non-sectarian manner. Watchman Nee said that there was only one local church in each community, and that all believers were part of it. This is essentially how the Three Self Church operates. In a city the size of Beijing in America, there would probably be a couple thousand churches. It is very easy to incorporate a church in the United States. I think it takes at least three people, but it is a pretty simple process. But in China, it is not easy at all. The Religious Affairs Bureau basically allows one church in each district. So there is one (Protestant) church in the Haidian District. The church is not a member of any denomination. We would call it "Protestant," but the Chinese term is jidu-jiao, which says nothing about being Protestant. It is a generic description for Christian. So the folks who go to the Three Self Church are known as Christians. There is little argument about doctrine. I am sure the issues are discussed at some point, but they just don't show up in everyday church life. I have never heard Chinese Christians in the Church I go to talk about becoming a member of the church. They are required to go to a beginner's class for six months before they can be baptized. Once they are baptized, they are allowed to take communion, and accept responsibilities in the Church.

Watchman Nee also taught that denominations were unscriptural. He openly repudiated the proliferation of Western sectarian groups in China. Today, the Three-Self Church is largely postdenominational. Again, this does not mean that there are not differences of expression, but that the denominational structures which typically make ideological purity the standard of membership are pretty much gone. There are separate institutions for Protestant and Catholic--the Government recognizes that distinction. But the institutionalized sectarianism that Western Christians have become so addicted to has been purged from the church in China by 55 years of Atheistic government, as well as the Cultural Revolution.

It is hard to generalize about the spiritual climate and style of worship of Three Self Churches, because there are so many of them throughout China, but my experience has been that they are largely Evangelical. They are also very crowded, but they tend to be filled with sincere Christians who call themselves believers, not with Sunday Christians who go to church because it gives them status in the community. Beyond that though, there are different expressions. I was having breakfast at the Lush once, and an American who introduced himself as a Baptist preacher told me that they were getting ready to go to a "Lutheran" Church. When he described where he was going, I realized that he was talking about Haidian Church. He was quite surprised when I told him that it was a Three Self Church. Actually, I can see how people, especially from a Baptist background would think if it as Lutheran, although there is no liturgy to speak of, except for the Lord's Prayer. But they are not all like that. I went to a Charismatic Three Self Church in Fuzhou which was similar in some ways, but also quite a bit more lively in worship.

Before I came to China, I was aware that many Westerners view the Three Self Church as a "lost cause." I have been acquainted with Western Christians who would never have anything to do with a Three Self Church, because it is "controlled by the government." When I came to China, I found this same sentiment among the house churches. It is not universal by any means, but it is definitely a prominent feeling among many house church Christians. Wouldn't you know it, the same Devil who invented denominations, has figured out all sorts of other ways to keep brothers and sisters from working together. I was at a house church meeting not long ago, where another sister I was with happened to mention to someone that she went to the Haidian Church. One of the brothers in the House Church lectured her sternly about being involved with the Three Self Church. Last spring, when I visited Samuel Lamb in Guangzhou, I told him that I was involved with a Three Self church. He said, "Three Self Church no good." I have a lot of respect for Samuel Lamb, and I think I understand where he is coming from, but I don't agree with that position. The Three Self Churches, for all their weaknesses, are still churches. They are local churches run my Christians for the spiritual benefit of Christians, and for the purpose of preaching the gospel, and the one I am involved in clearly performs both of those functions. Every few months there is a baptism. Last time they had a baptism, they had to divide it into two services, because there were 130 people being baptized. In addition to all of that, many of the Three-Self churches still operating today are old CIM church plants. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we should give them up without a fight. Christians should be flocking to these churches, not running away from them. In many ways, the modern Three Self Church is the world's best kept secret.

The House Churches. Christians in the West often speak of the "illegal house churches" in China. This is a classic example of Western misinformation, or at least oversimplification. In fact, house churches are not illegal in China. The government does require that religious assemblies register with the Religious Affairs Bureau. But small family churches are exempt from this requirement to register. Here is what the official government policy on registration actually says:

In China religious organizations and sites for religious activities must register with the government in accordance with the law, which is the case in some other countries as well. Applications for such registration must meet the following basic requirements: a permanent site and name; regular attendance; a management organization composed of adherents to the relevant religion; clerical personnel for officiating religious activities or personnel with qualifications stipulated in regulations of various religions; management regulations and lawful income. Government departments shall defer the registration or only approve temporary registration of religious sites which cannot completely satisfy these basic requirements or have prominent management problems. Government departments shall not permit the registration of, for example, sites for religious activities which illegally occupy land or violate the statutes of city planning, which have been set up without authorization or which promote superstitious activities, such as exorcising evil spirits under the pretext of religious activities. Once a site for religious activities is registered according to law it has legal status and its lawful rights and interests shall be protected. If its rights and interests are infringed upon the organization in charge of the site is entitled to seek administrative and legal protection by appealing to the relevant government organ or taking the case to a people's court. There is no registration requirement for, to quote from Chinese Christians, "house services," which are mainly attended by relatives and friends for religious activities such as praying and Bible reading.

I have bolded the last statement, because it addresses the house churches, which are granted a blanket exemption from the policy. The question, of course, is how many of the so-called "house churches" can be legitimately exempted according to this dictate. Most of them would say that they are exempt. In fact, I rarely hear Chinese Christians use the term "house church." Most of the time they will use the term, "family church." Presumably, this is to emphasize that their particular fellowship somehow fits into this exemption from the government requirement to register. House churches are in Chinese, and there is usually no translation provided, so I have not been to very many of them. But what I have noticed is that as house churches grow and develop, there seems to be a point where they struggle with the boundary between the above mentioned exemption, and the type of fellowship described in the rest of the paragraph. In other words, how large can a "family church" be, and still meet the conditions for exemption? The policy as stated doesn't give a number. If a family church rents a meeting place, does this mean it is now required to register? I know of at least one fellowship where someone in the fellowship bought an apartment for the fellowship to use. This fellowship is sizeable, but it can still fit comfortably in a sort of extended living room of a private home.

But some fellowships really do get to be pretty successful. Last spring, I visited a non-registered church fellowship in Guangzhou. When I spoke with Samuel Lamb, the pastor, he told me that approximately 3000 people attend four services a week. This would mean an average of over 700 people per service. That's quite a bit. I think the government pretty much leaves him alone now, because Samuel Lamb has international recognition, so the government is understandably hesitant to create an international issue over one violation of the policy. But I just said something that Samuel Lamb would take issue with. He does not believe that he is violating the policy. When the PSB was giving him trouble and insisting that he become a part of the Three Self system, he did not refuse by saying, "I must obey God rather than man." He responded by insisting that his church is covered by the exemption in the registration policy. I have the highest regard for Samuel Lamb, and I believe he is a sincere man of God. But perhaps it strains credulity just a bit to suggest that a church with 3000 members would be covered by the exemption. Let's look at it again:

There is no registration requirement for, to quote from Chinese Christians, "house services," which are mainly attended by relatives and friends for religious activities such as praying and Bible reading.

In fairness, his church is located in a residential neighborhood, and I believe he does own the building. It is not a large structure. It does look more like a home than a church. Still, I just cannot imagine that the law intended to include this kind of church in the exemption from registration. Again, Samuel Lamb will probably not be harassed, because he has become a symbol for religious freedom internationally. But I cannot imagine that any other fellowship would get by with this.

But where, then, should the line be drawn? I don't know of any non-registered fellowships as large as Samuel Lambs "house church," but there are many of them that are doing essentially the same thing. They may have begun as a small group of family and friends in someone's livingroom (the kind of fellowship exempted by the policy), but they have grown to the point were they need to rent or buy a regular meeting place. They are still referred to as "family churches," but the larger they become, the more that term begins to take on a new meaning. Bottom line: many, many informal fellowships in China are stretching the limits of the policy, and so far the government seems to be looking the other way. In some respects, the government doesn't really have a choice. The house church movement is very, very large in China. And it is ironic that the restrictive nature of registration in China has actually been a good thing overall, because it has resulted in a movement of the church back to the home, which is where it really belongs. The early churches always met in homes. In America, now, large mega-churches establish cell groups to encourage their members to meet together in small groups in private homes. But sometimes it's like pulling teeth to get people to participate in these meetings. Church is too easy in America. In China, small group fellowships are the default in some rural areas. And in urban communities like Beijing, where there is only one Three Self Church in each district, house meetings are essential. They are a well recognized institution, and are accepted as a part of life. Thus, the restrictive registration policy in China has produced a healthy, very personal quality of church life in this country.

The International Churches. I attended an International Church the first three months I was in China. The international churches are largely put together by foreign businessmen. I don't have broad experience with this--I have only been involved with one of them (BICF), but I would imagine that the others would be similar. The policy in China allows international churches as long as local people are not admitted. You need a passport to get in. The basic purpose of an international church is to recreate a Western (mainly American) style religious experience for foreigners who are temporarily living outside their own countries, and are not interested in becoming an integral part of the Chinese Christian community. I found myself becoming frustrated with this when I first came to China, but the longer I stay here, the more it becomes evident that there are some folks who would have a lot of trouble adjusting to Chinese churches. So even though I detest the practice of standing at the door and keeping Chinese people from coming to church, I do believe that the international churches have a role to play in providing something for foreigners from quite a number of countries who would probably not go to church if the international fellowship was not there.

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