Earlier this month, news broke about a Chinese government requirement that people in the Henan province register before attending worship services. They’re supposed to use a “Smart Religion” app, which records each person’s name, address, date of birth, occupation, and government ID number.
The app is the latest in an increasing pile of Chinese restrictions on believers.
“Surveillance in China is among the most oppressive and sophisticated in the world,” the Open Doors World Watch List reported. It ranked China as the 16th most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian in 2023, estimating the government closed almost 7,000 churches over the last two years. In November, the TGC app was removed from China’s App Store.
From the outside, China can seem like a world from a dystopian novel. But its increasing hostility to Christianity and increasing reliance on technology are trends we also see in the West—from dropping public confidence in churches to social media companies quietly gathering and selling user information.
China can seem like a world from a dystopian novel. But its increasing hostility to Christianity and increasing reliance on technology are trends we also see in the West.
More than 40 percent of Americans use TikTok, a Chinese app that’s already being used to collect user data and could be used to influence public opinion. Since Chinese companies can be compelled to share their information with their government, this week the Biden administration threatened to ban the social media app unless its Chinese founders sell their shares.
The Gospel Coalition asked Chinese pastor, Reformed theologian, and church network leader Zhang San about increasing restrictions, ways he’s seen God at work, and what worries pastors even more than registration apps or closing churches.
We’ve seen increasing troubles for Christians in China over the past two years. What are you seeing?
I can’t describe every church in China, but I can tell you what I observed. Ever since COVID, the lockdown policy has given power to a lot of government agencies. Many church gatherings were broken up in the name of COVID.
We’re also seeing an increase in house church pastors charged with financial fraud because they collect tithes. In the eyes of the government, the only legal pastors belong to the Three Self Church. They say it’s cheating to call yourself a pastor and receive money from people if you aren’t officially registered.
Because of government pressure, and because ecclesiology isn’t very solid in China, we’ve seen many churches adopt online gatherings as their normal way of meeting. The government will stop any streaming services if they can detect them, so churches have been developing their own video streaming services and encouraging their congregations to use that for Sunday services. People will gather in small groups and watch together.
In some provinces, like Henan, it’s extremely hard to find a church gathering in person.
Your church meets in person. But until recently, China’s zero-COVID policy required tight restrictions on traveling and frequent testing. Did that affect your gathering?
The situation [for in-person gathering] is much better in southeastern provinces or in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou. Since the local lockdown policy lifted in May 2022, our church has gathered in person. We even started a church plant on the other side of the city. We’ve also heard good news from other churches—they’re starting internship programs or planting new churches.
For a while, we couldn’t easily travel to other cities. If you did, you had to show a QR code that was scanned into the database to track your movements. So if pastors from around the country would gather in one city, it would be easily identified. For the past two or three years, there have been no pastoral conferences. That has been hard for pastors.
But since December, we’ve been able to travel again.
Were you able to see God at work in the lockdowns?
Yes. Our lockdown wasn’t like in America, where you could still drive around. Here, you couldn’t leave your apartment. There were volunteers everywhere observing for the government. For example, our neighbor has a dog. Since you weren’t allowed to go out even to take care of your pet, they walked their dog in a small park at 3:00 a.m. And someone reported them! The police came and gave them a warning.
But God used the lockdown. A lot of Christians were able to build relationships with their neighbors. In my complex, we have very old people who need medical help, and we have people who didn’t know how to cook because they always ate at the inexpensive restaurants. So we began to serve and to feed them.
A lot of people in my church also volunteered in their neighborhoods and built relationships. They could share the gospel or at least let people know they were Christians. That’s one thing God used. After the pandemic, some people brought their neighbors to church.
Church members also helped each other. If someone knew where there was a certain kind of medicine, they shared it or tried to buy it to help other church members. Church members also began to really value being together. I see more and more members willing to stay longer after the service to chat with each other or to go somewhere to have coffee. That makes a pastor’s heart happy.
A third way I saw God at work was the emphasis on expositional preaching. When we gather in person, the preaching seems less important because there are other elements in the services—like singing, seeing each other, or even the charisma of the pastor. But in video conferencing, these things are less interesting. Whatever charisma the pastor has, he’s a flat person on the screen.
So many pastors came to realize the importance of the Word because only the Word can do God’s work. In the past two years, we’ve seen the growth of expositional preaching workshops. We started with three groups, had five groups last year, and are expecting nine this year.
The more pastors realize the importance of sound exposition, the more eager they are to learn it.
What’s been the most difficult thing for pastors in China these days?
It’s not the persecution of the church—that’s been about the same level as before COVID. It’s the persecution of the Christian schools.
In the past two years, we’ve seen the growth of expositional preaching workshops.
I think the government really values the brainwashing of younger kids. The main tool they use to teach nationalism and atheism is the school system. Because of that, some Christian families have been opting to send their children to classical Christian schools.
However, the persecution against these schools has been severe in the past two years. At my son’s school, the police broke in, registered every child, and asked every parent to come to the school and sign an agreement that they would no longer send their children to illegal schools. One Christian was helping with Abeka (a Christian curriculum company) and was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Even after-school programs trying to help kids do better on the SAT test are banned because they teach American history.
Before 2020, there were a number of Christian schools. Now it’s very hard to find any.
The problem isn’t just that you now must send your child to a government school. It’s that you can’t even fully rejoin the official system. If you didn’t start in the system, you don’t have an official student ID, and you can’t get one. So my son now goes to a public school, but we pay a high tuition and he won’t be able to take the middle school graduation exam or, later, the college entrance exam because he has no student ID. That’s a problem for all the Christian school kids.
Before 2020, there were a number of Christian schools. Now it’s very hard to find any.
Some have decided to homeschool, but it’s illegal and there aren’t many resources. Others are sending their children overseas to go to school. If pastors’ families do that, they have to decide whether the parents will try to get a job overseas so they can live with their child or stay here with their church and continue the work. This is a struggle for many pastors. I have struggled with it as well.
On the one hand, I want an education for my son. On the other, I know that if a pastor wants to have a long-term influence on a healthy church, he has to stay a long time. He must nurture them and stick with them even when it’s hard.
Those are hard, heavy decisions. How is the Lord comforting and encouraging you?
I keep thinking about the wheat that falls to the ground and dies before it can produce more wheat (John 12:24–26). I also think about the good shepherd who is willing to die for the flock (John 10:11–15). I want to accompany my flock for another 10 or 20 years, to cultivate more joy, to see good things happen among them.
I’m encouraged by seeing the good the Lord has already brought. We planted our first daughter church in September 2020, and our people realized planting wasn’t as hard or painful as they thought it would be. Everybody was looking forward to the next one, and we planted our second church in 2022.
God has been good to us.