Each day, Aaron Zhang—all names in this story are pseudonyms—wakes up and helps his two children get ready for their day. His oldest is in elementary school, and like a growing number of other Chinese Christian families, their family homeschools.
Last year, they were dreaming about overseas mission work. Zhang even quit his job to prepare. But now, with restrictions tight, the family can’t obtain or renew passports. Their goal of being missionaries is on hold indefinitely.
These are difficult days for Chinese believers, and darker days loom. On February 1, 2020, harsh new regulations overseeing every aspect of faith practice went into effect across China. These completed a spate of regulations initially rolled out in 2018.
But during the 2020 rollout, the government’s attention was diverted: one week before, Wuhan was locked down. Chinese society entered a season of intense quarantine and separation.
More than a year later, life in China remains somewhat bizarre, yet largely functional. But there may be no return to normalcy for the church.
The new restrictions require Chinese Communist Party oversight for every measure of religious life—staffing, fund management, gatherings. China’s unofficial churches, known as house churches, have operated in recent decades in an ambiguous space: they have rented public space, welcomed visitors, and been open about some of their activities, all without official government sanction. The February restrictions effectively close that era of semi-openness.
In China, there may be no return to normalcy for the church.
More ominously, these measures specify that all religious activity within China must promote and support the Chinese Communist Party.
“I think a lot of the churches could disappear,” said S. E. Wang of China Partnership. Still, “God is leading the way forward. This pandemic . . . is not the beginning of the end; it is the end of the beginning.”
Even before COVID-19, a lot of Chinese house churches couldn’t meet face to face.
“Persecution prepared the Chinese church to face this pandemic, because it forced churches to close their public meeting places,” said Simon Liu, a pastor who trains unregistered church planters.
All religious activity within China must promote and support the Chinese Communist Party.
Since the pandemic, Chinese pastors have held online crusades. These are not intended to replace Sunday worship, but to preach the good news and unite disconnected Christians. And they require courage: the evening’s preacher must be willing to show his face to a non-vetted crowd, which can be dangerous.
“The risk is there, but I think more and more see opportunity,” Liu said.
The online meetings average 1,000 to 2,000 direct connections. One northeastern Chinese pastor began his message this way: “The Christian hope lies in this—we are not stronger or purer than others, but rather than believing in ourselves, we believe in Jesus, who upholds us whenever we fall, who strengthens us when our strength is drained, who loves us when we are in pain.”
Christians have invited their family and friends, but also have asked their enemies. “Some people have even invited their local police,” Liu said. “The persecuting parties feel like they are also vulnerable: ‘Maybe I could get this virus. Maybe I will die. . . . You are not afraid of death, so maybe something in your faith is quite unique.’”
Persecution prepared the Chinese church to face this pandemic.
Believers have also done what they can to serve and care, whether next door or around the world. Chinese social media were replete with stories of Christians donating masks and caring for quarantined neighbors.
A Chinese Christian in New York received nearly 6,000 masks from mainland Chinese Christians at the beginning of the pandemic. Those masks came in small packs of 100 or 200, from Chinese brothers and sisters who reported it took as many as nine hours to obtain and ship one such small package.
Even while leaning into short-term opportunities, Chinese pastors see problems ahead. The pandemic likely ushered in the beginning of a new reality.
In the United States, churches radically altered the life of their bodies to conform to pandemic norms. Although some of those modifications will remain, most American churches have already returned to worshiping together. In China, things may not ever revert to pre-pandemic days.
“This is not short term,” Wang said. “Even if the pandemic is over, the public space has been squeezed very small for the churches to gather. There is no public space for people to go back to.”
He’s referring to tightening government controls, which mean house churches will no longer be able to rent commercial space for corporate worship, as many have been doing.
In China, things may not ever revert to pre-pandemic days. . . . ‘There is no public space for people to go back to.’
Private space is also tightly controlled. These days, nervous neighbors are more likely to report a gathering of 20 strangers. “Basically, you cannot have larger than two families, or three,” Wang said. “That will be a new norm for Chinese churches.”
“The Devil is using this opportunity to crack down on the church, that’s for sure, but God will use it in a different way,” one Chinese pastor said. Before persecution intensified in the last several years, many in China were attracted to the celebrity-pastor model. Gifted teachers attracted national and even international followings.
This new normal means less elevation of central leaders and a sharper focus on smaller groups. As Christian communities are broken down into smaller clusters through plague and persecution, church leaders must raise up a new generation of local leaders equipped to walk their people through marriages, deaths, and family conflicts.
Much of the training has to be indigenous: many missionaries were driven out of mainland China last year. Even after the pandemic ends, the number of overseas workers ministering in China will be much smaller than before the pandemic.
To that end, preparing capable teachers remains a priority.
“Even if today everything is going down, all of a sudden the door could open widely,” Wang said. “It is our responsibility to make that start to happen, so that when the door opens, a group of ready preachers can go to the streets and stadiums and preach the gospel.”
Pandemic and Persecution
The book of James is clear that no one knows what tomorrow will bring. Life is a mist that appears and then vanishes.
“The pandemic and the persecution have led to a new situation,” one Chinese pastor said. “We still do a lot of active planning, but more humbly we say, ‘Lord, if you are willing: this is your time. Use it.’ . . . We don’t know what the future holds.”
Chinese Christians have watched God work in uncertain times before. During the Cultural Revolution, believers were forced underground for decades, and many Western observers despaired at the church’s future. But in the 1980s, the Chinese church experienced an explosive period of growth. Today, there may be as many as 100 million Chinese believers.
“Sometimes we feel like God is pretty close to these things; sometimes we feel like God is pretty far,” Liu said. “But we know that everything is under his control, and he is behind everything. Whatever happens is God’s way to prepare his church. He is always preparing his church.”
Aaron Zhang agrees. “Through uncertainty, we depend on our certain God,” he said. “God calls us to live an uncertain life, so that we can trust and rely on him.”