“China has declared war on faith,” U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Sam Brownback said in June. In the latest Report on International Religious Freedom, he called out the country for firing Protestants because of their faith, shutting down Christian churches, and arresting church leaders.
For many American evangelicals, China’s reality is their biggest fear. Yet our Chinese brothers and sisters remind us that though marginalization is not something to seek, it cannot stop the advance of God’s kingdom. The power of perseverance comes from the Holy Spirit, not from social position or privilege.
We recently asked four Chinese house church pastors what we should know about loving our cities from the margins. (These aren’t their real names.)
Hold Out the Gospel
Only the power of the gospel can enable churches to continue loving the city from the cultural sidelines. And rather than making churches impotent, the call to suffer with Jesus is empowering.
Though serious persecution is on the rise in China, most encounters look more like softer harassment. Pastor Li is called into the police station for questioning one or two times a year.
“In the beginning, sometimes your heart is very nervous because they are shouting and yelling at you,” he said. “So you are frightened. But you believe in the gospel.” Local officials ask questions about the church, about connections with other churches, and about work with foreigners. “They criticize you. They say, ‘You are so bad.’”
Only the power of the gospel can enable churches to continue loving the city from the cultural sidelines.
Criticism is something to which American evangelicals can relate. But where the American church often responds to criticism by straining to demonstrate relevance, Li responds by seeking a gospel connection.
“I told the police, ‘I am a sinner. I am bad. I am really bad,’” he said. “‘But God loves me, God saved me.’”
Love Your Enemies
Li experienced a breakthrough the last time he was interrogated. The interview went late into the night, and the officers’ wives and children started calling them on their cell phones.
“I felt a lot of compassion for them,” he said. “God put on my heart that ‘You should love your neighbor. They are your neighbor, not your enemy.’” Li apologized to the policemen for how late it was and spoke to them about their difficulties. He started to build relationships with them, even discovering that some of their relatives are Christians. One policeman had attended church once when he was a student. The conversation became friendly. Finally, Pastor Li invited them to come to church.
“When you’re persecuted, God will give you grace,” Li said. “I have experienced it several times.” From within persecution, the gospel of grace enables Christians to see opponents as neighbors.
Give Your City the Church
House churches in China keep coming back to this: to love the city is to give it the church.
“The church is not the result of missions, but it is the mission,” Pastor Zhang said. “Jesus commanded us to build the church, not only fellowships, small groups, and other things. These are very good, but the church—the power of hell cannot destroy it.”
Li and Zhang offer two reasons for the importance of church planting in China that also speak to the American context.
1. Go where the people are going.
When Li was young, about 80 percent of China’s population lived in the countryside. But by 2018, almost 60 percent lived in the city. “Every day, people from the countryside move to the city,” he said. “They are strangers to the city. Planting a church establishes a home for them.”
To love the city is to give it the church.
The church “keeps proclaiming the gospel and also demonstrating how people should live,” said Pastor Liu, who was born and raised in Shanghai, a city of 23 million. “Individualism is anti-gospel. The church does not proclaim an individualistic salvation, but rather shows people how they should live together, corporately.”
From their culturally marginalized position, these pastors remain resolved to go where China’s people are going. They’re searching for acute spiritual deserts and focusing their attention on planting churches in those areas. They know the gospel works against the individualism and isolation that urban living creates.
2. Offer life to a disintegrating culture.
Marxism destroyed most Chinese traditions, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Today, most Chinese people do not believe in communism. As a result, the nation is experiencing a key time of spiritual and cultural emptiness.
“If we plant churches, we are going to slowly affect the culture,” Zhang said. “The gospel is not about individual salvation; it is about a gospel community. The church can show the Chinese people that the hope for China is not American democracy—it is the gospel.”
Lack of community, individualistic commercialism, inauthentic speech—these are things contemporary Americans can identify with. As our Chinese brothers and sisters remind us, the hope for these problems is not cultural ascendance, but rather gospel community in the local church.
Learning from the Chinese Church
The lessons from Chinese house churches are not only positive, however. When suffering is integral to the life of the church, the life of the cross can morph into a pietistic endeavor to seek further salvation.
“There are two different ways to perceive the cross as glory, and one way is the legalistic way,” Huang said. “Christ becomes a story of personal heroism—almost like a Hollywood Superman. I am told to model him. In the Bible there is a place for imitating Christ. But Christ already accomplished salvation. We need to maintain proper distinctions between him as the Redeemer and ourselves as the redeemed.”
We need to maintain proper distinctions between Christ as the Redeemer and ourselves as the redeemed.
In the same way, Americans can sometimes glorify Chinese persecution and Christianity. But Huang says not to.
“Don’t treat people as persecuted heroes,” he said. “We don’t want to lead people to blend their identity with their experience of being persecuted. Their identity should be established on Christ alone, not the experience of being persecuted.”
Heroism is not the lesson to learn from the Chinese church. Rather, it’s the centrality and importance of the church, marginalized though it may be.
“The church can go through the trial by fire,” Huang said. “But it can’t be burnt out, because Christ is in that fire.”