Inside the World of House Churches

The government here tells Westerners to stay away from the illegal "house churches" spreading like wildfire throughout this officially atheistic country. But through contacts I was able to visit two churches made up of urban professionals this month, with the agreement that locations of meeting places remain unspecified and individual participants unnamed.

A word of definition: All Chinese churches are supposed to register with the government and place themselves under its authority, so "house church" means a non-registered church and not necessarily one that meets in a home. Most do, but some in the countryside meet in caves and some in cities meet in auditoriums. One I visited meets in a non-descript conference room — chairs behind long white tables — in one of the numerous buildings where foreign companies have offices, so my entrance did not alarm the government police at the door.

At that church, the service, conducted entirely in Mandarin Chinese, began promptly at 9 a.m., with 44 women and 16 men in attendance. First came a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed and then a responsive reading of Psalm 53. The first half-hour included prayer, congregational reading from the Bible (plenty of copies available), and hymns sung from pages downloaded from Internet sites in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and California.

The pastor arrived just before the service began after taking an overnight train from another Chinese province. He put on a fresh, short-sleeve white shirt in the car that rushed him to the meeting place and began preaching promptly at 9:30: He took off his watch, placed it on the lectern in front of him and finished preaching exactly at 10. His sermon was the third of a five-part series on how the biblical Joseph progressed from multi-colored robe to servant’s robe to prisoner’s robe to prime minister’s robe and finally to a robe as God’s servant.

The pastor, with evident practical applications for his young church, told of how God transformed Joseph from a naive and proud child to a mature, faithful adult who learned, as church members should learn, to focus his mind on God’s message rather than on political pressures, gossip or revenge. The pastor explained that Chinese Christians should forgive their enemies, as Joseph did, and should realize that even when we are in prison our minds are free: From Joseph’s life we know that even a godly man has many difficulties and suffering, but he also has peace of mind.

After the sermon came a half-hour of more prayer, a locally-written hymn, and communion using a flaky cracker and grape juice. Then all recited the Lord’s Prayer and applauded a young woman who had just joined the church. Finally, members filled out prayer request slips that were then collected and passed out at random to others, who where charged with praying throughout the week for that individual: "That’s how we get to know each other’s needs."

Overall, security was low: Leaders did not want to provoke potential persecutors by publicizing the church’s meeting place, but they figured a spy was present. Nor were doors locked at a different house church evening meeting I visited: 22 adults and 13 children met in a large apartment to talk, sing hymns, play and eagerly ask questions about life in America. The only locked inner door witnessed over a week in various Chinese cities was one within a shop where bootleg DVDs were being sold.

This non-defensiveness probably contributes to rapid church growth: No one except God knows how many Christians there are in China, but 100 million (out of the total population of 1.3 billion) is a commonly-offered guesstimate. The rapid, recent spread of Christianity among urban professionals poses a particularly difficult problem for a government used to jailing uneducated rural people but unwilling to persecute those who are engineering China’s rapid economic progress.

Right now, Chinese Christianity is surging.