House Churches in China (from The Economist)
Taken from The Economist 10/2008
In a suburb of Shanghai, off Haining Road, neighbours peer warily across the hallway as visitors file into a living room, bringing the number to 25, the maximum gathering allowed by law without official permission. Inside, young urban professionals sit on sofas and folding chairs. A young woman in a Che Guevara T-shirt blesses the group and a man projects material downloaded from the internet from his laptop onto the wall. Heads turn towards the display and sing along: “Glory, Glory Glory; Holy, Holy, Holy; God is near to each one of us.” It is Sunday morning, and worship is beginning in one of thousands of house churches across China.
House churches are small congregations who meet privately—usually in apartments—to worship away from the gaze of the Communist Party.
Private meetings in the houses of the faithful were features of the early Christian church, then seeking to escape Roman imperial persecution. Paradoxically, the need to keep congregations small helped spread the faith. That happens in China now. The party, worried about the spread of a rival ideology, faces a difficult choice: by keeping house churches small, it ensures that no one church is large enough to threaten the local party chief. But the price is that the number of churches is increasing.
The church in Shanghai is barely two years old but already has two offspring, one for workers in a multinational company, the other for migrant laborers. As well as spreading the Word, the proliferation of churches provides a measure of defense against intimidation. One pastor told the Far Eastern Economic Review last year that if the head of one house church was arrested, “the congregation would just split up and might break into five, six or even ten new house churches.”
Abundant church-creation is a blessing and a curse for the house-church movement, too. The smiling Mr Zhao says finance is no problem. “We don’t have salaries to pay or churches to build.” But “management quality” is hard to maintain. Churches can get hold of Bibles or download hymn books from the internet. They cannot so easily find experienced pastors.
“In China”, says one, “the two-year-old Christian teaches the one-year-old.”
Because most Protestant house churches are non-denominational (that is, not affiliated with Lutherans, Methodists and so on), they have no fixed liturgy or tradition. Their services are like Bible-study classes. This puts a heavy burden on the pastor. One of the Shanghai congregation who has visited a lot of house churches sighs with relief that “this pastor knows what he is talking about.”
Still, the teething troubles of the church are minor compared with the vast rise in the number of Christians. After the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 many disenchanted democrats turned to Christianity: six of the 30 or so student leaders of the protests became Christians. China’s new house churches have the zeal of converts: many members bring their families and co-workers.