Every Christian would like to see the Church of Jesus Christ grow. Church growth is the norm. Nongrowth is abnormal and needs reassessment on the part of the leaders. But how does the Church grow? Churches grow as the believers share the Gospel of Jesus Christ by word of mouth and attract opportunities for this by their transformed lives. Sometimes the ordinary role of the Spirit is especially observable in times of massive growth. In some places, like in China, the Protestant church has grown a hundred times during the last fifty years (1950-2000) under adverse circumstances and a hostile environment. That environment has been one of persecution by an atheistic state.
Does persecution, which brings much suffering for the believers, lead to church growth? Yes, it seems so in the history of modern China. In January 1950, a directory published by the National Christian Council indicated that there were 834,000 Protestant communicant members. Today, while there is no reliable survey available, an educated estimate would put the number of believers at nearly 85 million. Of these, 15 million worship in the state-approved churches under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the other 70 million are found in a variety of house churches scattered throughout the land. The rate of church growth has increased dramatically during the last twenty years. During the 1980s, house churches expanded rapidly in the provinces in interior China; during the 1990s, the missionary movement arising from interior China has spread to the border provinces. Today in North and Northeast China, reports indicate that there is a church in every village.
Factors Contributing to Church Growth in China
There are many factors besides persecution that contributed to Church growth in China. The first factor involves the destruction of ecclesiastical, educational, and medical institutions established by foreign missions by the Chinese communists through its agent, the TSPM during the first sixteen years of the People's Republic and the emergence of noninstitutional house churches which carried on a secret movement in the homes of those believers who held on to their faith under severe pressure (1950-1966). Christians also suffered during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when believers were physically and mentally persecuted for their faith. Additionally, China saw the rise of itinerant evangelists during the latter years of the Cultural Revolution and the early post-Mao years (1976-1982). These itinerant evangelists were responsible for the restoration of timid, hidden believers and organizing them into worshiping and missionary-sending churches. Another factor contributing to church growth was the development of a voluntary, lay ministry and models of evangelist training, which is radically different from those in the so-called free world. Also, there is an environment of deep spiritual hunger resulting from decades of atheistic-materialistic educational imposition, producing what has been called a "crises of faith" or spiritual vacuum. The ongoing help from churches abroad, such as radio ministry, Bible delivery, training, financial aid, and prayer has also affected growth. Finally, persecution has been a factor, which should be understood within the context of Chinese political history under an authoritarian government. Even in post-Mao, economic reform-oriented China, persecution has not ceased to this day. In noting the relationship between persecution, suffering, and church growth in China, it would be best to keep these other factors in mind as together they contribute to a vital growing church under the sovereignty of God working out his plan in human history. If one asks any Christian in China, "Why has the Church grown so fast in China?" his answer would be, "God did it."
Context of Persecution and Christian Suffering
Aside from Marxist hostility to Christianity, there exists a church and state relationship in China that can best be summarized in terms of the supremacy of the state over all aspects of the people's lives, including their ideological thinking and religious faith. A concept of orthodoxy and heterodoxy was at work in traditional China for over a thousand years before modern Christianity landed in China. The Chinese imperial government embraced Confucianism as its "official orthodoxy," and promoted it through education and officialdom. All other philosophies and religions such as Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, and later Catholicism and Christianity, as well as organized folk religions were considered as "heterodox." Today under socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, and the Writings of Deng Xiaoping constitute the government's "official orthodoxy." Consequently, Western democratic ideology and the above-mentioned five "world religions" as well as organized folk religions, including the nonregistered house Christianity, are considered heterodox, ideologically speaking.
However, how should they deal with millions of people who embrace religious beliefs? The policy of the state since 1950 has been to organize these world religions under five different "patriotic religious organizations," such as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Chinese Protestant Three-self Patriotic Movement, whose function is to help the state to implement its religious policy and to promote its national political programs under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the direction of the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) of the government and the supervision of the United Front Work Department of the Party. Under this kind of arrangement, religious believers are granted the freedom of belief and the freedom of worship in churches that are registered with the RAB, which also grants preaching licenses to the preachers, approves their appointments, and limits their locality and sphere of ministry. Churches under the TSPM do not have the freedom of evangelism outside of places of worship, nor are they allowed to conduct training of professional or lay preachers without the approval of the RAB.
Protestant house churches and underground Catholic churches which refuse to accept the above limitations prefer not to join the patriotic organization in order to retain the freedom to conduct evangelism as they are led by the Spirit of God, to plant new churches, and to train their leaders. Such activities are considered illegal, and their gathering and training centers are subject to arrest as "illegal religious activities." House church groups that are organized, and many of them are, ranging from 5,000 to 5,000,000 members, are labeled as "cults," and are persecuted accordingly. The apparatus of control is a concerted effort on the part of the patriotic religious organizations, the Religious Affairs Bureau, the United Front Work Department, and the Public Security Bureau (police system), and the Ministry of State Security (the counterpart of a combination of FBI and CIA) to implement the government's religious policy. Since 1992, the government has been requiring all nonregistered churches to register and to join the TSPM. Failure to register makes them illegal entities, and "offenders" are subject to arrest by the local police who have the authority to impose fines (one to two years' annual salary) or send them to "Educational Labor Camps" without due process of law.
Persecution Directed Against Church Planters
Even among the house churches, the average believers do not suffer much persecution, though they still suffer from unequal treatment at work and in society in general. The main targets of persecution are church leaders, especially the itinerant evangelists who conduct pioneer evangelism and plant churches outside their hometowns and provinces and the church leaders who oversee the development of their churches and who conduct the training of younger church leaders as evangelists and pastors. When a leadership gathering or training center (usually a farmer's home) is discovered, the police send truckloads of officers to encircle a courtyard-house complex so that no one escapes from the gate. After taking the names of all those present, the officers take them to the police station, where each person is interrogated by two to three police officers in isolation for several days, sometimes for twenty-four hours straight by three shifts of interrogators. During the interrogation, house church leaders are often slapped, beaten, kicked, or stricken by 2,000-watt electric rods. Then a fine of 2,000 to 5,000 Renminbi (People's currency) (RMB) is imposed on such an individual. This is equal to one to two years of a farmer's annual income. Those who fail to pay the fines are sent to Educational Labor camps for eighteen to thirty-six months of hard labor. Nowadays, many churches prefer to borrow money to redeem their co-workers in order to spare the pain from their family members and to redeem their time for ministry. Waiting for fines by the police can take as long as a month. The "offenders" are kept at the police detention center along with other criminals, such as thieves, robbers, and murderers. There, Christians are often beaten or humiliated. Once they are sent to the Educational Correction camps, church leaders as new "inmates" are often beaten and humiliated by the "king of the cells." One elder was put next to the urinal and forced to drink his own urine, mixed with detergent and his own excretions. Many other forms of persecution are intended for the believer to give up his faith and ministry. Some of these include solitary confinement in a cubical so small that one cannot even stand up or stretch his legs fully.
Persecution, Christian Suffering, and Church Growth
As a kind of theological and missiological reflection, I can think of seven reasons why persecution and Christian suffering help to contribute to church growth in China.
First, persecution deepens a Christian's spiritual life. Under a circumstance of prolonged persecution of Christians, Chinese believers have come to accept persecution as their lot as followers of Jesus. They have experienced the words of Jesus: "In the world you will have persecution; the world will hate you, because you do not belong to the world" (John 15:18-19). They have also come to understand that suffering is concomitant to discipleship, as stated by Paul: "It has been granted to you not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake" (Phil. 1:29). In the midst of persecution, Chinese Christians have come to experience identification with Jesus, namely, being identified with him meant suffering for him and in suffering for him they come to experience a closer relationship with him and with the Father through the descent of the "the Spirit of glory," which rests upon them when they are reproached for the name of Christ (1 Pet. 4:14). Those who have gone through imprisonment testify how they experienced the joy of close communion with the triune God. When they are released, they seldom talk about the tortures that were inflicted upon them. Rather, they talk about how they were drawn closer to the Lord. A spirit of meekness, humility, and joy characterize their transformed personalities. When they preach Christ to others, they preach a Christ whom they have come to know experientially, a Christ for whom they suffered, and a Christ who saw them through their darkest hours.
Second, persecution can purge the believer of his inward sins and confirm his faith in Christ. Those who went through imprisonment (where they suffer humiliation and physical abuse, hard labor, and often starvation) testify that during the first few weeks of their interrogation and confinement they were forced to examine their lives and their ministry as if giving an account of themselves to the Lord as their judge. They went through prolonged and detailed confession before the Lord for their failures and their sins. This cleansing process would yield a clean heart, and the experience a sense of freedom from sin and a freedom to serve God as Peter told his readers: "Therefore, Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God" (1 Pet. 4:1-2). They experience a renewed understanding of God as a God of holiness, a God of righteousness, and a God of mercy. In this process, their faith is renewed and further confirmed. When they come out of prison, they preach the Gospel with greater boldness than ever before. The purifying process also can make them more determined than ever to pursue holiness and to live at peace with God.
Third, persecution causes the larger house churches to split into several smaller groups. As the small groups grow in size, they would split again for security reasons. In the countryside, small groups mean thirty to fifty people. In the cities, small means ten to fifteen persons. When these new groups are formed, new leadership emerges or is appointed, and training for them becomes an immediate task. That is why leadership-training sessions are conducted all over China in a clandestine manner. In Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, because the political atmosphere used to be rather tolerant, house churches began to build church buildings that could accommodate 500 to 1,000 people. Since the enforcement of registration began in 1996, several of these church building were blasted down by the government and others were taken over by the TSPM. In the process, house church leaders there adopted a policy of near total withdrawal, both pastoral leaders and the congregations, while losing their sanctuaries. They organized themselves into dozens of smaller house churches which experienced faster growth than when they were together.
Fourth, when a political movement is launched by the government, such as the anticrime campaign in 1996 or the current anti-Falungong campaign that began in August 1999, top house church leaders are the first to be arrested. This forces the younger men and women to come up to take the places of leadership. When the younger men are arrested, the young women rise up in their place. In North China when the top leader was arrested and sentenced for eighteen months, his son and his right-hand man took over the leadership for training and administration of their 300-plus house churches respectively. When he came out, he discovered that his group had over 400 house churches. If growth in leadership is any indicator of church growth, China certainly has her share of an ever-growing army of church leaders.
Fifth, persecution forces the believers to grow into a close solidarity and the leaders to develop a fluid, tight organizational structure and communication network. Most of the larger house church groups have developed several layers of leadership-oriented and functional organizational structure, which is also accompanied with a multilevel leadership training system. These levels are usually determined by geographical expansions: organizational structures, co-workers' meetings, and training sessions are conducted at the village level, township level, country level, provincial level, and national level. Deprived of the opportunity to maintain offices, regular phones, and paperwork, they have to communicate by word of mouth or cellular phones (more recently), and they have to meet frequently for review and planning purposes. In this mobile manner most of their energy, time, and money are devoted to survival, training, and missionary expansion. In other words, they travel light, like sojourners, and like an army on the march and doing field battle. They worship in believers' homes, they hold church business meetings in believers' homes, and they carry out training (ranging from three days to three months) in believers' homes, and these venues change according to the degree of security.
Sixth, persistent state persecution has turned the Church in China into a church of persistent prayer. Persecution in terms of forbidding regular church meetings, pressure for registration, arrest of itinerant evangelists and their training centers, and imprisonment of church leaders put the house churches under impossible situations. Sometimes the only thing they can do is pray; the only help they can expect is from the Lord. This has been the case since the formation of the Three-self Reform Movement in 1950 (the name was later changed to TSPM in 1954). God does answer their prayers with signs and miracles, such as sudden death of their persecutors or the promotion of imprisoned church leaders to become assistant wardens, much like the role Joseph played in the prison of Pharaoh. For the past twenty years that I have been in contact with house church leaders, I have noticed that in all their gatherings they have a custom of getting up at 5:00 a.m. to pray for two hours in the morning. They do this either privately or corporately. In the community prayer, they always pray for those in prison or undergoing suffering. They also pray for the expansion of the Gospel throughout China. In training sessions, they apply spiritual lessons that they extrapolate from the lectures. It is very true in China that prayer leads to revival, and revival leads to missionary expansion. This is the secret to church growth in China.
Seventh, the testimonies of those who have suffered long under persecution have become a source of inspiration to the growing Church in China. Their faithfulness spurs the younger leaders to continue in their footsteps; their convictions are passed on to the subsequent generation of church leaders. The testimonies of Wang Mingtao (1900-1991, imprisoned for twenty-three years) and Yuan Xiancheng of Beijing (imprisoned for twenty years and still maintains an independent house meeting since 1979), of Xie Moshan of Shanghai (imprisoned twenty years), and of Samuel Lam of Guangzhou (imprisoned twenty years) and Epaphras Chen of Yinchuan (also twenty years) are but a few examples. A tradition of faithfulness to Christ even unto death has been established among the house churches and a spirit of resistance to state persecution prevails throughout China. Today the state's determination to subjugate the independent house churches through registration and management under the TSPM and the house churches' determined resistance to that pressure through prayer and enduring suffering is like two armies engaged in warfare. One side uses brute force, the other resorts to God's spiritual power. As a student of Chinese Church studies, I can say that the ongoing expansion of the Church in China has already passed the point of the state's ability to control it. There are already more Christians than party members, some of whom are turning to Christ.
Ultimately Christians endure suffering for the sake of the Gospel and for a testimony to Jesus Christ, just as the Apostle John testified: "I John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the Word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Rev. 1:9). He who testifies to the lordship of Christ cannot escape persecution from those who oppose him. Yet, through enduring suffering, their discipleship is authenticated through their being identified with his suffering, death, and resurrection, and to them Christ gives the power to overcome the world and the Spirit of glory to abide with them.
The Church in China is a sobering success story of church growth.