On a Saturday in June 1998 I attended a meeting which explored the current situation in China. We heard all about a delegation visit to China, and how they had been received by church leaders. It would have been easy to come away with the impression that all was well with the Church in China. I knew that I had to speak up about the plight of the house churches.
Although it is under the Communists that house churches have flourished in China, we must not imagine that they did not exist before. Some churches in Fujian province were seeking independence from foreign control as early as 1862. The 1911 revolution gave rise to some independent congregations, but the real period of growth was the 1920s. The three indigenous church movements which developed at that time were the True Jesus Church (1917), the Jesus Family (1926) and the Little Flock (1928). They began as house meetings, but grew so fast that they needed to use special buildings.
After the Communist Revolution, those Christians who did not feel at liberty to join the TSPM started house churches. During the Cultural Revolution, no TSPM churches were functioning, and the only way to worship God, apart from on one’s own, was in small house church groups. When the TSPM opened its doors again, there were many who continued to worship through house churches.
The story is told of a pastor in a mountainous area of China who was imprisoned for 23 years. While in prison he prayed for the 170 believers in the county where he lived, even though he had no news of them. When he was released in 1986, he asked his son about them, and was told that there were now 5000. He conducted a survey, which verified this figure. He resumed his labors, and two and a half years later there were 56,000 believers out of a population of 60,000.
Figures would not be as high as this in many areas; nevertheless, the growth of the Church has been remarkable. The TSPM claims to have at least 7 million members, though estimates vary. House church Christians may be found in much greater numbers than this. At a cautious estimate, the total number of Protestant Christians in China is around 25-30 million; but many observers suggest 50-60 million, and some even more.
Such growth can be traced chiefly to the sovereign grace of God. The quality of life shown by Christians during adversity, the emphasis on prayer, the effect of miraculous healings and zeal for evangelism are all important factors.
For house church Christians, prayer is a vital activity.
I have seen a list of prayer requests published by Christians in Henan in 1984. They ask prayer for those imprisoned, those detained, those pursued, those who are still traveling with the gospel, for young people, elderly people, for giving, the perseverance of the saints and the raising up of new workers. Throughout this recital, there is a concern that people may come to know Christ and that God may be honored.
I have also seen a letter written in 1985 by Christians in Xinjiang to Christians in West Germany. It reads: "We in China will remember the Church in West Germany every day in prayer. We pray that the Lord Jesus will be gracious to your country and its people and that more and more people will repent and believe in the Lord Jesus and come under his name".
I heard in January 1987 of Christians who formed a prayer group while in prison. They prayed for the salvation of the whole world, for political stability in China, for the eternal salvation of China’s leaders, for each province of China by name and for itinerant preachers and persons responsible for local meetings.
When I visited some house church Christians in 1990 they said to me: "Tell people to pray for us. Things are getting worse."
There is among house church Christians a great hunger for the Word of God, written or preached. I heard the story of a traveling preacher who planned to preach only on Matthew 1, but was detained by local Christians until he had preached through the whole book.
House church preachers are not under the same restraints as their TSPM brethren with regard to subject matter.
This is part of what a woman preached in central China in 1985: "We must crucify all the desires of our heart and return like little children to the Lord, trusting all to God the Father. Sometimes we do encounter temporary darkness, heart-piercing pains and the threat of death. But if we have died with Christ, we will also be raised with him, if we suffer with Christ, we will also be glorified with him. If we are patient in the present tribulations, we shall reign with him when he returns."
In 1982 in a certain village in Henan province there were only 6 Christians. A year later in the same village there were over 1000. One reason for such rapid growth was that, in the meantime, many signs and miracles had taken place. For instance, a young girl, who had been declared dead in hospital, and who showed no signs of life for three days, recovered, and a man who had been a cripple for 18 years was healed.
This is not an isolated instance. There are stories of miraculous events in many places.
Such events are frowned on by the Communist authorities. Theirs is a this-worldly creed. Any suggestion of the operation of supernatural power denies their materialistic theories. They regard those whom God uses to perform miracles as charlatans and deceivers.
Among house church Christians there is a great zeal for evangelism. Although evangelism is the task of every church member, particular responsibility is laid on the shoulders of traveling evangelists. Many are forced to keep traveling because to stay too long in one place is to invite arrest. Their concern is not only to lead people to Christ, but also to leave Bible study groups behind them. It can be dangerous: in April 1992 we heard of a group of evangelists attacked by bandits in a mountainous part of Guizhou. One of them was stabbed, but still made his way with the rest to the next town.
David Adeney, in his book, "China: The Church¡¯s Long March," identified other characteristics of house churches. These included being truly indigenous, stripped of non-essentials, having a deep impression of God¡¯s sovereignty, caring for one another in practical terms, dependence on lay leadership and being purified by suffering.
As the TSPM seminaries are not open to them, it is hard for house church leaders to receive the training they need.
Itinerant evangelists may hold training classes. Sometimes there are training programs conducted by experienced evangelists in a camp setting. Visiting groups of overseas Christians may hold secret training courses: it is safer if these are ethnic Chinese. There is always an element of risk about such training, as it is not approved by the civil authorities.
For many, the only recourse is to the radio. The Far East Broadcasting Company has run useful training courses covering a wide array of subjects.
There is certainly need for good training; otherwise, leaders and people alike may be led astray into heresy.