The Coming Crisis of the Chinese House Churches

By CCD Contributor: John Li, February 03, 2017 06:02 AM

file photo(pixabay)

I'm a house church preacher. I have been advocating the theological correctness of the house church's preachings. Chinese house church, also known as the underground church, which came into being in the Cultural Revolution, is a special product from an unusual era. From a theological point of view, family churches differ from the three-self churches, in that it follows the historical theological principles of separation of church and state. As for the form of gathering, the number of house church worshipers is small, and they often gather at a a loving member's house.

It must be explained that house churches do not belong to any one family or two, but they borrow family's houses for gathering and the people of the church are not just from one family. Family churches, characterized by the maintenance of relationships, can be more correctly called family groups instead of home churches; however given its function and numbers of participants it goes beyond the concept of family. The misunderstanding that family churches belong to some families are gradually being dissoved today in the circle of overseas Chinese churches who come to know that house churches are defined from a theological point of view, rather than from the distinction of family groups.

The Bible talks about "the church in the house", which some see as the basis of the Chinese house church in the Bible (see 1 Corinthians 16:19). Although many attempt to emphasize that family meetings are the model of the early church, it does not seem to preclude the possibility that house churches is a product of the transitional period in regard to her current rapid development since the original intention of the house church is not to develop, but to maintain the status quo, is very exclusive.

With the loss of oppression in an increasingly open environment, there is no reason to continue gathering at family's houses scattered everywhere. The traditional form of gathering in family's houses are declining.

In fact, many traditional house churches refuse to make changes in the environment, mostly due to the conceptual problem without ruling out the consideration of security issues. The root reason lies in the ecclesiology. Many traditional house church evangelists have also realized that the traditional house church meeting place causes the church to be stagnant in growth.

The following is a brief explanation of why the church has to change in her gathering environment from three perspectives:

The bottleneck I: it is difficult to create a church culture

The house church serves as a special external protection under the oppressive environment. It can be said that the current form of the house church is not the ultimate goal of the house church, but is a special process toward the purpose. I do not deny the theological correctness of the house churches. I have a strong commitment to the theological principles of the separation of church and state, admire the pioneers of house churches Mingdao Wang and Xiangao Lin who held on to the truth to the point of death. But this does not mean that nothing is wrong about the form, the advantage of past which has become an obstacle for her growth.

The congregation model of the house church in China during the Cultural Revolution has kept the church alive in history, and today, the concept of traditional house church has largely restricted the development of the church. Especially when more and more knowledgeable Christians entered the house church, the socio-economic environment continues to improve, the concept of house church distances themselves from society further and further. When the external pressure is reduced, the forced cohesion will be gradually lost. The pressing problem facing the house church is about how to build the church culture to gather the believers.

Because of the special political environment, early house churches can only be dispersed into the family houses for her gathering. However, the form of family gathering for house churches will bring a lot of problems too. The gathering place will not be very large for they are family's houses; the structure is suitable for home most of the time. There are also many limit to the use of the meeting place for the church who needs to take into account the wishes of the host family. If an in-depth and cohesive group needs a place that can express their own culture, then traditional house churches can hardly meet the requirements. In particular, it is difficult for the church to provide a suitable environment at the place of family homes for those who now crave a sense of belonging and those who aspire to express their mind.

Since the church's gathering places are borrowed from host families, the house churches naturally belittle or discard some of the church's symbols. In many rural house churches, even the vivid cross is ignored and the real meaning of sacrament is completely overlooked. This sacrifice is for the preservation of the church at the beginning, finally became a a fatal crisis after gradually worsening. All the meaning of the church exists only in the limited time of the gathering. The mission of many churches include only holding worship service, without taking into account how to guide believers in their daily life.  the separation of belief and life is the main reason for the sharp decline of house churches nowadays. The belief without a firm base of life is destined to lose its life in the regional cultural activities. So I often find it difficult to imagine that the Chinese Church believers have no idea about passovercrucifixion week. And even the Christmas has been completely westernized so that it was difficult to find a proper place in the local culture.

The bottleneck II: the lack of environmental safety factors

Many of the Taiwan church pastors once believed that Chinese house churches were just like mobs unable to achieve anything largely because of their preachers' lack of theological equipment and the lack of good gathering places. This may not always be the case, but we have to rethink a question: Is it really good for the spread of the Gospel that the house churches gather at individual's family? This will be a historical statistical and strategic issues.

The answer can be found in part from the new comers' feeling in the house churches. Few truth-seekers can realize the importance of the truth of family churches' preachings when they see their gathering. Unless imaginative, or taking a long time to keep in contact, few people can directly see the connection between the church and the "Bible" or "sacred". They feel that they just visited a family rather than a church. Compared to the giant public churches, gathering at an independent meeting place, you need too much explanation so as not to be misunderstood or judged wrongly as"non-professional".

Before the church I have been serving turned into a big city church, a truth-seeker told me that when he visited the church in the beginning, he felt as if he had been to a dangerous place and he felt anxious all the time before he left there. 

There are at least two reasons why I think traditional house churches should make some improvement in the gathering environment:

First of all, temporaray people caring about personal space do not feel comfortable to enter into other's houses. In the past it was polite for a family to receive others at his home, but today what stands out in interpersonal relationship is at ease respect for individuality. When it comes to discuss the new directions of the church, they will certainly talk about the emerging urban church. The greatest difference between traditional house churches and emerging city churches at the first glance lies in the gathering places by the churches. The city churches make huge investment in church renting, purchasing and decoration. The city churches work hard to create a safe place of worship for believers to express their understanding of the faith.

Secondly, many of the house church facilities are very simple, very difficult for the church to express how they welcome the new comers. Because we Christians should not be wishful thinking that all unbelieving friends have to suffer with us in general. It would be God's pleasure if the church were to change the environment in a way that would improve the comfort level of the gathering setting. The way the house church gathers for her activities has now become an obstacle for her growth. Since many Chinese house churches focus only on the internal side, it is difficult to further breakthrough in her mission ministry. 

A few years ago, I attended a lecture by Pastor Tang Chongrong, who solemnly accused the Chinese house church of being selfish that many Chinese house churches refused to participate in social welfare ministries under the pretext of security. Pastor Tang Chongrong shared his idea of church ministry. Even in Indonesia, where 98% of the population is muslim, Christians still courageously carried out various ministries, orphanages, and other gospel ministries.

The three bottleneck III: impairment of the seriousness of worship

I would like to ask more directly: Would you like to have a wedding in someone's family or in a church? Many Christians will unconsciously choose to hold their wedding in the church, because the well-decorated church reflect the sacredness of marriage. In many of the house churches in Wenzhou, many young Christians hold their wedding ceremonies in churches disregarding the house church's oppositions. I do not want to enter into argument about whether the event is theologically correct or not, but to express the common agreement that gathering at someone's family do not show the holiness of the faith (the house church, given its theoloy, of course, expresses the correct understanding of the Bible).

Does house church really need to make a change in the gathering environment? The Bible also gives us some reminders. The Israelites engaged themselves in three kinds of constructions after the exile: one was the wall construction led by Nehemiah, aimed at the safe environment for the returned inhabitants; the other was the construction and teaching of the law headed by Ezra teaching people to abandon the living habits of pagans and return to the law of God, the third is the construction of the Temple led by prophet Haggai, which is the core of people's faith in life. The three kinds of construction go hand in hand, but are centered around the Temple. For the Israelites, the construction of the temple represents the people's acceptance of the temple, their culture, religion and nation being one. From a sociological point of view, the construction of the temple brought people together. The reason I call for a change in the gathering environment is the hope that from the inside to the outside the church can express that worship is not casual but sacred. The construction of the sanctuary and the improvement of the house church congregation are also somewhat similar: Church worship needs a dedicated place of worship suitable for the public to gather.

Warmth was originally a feature of the house church, but over time, it turned out to be a fatal flaw, being a breeding ground for casualness and laxity.  Eventually the original consent to follow some rules which came into being in passion is gradually being ignored. It is noteworthy that the host family has a great influence on the whole church, and usually the parents of the host families are also part of the decision-makers of the church. To a great extent, the success or failure of the church lies in the person of host whose spiritual state and mood  will directly affect the gathering atmosphere from start to finish. One can imagine how ridiculous it would be to place the development of the whole church in the personal mood of the individual. For example, in a meeting place lacking the room for breastfeeding, each cry of the babies battle with the sermon, destroying the listener's good attitude in earnestness, turning the worship service into a battle about sound. In some families, do not think your sermons will be more attractive than the cute cat.

In summary, the author is not suggesting that churches should make great efforts to purchase lands or luxury decoration, but make some changes in their gathering environment within their abilities. Thanks to God that we already have good examples of many city churches who still hold firm house church positions in theology, but aware of the constraints that the gathering environment can bring to themselves, they are already not house churches. 

To conclude, all questions are questions of ecclesiology. When the house churches are no longer too traditional, the turning point of the house churches is coming. Compared with theological construction, the church system, the church facilities are the second matter. It is hoped that God will save the Church of China through the family churches and still win every city today through the house churches.

translated by Alvin Zhou

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