Chinese church members are being arrested. Their pastors have gone missing, their steeples have been ripped down, and they find themselves adrift, lost in a world controlled entirely by the iron fist of the Communist Party. Pastor Wang Yi, a Chinese church leader who was arrested in December, refuses to plead guilty to the charges levelled against him. These public displays of persecution and military crackdowns on Christians are reported by all sorts of newspapers, and they are certainly happening. But there is another part to Christianity in China, an aspect that is not spoken of as frequently, and that is growth.
Much of what the media shares about China has to do with what they can sell. The U.S. press is eager to depict China as a place where it is completely illegal to be a Christian, but that is not the case. I had the opportunity to speak with a Western businessperson who is knowledgeable about the situation of the church, and he states that for the most part, there is relative freedom for Christians who adhere to the imposed guidelines. Expatriate Christians are also seen differently from local Christians; the foreign Christians are significantly freer. And although restrictions on locals have been tightening, they too have some freedoms.
Despite these restrictions, two options exist for church-goers: large, registered, government-approved churches and small house churches. As long as un-registered house churches keep their numbers below a certain maximum, they have less risk of detection.
Indeed, the restrictions of the government wax and wane like the tides, depending on the time and the level of threat the Party perceives. Persecution comes and goes, but my contact stated that one of several good things that have come as a result is this: the church has become more adaptable, willing to think ahead and be proactive rather than merely fold under and hide from the persecution. The larger house churches, he says, are training up more and more leaders, so that if and when the more peaceful time ends, they can split into smaller groups.
Although the media is focused on the vocal and even aggressive Christians of China, the majority of people in the nation are less interested in pushing back. Instead, they are gracious and creative, thankful for the difficulties they face even as the government tries to throw them off balance. When persecution arises, they consider the possibility that this is because they are getting too comfortable and God wants them to reform.
My contact put it like this: “At one time, the relationship between the American church and the Chinese church was more of a parent-child relationship than one between equals.” For many years, the American church poured into the Chinese church, until recently when the relationship became more like that of siblings. The mindset of the Chinese church, too, has continued to shift in terms of independence. The Christians of the country want to become their own church, with Chinese influences and a distinctly Chinese identity, while still maintaining doctrine that is accurate and glorifies God.
Persecution is really happening in China; the believers who live there feel the heat of the crackdown and are genuinely under more significant pressure than they have been. But there is also growth, life, and beauty, even in the midst of the hardship—God is faithful, and his hand is on his believers to strengthen and help them.