The Chinese Church’s New Normal

Link to this article in Chinese

Over the past four decades, the number of worshippers in Chinese churches grew steadily. As church membership grew, the church services matured and developed. Irregular worship times then became established Sunday meetings. Meetings moved from homes to larger rented spaces. Full-time pastors were hired, and land was acquired for church buildings. The church ministries also expanded beyond Sunday services to include teaching for children, care for the elderly, cross-cultural missions and community outreach. These four became standard ministries in churches across China. Despite their differences in legal status, house churches and Three-Self churches followed a similar pattern of growth. They came to resemble each other both in format and range of ministries, especially in the past decade or more. 

However, Christianity in China has experienced a dramatic change of direction over the past two to three years. Under clauses in the new Religious Regulations related to ‘banning and suppressing illegal religious gatherings,’ Christians have been forced to give up their public meetings and return to worshipping at home. 

Even though churches are abandoning their church buildings and meeting once again in small groups, we cannot see this as a step back in time to the church of forty years ago. Chinese ecclesiology has developed too far for that. Neither can we call it a simple replication of the cell churches that are popular overseas. As they are being forced out of their buildings and into private meetings, Chinese Christians are developing fresh understandings of what it means to be a church or gathering. Their focus is on Jesus’ promises to the disciples: “For wherever two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Mat 18:20). The words “wherever,” “in my name,” and “I am with them” have become the theological foundations of cell church development in China. 

Even though cell group church is their inevitable future, we cannot imagine that this change will be easy, or even familiar for today’s Christians. They still need to work through many different issues gradually. As they resolve these issues, they will bless the worldwide church with new theological insights. 

Firstly, both ordinary believers and pastoral workers are coming to understand that this change to cell group churches is not just a practical one, but is actually God’s plan for establishing his church in China at this time. The cell church structure is helping people learn how to rely more fully on God, so that more church members can not only glorify God and bear witness through their lives but also be equipped for discipleship and evangelism. 

Secondly, the cell group format enables Chinese churches to rethink their relationship with the local community and society as a whole. Over the past three decades of rapid urbanisation, house churches have grown through personal evangelism. This has resulted in believers in single churches coming from many different neighbourhoods. Most churches already had prayer meetings and weekly fellowships in various neighbourhoods throughout the week, apart from the joint Sunday worship. A change to cell church has merely meant dividing Sunday worship between the small group meeting locations in the different neighbourhoods. But of course, this doesn’t mean that church ministries are unaffected. 

For example, in one church I know, the change to cell group church simply meant distributing the Sunday worship service (of over 1,000 worshippers) between the church’s 60–plus established small group locations. The organisational structure of the church has not changed. The most obvious problem with the new format is that there are insufficient pastors to preach and to administer the Lord’s Supper in all of the cell group churches. Unless sufficient lay preachers can be trained within a very short period of time and take on some pastoral responsibilities, discipleship and teaching for believers will quickly become weak. This kind of training cannot be done within weeks or even months. 

Currently, each church has cell groups spread all across their city. There can be up to twenty cell groups from different churches within one local community. Churches must think seriously about uniting their groups with cell groups from other churches. Together, they can become vessels of gospel witness to transform their community. 

How can cell group members become people who study God’s word and live Biblically in the local community? They must help those seeking the truth to find it, and allow those who are living in a dark and broken world see the light. This is the ministry vision for cell group churches. No house church format has yet been recognised as legitimate, but there are also no regulations that can prevent Christians from living a life of witness, nor uniting together to serve their community with acts of love. Actually, these are the ministries that Christians are most confident in, and have the greatest willingness for. Through these ministries, in time, Christianity in China will see a new era of growth. 

Influenced by their traditional culture, Chinese people need to be sure that they can benefit from an interaction before they initiate one, and they do not easily talk about personal things with people outside their family. This is especially true in urban areas. But in a cell group, the primary purpose for participation is not to gain any benefit from other participants, but to pursue the Lord, to study His word together and to build one another up through prayer. Participation in a cell group is not about worldly gain but is focussed on growing in the Lord and serving others. This fresh perspective is helping Chinese Christians to grow in maturity. 

Cell groups must put the Gospel at the centre of every ministry. Shaped by traditional culture and urban life, distrust is prevalent in Chinese society. Yet a sense of missional responsibility has led groups of Gospel-guided believers to be more open and engaged than any others in society. This is a beautiful thing to see. But how can we help these believers to stay the course? How can Christian cell groups avoid becoming just another social gathering? The key question actually is this: how can the Gospel remain in the centre of all cell groups’ activities? Only when the name of the Lord is exalted will the cell groups be vibrant, churches grow, and Chinese Christians able to influence and even spearhead  the development of society. 

We are grateful to the Lord that the current cell group membership has not been based on characteristics such as marital status or age, but rather on areas of residence. Because cell group members live in close proximity, they are more motivated to pray for one another. Christians, of course, all agree that it is essential to witness for the Lord and share the Gospel. However, the big question is how believers from different churches, different denominations and with a range of different theological views can overcome their differences to be truly united as one in Christ. Right now is the ideal time for Chinese churches to become truly indigenous in their ecclesiology. We have great reason to look forward to a fresh and mature ecclesiology from China in the 21st century. 

The political situation in China has affected its development as a civil society. Severe restrictions on theological education have meant that Chinese churches are unable to produce as many adequately trained preachers as in the West. The main workforce for China’s cell group churches is a large number of untrained but enthusiastic pastors and laypeople. Training these leaders and laypeople to understand and teach the truth is the most important challenge facing China’s theological educators. But a challenge such as this is a fresh opportunity for China’s churches to search out a new model of the priesthood of all believers. This they will surely do. And in the process, they will become an important example for the church worldwide. 

May God’s will be done in churches across China, as it is in each country on earth.