The Chinese Church and the New Normal

Link to this article in Chinese

“You can take away my freedom, but not my prayers;

My prayers have wings; they leap over barbed wires and high towers.

Many brothers and sisters have heard them.

Ever free to fly, reaching the paradise above the blue sky…”

This poem, entitled ‘You and Me,’ was written by a pastor who is currently serving a prison sentence. He was engaged in children’s ministries

in the southwest minority areas for many years. He also extended this service to areas outside of China, to mountainous tribal villages that lack basic education. But because of this, he was sentenced to severe punishment and is currently in prison.

A Christian lawyer said, “One day in 2018, after posting a hymn on WeChat, my WeChat public account was immediately shut off, and dozens of articles disappeared.”

Currently, the most popular way of shopping in China is online. A wide range of products are offered. However, it has been reported that the government scrutinises the purchase of overseas Christian books. Some people have actually been arrested and others have been interviewed by the police because
of this. A preacher said, “Many brothers and sisters in China have been identified and located by the government because they bought Christian books online.” Because it is easy to find personal information about buyers who shop online, more people can be found in this way.

Since the summer, we have been looking at the ‘new normal’ that Chinese Christians are experiencing, from various angles. The cases above are all part this new normal.

Article 18 of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ clearly states five basic religious rights: the right to believe, practice, spread, and change religion, and the right
to transfer religious beliefs to the next generation. But what has happened in the Chinese church these past two years is precisely the opposite – the Chinese people are being denied these basic rights.

In theory, China still retains the constitutional right of “freedom of religious belief.” Since the new religious regulations and related policies were introduced in 2018, the State has continued to act as if there was still “freedom of religious belief,” but in reality it is doing all that it can to deny these rights. How can there be religious freedom in China if there are no religious rights?

Here are some examples:

  • No one under the age of 18 may enter a church
  • Adults may not gather anywhere except at churches authorised by the government. These are led by government-certified pastors who preach propaganda
  • Not only are house churches unable to meet, they are also prohibited from receiving offerings and teaching the Bible
  • They cannot teach the faith to children
  • In some places, Christians are even forbidden to visit hospitals in order to pray for the sick
  • Nursing homes have posters that forbid Christians to enter and conduct religious activities

During the past two decades, preachers trained in pastoral and theological studies have been raised up to serve the church. However, their ministries have now been stopped, as have Sunday services. If they regroup into smaller meetings and set up an offering box, they will be charged with illegal fund- raising. Because of this, preachers have lost their normal sources of income. They are now under- employed or unemployed, bringing financial hardship to their families.

Even more heart wrenching is that not only have Sunday schools been closed, but also parents are forbidden from taking their children to church. Children are not permitted to attend any form of church gathering—this is considered breaking the law. Not only do the children lose the opportunity to go to church, but the adults cannot go either because that would mean leaving their children at home alone. In some rural areas, it is the grandparents who are most affected—they have stopped going to fellowship meetings because they cannot take the children with them. Chinese Christians usually put very strong emphasis on gathering together to worship. But now, the fact that they cannot meet together is very challenging.

Some Christian parents have reported that even in elementary school, anti-Christian sentiment is expressed in the classroom. In middle school, students are required to state that they do not believe in any religion or participate in any religious activities, otherwise they will be deprived of the right to take the college entrance examination or pursue further studies. As these types of situations become more serious and common, most churches have been forced to meet in small groups. We now believe that after over thirty years of gradual development, Chinese Christianity has once again entered a difficult period, and that church fragmentation will become ever more common.

But is this current situation similar to the one during the Cultural Revolution? Is the church entering another period of severe persecution? Chinese Christian leaders have their own thoughts about this.

Before he lost his freedom, one preacher reminded his church to once again consider what the foundation of Christian discipleship really is. He said, “I am Christ’s disciple, not because I have been baptised, joined the church or attended every Sunday; it is not because I have served in the church, paid tithes or said grace before meals; it is not even because I have experienced the wonderful grace of God. It is because I recognise and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who the crowds rejected and who demanded His crucifixion. When we truly understand who Jesus is, that is the foundation for deciding to follow Him for life. In a harsh environment, when many—especially the powerful— slander Christ, this is not really persecution but a time when we can truly know the Lord.

Another minister said that we should never regard the pressure of the external environment as persecution. Rather, it is a special gift from God to the church—it helps believers focus more intently on the Lord and follow in His footsteps.

Another church leader commented that persecution is not unique to China, nor is it something new. It has existed since the first century. Jesus’ own disciples, and Paul, faced it. One church leader said, “We do not ask the Lord to take away persecution; we ask that we may become more aware of the true meaning of discipleship, as we face external pressures.”

There was an elder who had been detained for nearly a year during which time he was not charged with any crimes. After he was released he could not return to his home. Instead, he was forced to take his wife and children to his remote hometown where there is continuous police surveillance. In the absence of Christian brothers and sisters, no church, and without modern communications, he began a house church with only his family of four. He believes in God’s promise that wherever two or three people gather, He is with them. Although their lives are filled with inconveniences and challenges, they are willing to live this way and take time to teach and be with their children. They home school them, as well as giving them Sunday school classes. This couple can be positive and courageous because they are convinced that the Lord is with them—“Emmanuel.”

Persecution comes as a result of our “pursuit of the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). If we do not pursue the Lord, we are not living sanctified lives. If we follow the ways of the world, there will be no persecution. But when God’s love and truth draws us to Himself, His salvation supports us and makes us desire to follow Him. Persecution is inevitable and allowed by the Lord.

Persecution comes as a result of our determination to obey God rather than people (Acts 4:19). This is a lesson that we must continue to learn throughout our lives. Confucius said that “when there are three people, one must be my teacher.” It is indeed good to heed the teachings of elders and wise men, and to listen to the suggestions of friends. But obeying God is the only way to have eternal life. Therefore, as we walk in His path, it is natural that we listen to Him rather than obeying people. And this will always involve paying a price.

It is with this kind of understanding that the Chinese church is going through the current difficult period.

Used with permission of the author