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The Future of the Church in China: Why China’s House Churches will Prevail

The artificial and contrived nature of the TSPM churches’ “post-denominational unity” was recently illustrated for me in vivid fashion by a friend, Pastor Huang, who pastors a local house church. Pastor Huang is associated with the China Gospel Fellowship (CGF), one of the larger house church networks in China. Pastor Huang told me that early in 2016 the leader of the CGF, Uncle Shen, met with the President of China, Xi Jin Ping. In this conversation, Xi Jin Ping purportedly asked Uncle Shen, with respect to the government’s policy toward Christianity, which of three paths he would prefer China to travel. The first path would eliminate the TSPM and only allow for house churches. The second path would allow for both the TSPM and the house churches, with each on equal footing. The third path would call for the house churches to become a part of the TSPM. Apparently Uncle Shen answered, “Not path one, not path three, but path two is my preference.”

China’s leaders are intent on restricting … house church groups.

I must admit that I am skeptical of this story’s veracity. Certainly, recent events suggest that Xi Jin Ping and his government have no desire to allow the house church movement to compete on equal footing with the TSPM. If the new regulations governing religious activity may serve as our guide,[2] it is apparent that China’s leaders are intent on restricting further the limited space that currently exists within China for house church groups to operate. Nevertheless, I find this story interesting because it raises an important question: What would happen if the TSPM and the house churches were actually allowed to exist on equal footing? The reality is that if this were to happen, the TSPM churches would experience tremendous change or they would cease to exist. Let me put it another way, when the dust settles and the Chinese church is allowed to openly pursue its own path, the TSPM churches will be radically transformed. They will follow a more indigenous model, that of the house churches, in structure, in theology, and in practice, or they will largely fade away.

In this essay I want to explain why I feel this to be the case. More specifically, I will describe why I believe the house church movement reflects a more indigenous expression of the faith in China and, as a result, why I believe that it ultimately will prevail. I will do so by comparing the TSPM churches and the house churches in three key areas: church structure, theology, and worship patterns.

 

1. Church Structure

 

The TSPM

A few years ago a student at the local TSPM seminary approached me and asked if I would be willing to mentor and teach him. He was frustrated by his courses at the local TSPM seminary. He feels that the seminary’s “post-denominational” curriculum, which describes various positions on theological topics (e.g., Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.), is confusing for young students. The various positions, which appeared to him to be contradictory at times, left most students confused and bewildered. “They don’t know what they should believe,” he stated. This young man yearns for a tradition, a clear and consistent body of doctrine, upon which to base his ministry. So, he came to me and said, “I want to know what you believe.”

A TSPM church building.

If the TSPM and the house churches were allowed equal footing, the TSPM churches would experience tremendous change or they would cease to exist.

My friend also noted that many within the TSPM are now openly saying that they made a mistake in following the “post-denominational” route. Indeed, he said that there is a “hui gui chuan tong” (“back to tradition”) movement that is calling for a reconnection with the denominational traditions of the past and their corresponding churches abroad. In short, many are fed up with the restrictions, the coerced and artificial uniformity, and the entrenched mimicking of the Western Christianity of a previous era, yet without any real freedom or substance. Many are frustrated with the seminaries and their training methods that are devoid of any clear doctrinal stance. As a result, my friend thinks that there will be a significant break on the part of many from the TSPM. It may be that many churches will simply leave. It appears that a number of Christians are ready to be more open about their disapproval.

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Category: Ministry, Winter 2017

About the Author: Robert P. Menzies, PhD (University of Aberdeen, Scotland), has lived and served in China for over twenty years. Robert is currently the Director of Synergy, a rural service organization located in Kunming, China. He is editor at the Asian Center for Pentecostal Theology and the author of Speaking in Tongues: Jesus and the Apostolic Church as Models for the Church Today (CPT Press, 2016), Pentecost: This Story is Our Story (Gospel Publishing House, 2013), Making Pentecost Your Story: 50 Days of Reflection and Prayer (Xanesti Creative Solutions, 2015), Spirit and Power: Foundations of Pentecostal Experience (Zondervan, 2011), The Language of the Spirit: Interpreting and Translating Charismatic Terms (CPT Press, 2010), Empowered for Witness: The Spirit in Luke-Acts (Sheffield, 1995), and co-editor of Pentecostalism in Context: Essays in Honor of William W. Menzies (Wipf & Stock, 2008), and The Spirit and Spirituality: Essays in Honor of Russell P. Spittler (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2004).

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