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

Prayer at a house church.

The ethos of house church movement is noticeably different. We may sum up by saying that the house churches are the “free market capitalists” in the economy of church life in China. Rigid control from a central bureaucracy is generally not possible and rarely tolerated; rather, the calling, gifting, and vision of every believer is affirmed and encouraged. Churches are thus planted with little or no encouragement or financial support from denominational or network leaders, often by surprising people with a strong sense that God has called and empowered them for the task at hand. It matters not if they are young, unschooled, or female. Their call and their spiritual gifting are paramount.

For house church leaders, their conver­sion, their call, and their suffering are the marks of a true minister.

Some time ago house church leaders from two different networks met together in my home. It was fascinating to watch how these leaders interacted with one another. Three key questions were asked. It was apparent that these three questions touched upon matters they viewed as significant and foundational for church leadership. First, they asked about their conversion experience. Second, they wanted to know about their call to ministry. Finally, they asked about their experience of persecution (that is, their time in prison). Their conver­sion, their call, and their suffering – these were the marks of a true minister. I could not help but compare this list with the list of qualifications we generally look for in church leaders in the West. There was something very basic, very compelling, and very New Testament about their approach. It was all reminiscent of Acts 4:13, “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Christians in the house church movement see this life-transforming encounter with Jesus as the essential ingredient for effective ministry. Since other qualifications fade into insignificance by comparison, everyone is potentially a pastor, evangelist, or missionary.

What about the risk of strong, visionary leaders becoming dangerous authoritarians?

Many in the TSPM point to the obvious risks inherent in this rather loose approach to church structure. An emphasis on strong, visionary leaders easily can lead to “apostolic” authoritarianism.[4] This danger is somewhat mitigated by the emphasis on the gifts and calling of every member in the congregation. However, tensions between strong leaders can often lead to division and church splits. What about the obvious potential for schism? This is certainly a natural and perhaps inevitable consequence of the house church movement’s more organic, charismatic approach to church life. Yet this weakness also contains within it an important strength. While churches tend to become more bureaucratic over time, the seeds for renewal are always germinating and ready to burst forth into fragrant life.

There is also another important point that should be noted. The house church meetings and structure, with their emphasis on participation, relationships, fellowship meals, and a pragmatic approach to leadership, fit the Chinese context beautifully. It reminds me of a comment that a house church leader once made. We were discussing church life in China and he noted, “We meet in house groups out of a sense of necessity. However, when things change and we have more freedom, I sure hope we don’t lose this.”

2. Theology



The theology of the TSPM churches, especially at the grassroots, tends to be conservative and Evangelical. Many might find this hard to believe, but it is nevertheless true. This being the case, it would appear that here we might find significant similarities between the TSPM and the house churches. While this is often the case, there are still important differences.

The theology of the TSPM churches, especially at the grassroots, tends to be conservative and Evangelical.

Perhaps the most significant difference is the fact that the TSPM leadership and the leading TSPM seminary in Nanjing, in striking contrast to the majority of believers who sit in the pews, have been strongly influenced by liberal Protestant thought in the West. The best example of this is Bishop Ding Guangxun, who for decades sought to impose the liberal perspectives he gleaned from his student days at Union Theological Seminary (New York) upon the Chinese believers under his supervision. Bishop Ding is perhaps best known and criticized for advocating “justification by love” rather than “justification by faith.” Ding clearly sought to downplay the distinction between Christians and non-Christians as well as the need for evangelism.

Some years ago I took a visiting overseas Chinese friend to the local TSPM bookstore to look at the various books on sale there. I saw about six copies of Bishop Ding’s recent book (as I recall, a collection of his writings) on the shelf and suggested that my friend, who is a scholar and researcher, might be interested in buying one. He thought this was a good idea and added it to the small stack of books that we had accumulated.

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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), The Spirit and Spirituality: Essays in Honor of Russell P. Spittler (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2004), Robert Menzies, Christ-Centered: The Evangelical Nature of Pentecostal Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2020), and Robert Menzies, The End of History: Pentecostals and a Fresh Approach to the Apocalypse (Hong Kong: Asian Center for Pentecostal Theology, 2022).

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