May 12, 2011
The Chinese House Church Goes Public
— Fenggang Yang
On Easter Sunday, Shouwang (show-won) Church in Beijing planned to hold an outdoor worship service in a plaza amid high-rise office and commercial buildings. However the police sealed off the plaza and dispelled gathering congregants, as they had done twice before. Thirty six of the congregants were taken to police stations for interrogation.
Two Sundays earlier, 159 church members were rounded up in police buses and taken to police stations. While in custody, these Christians sang hymns together and shared the “good news” with the policemen when they were not being interrogated. The quiet confrontations between Shouwang Church and the Chinese government have received much media attention in the United States, Canada and Europe, but so far the media have offered little to understand the burgeoning “house church” phenomenon in China.
Shouwang’s confrontation with the government is not a political protest. It represents a spiritual revolution that has been sweeping the vast land of China. Shouwang is one of the large “house churches” in Beijing with about a thousand members, a majority of whom are college-educated young professionals who have converted to Christianity within the last two decades. Until the end of the 1980s, Christianity in China was very much a rural phenomenon and most Christians were old and feeble and had little formal education.
The phenomenon of “house churches” has mushroomed in urban areas since 1989, a fateful year that marks a turning point in Chinese history. The student-led pro-democracy movement was violently crushed by the Communist authorities who sent tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The 6•4 Tiananmen Incident, as it is commonly remembered by the Chinese, triggered the spiritual exodus from the Communist orthodoxy. Since then, while Chinese society has been transitioning to a market economy, many individuals have converted to Christianity. The founding pastor of Shouwang Church, Jin Tianming, was a college student at Tsinghua University in 1986-1991. After graduating, Tianming has dedicated himself to evangelism.
Like hundreds of “house churches” in Beijing that were formed in the 1990s, Shouwang started at Jin’s apartment in 1993. When the Bible study and fellowship group grew to over two or three dozen people, it split into two groups, which in turn split further to accommodate the growth of the congregation. As a growing number of fellowship members got married and had children, it was no longer feasible to hold gatherings only at people’s homes. Therefore, in 2005, a dozen or so fellowship groups conglomerated into one congregation and rented a large hall in an office building to hold Sunday school and worship services.
In 2006, Shouwang sought to register with the government as an independent church. However, the Religious Affairs Bureau of Beijing refused the registration unless Shouwang joined the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee (TSPM), the government-sanctioned body to oversee all Christian congregations. The literal meaning of “three-selfs” is “self-governance, self-support, and self propagation.” In reality, however, the TSPM was established as part of the control apparatus of the Communist authorities.
After TSPM forced all churches to cut off ties with Western churches, it further disbanded all denominations in 1957. This means that one could be a Christian in China but it is illegal to be a Baptist, an Episcopalian, a Lutheran, a Presbyterian, or a Methodist. As a reaction to the forced “union service” under TSPM, some Christian leaders and believers simply stopped attending church and began to worship at home. The “house church” was born, and the “house church Christians” held steadfast in the political turmoil from the 1950s to the 1970s and led Christian revivals since the 1970s. Shouwang leaders consider themselves spiritual heirs of the “house churches,” and thus will not compromise the church’s independence to join the TSPM.
On the other hand, the Chinese Communist authorities continue to cling to the religious policy that was initially formulated in the 1950s. Since 2008, the government has made multiple attempts to break down Shouwang and other large “house churches.” Three weeks ago, the church was evicted from their rental place. As the last hope to win back their constitutional right of religious belief, Shouwang has gone public. But as of now, the plaza has been off limits to the Shouwang Church on Sundays. This and other “public squares” have been sealed off under Communist rule in China.
Fenggang Yang, “Lost in the Market, Saved at McDonald’s: Conversion to Christianity in Urban China,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44 (4, 2005): 423-441.
---. Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1999).
Fenggang Yang is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University. For more information, see http://www.purdue.edu/crcs/.