My friend adopted a baby from China a couple of years ago. He came back with more than a daughter; he came back with an expanded view of what the Church can look like.
He and his wife entered China through Beijing and exited through Hong Kong. They spent time in two other cities as well. In all four cities they met believers, authentic followers of Jesus, who impacted their view of who the Church is and what the Church can be.
In China there are two “authorized” Christian denominations: the Roman Catholic Church and the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement.” The Chinese government, in an unusual moment of consumer choice, provides one Christian church for Catholics and one for Protestants. These are the only two “legal” denominations in China.
As my friends traveled the country in trains, taxis and mini buses, they asked several Chinese believers where they went to church. Not one of the people they encountered said they belonged to either of the authorized churches. Instead, nearly everyone answered that they were members of “house churches.”
“Aren’t house churches illegal?” my friend asked.
“Of course they are,” answered one Chinese Christian. “But the government leaves house churches alone as long as each one remains small. Apparently they do not think small churches are a threat.”
Startled by such honesty, my friend pressed for more. “So, what does Sunday morning look like for you guys—or do you even meet on Sundays?”
“Sunday is the Lord’s Day. Of course we meet on Sundays!” he said. “Our church is about 20 people. We tithe 10 percent of our income, and from that money we can rent an apartment that is used just for church. Two of the brothers get to the apartment early Sunday morning and begin too prepare a meal for the others.”
"Yeah, our church serves donuts and coffee, too,” my friend offered.
The Chinese brother smiled: “Well, this meal they prepare will be the biggest meal of the day. While they are cooking, brothers and sisters begin to show up one or two at a time. We all come at different times so as to avoid attracting attention.”
“How long does that take?”
“A several hours,” he replied. “But everyone has a job to do: cleaning the apartment, setting up chairs, praying for the meeting. After several hours, everyone is there, and we begin to worship, just like you do—with song, by praying and by studying the word of God.”
“What about the food?”
“The smell fills the apartment, and after we finish the service, we eat together. It’s usually a big meal—and a good time.”
My Western friend began to figure out that “church”—among the house churches in China—could last most of the day. Especially considering that the Chinese believers leave the meeting in the same manner they arrive: one or two at a time, over several hours. His Chinese brother explained that “church” is for the believers, and the believers evangelize their neighbors and co-workers during the week. Some of them are surprisingly open about their faith.
“So what happens if your get too big?” my friend asked. “Does that attract attention?”
“When we grow to 35 or 40 people, we have enough tithe money to rent another apartment, so the church divides into two house churches, the way a cell divides.”
The question is, does this way of doing church work? According to some reports about the house-church movement in China, without any denominational bureaucracy, it has grown to 130 million believers in the last 25 years. This is in a country that is still politically communist, with a government that formally opposes any kind of religion. No “clergy” or “laity.” No districts or regions. And because of the communist indoctrination, many Chinese believers are surprisingly free of any notion of competition.
Imagine being part of a network where growing churches are careful not to become “too big.” Big churches would be considered a threat to the authoritarian government, so most house churches aspire to grow only enough to divide and re-plant. Imagine being part of a church where meeting together is an all-day commitment that shares every aspect of life together. Imagine being part of a church filled with … believers.
As this surprisingly open Chinese believer told my friend: “You see, in China there is no such thing as a ‘cultural Christian.’”