The church in China has been through seasons of intense persecution over the last century, as well as seasons of greater freedom. While these easier times in recent years may have come as a relief, some say they also led to the church becoming more “professional”; losing some of its passion and focus. Could the rising persecution facing the church once again lead to an awakening? Read on to find out about the new challenges facing the church, and how your prayers and support are helping our Chinese brothers and sisters to prepare for whatever lies head.
Ruth Zhao* was a performer in the Chinese military’s Cultural and Performance Division. She was famous for her performances, winning awards year after year and building a formidable reputation for the Division.
But recently, everything changed. Ruth’s boss told her she must stop going to church meetings and abandon her faith, as military personnel in China are not allowed to be Christians. The order was part of a wider initiative to cleanse the military of “undesirable” elements.
Ruth was faced with a life-changing decision. Deny her faith, stay in the army and keep her reputation, or declare her unchanging love for the Lord, and risk everything.
Ruth knew she could not deny her faith. Her boss tried repeatedly to entice his star employee to give it up, but she would not capitulate. In the end, Ruth knew it was time to leave the army.
Her resignation infuriated Ruth’s boss. He punished her by stripping her of all awards and accolades, and drastically reduced her retirement benefits that she had accrued over many years. Ruth lost her job, her reputation, and her financial security.
Ruth knew she couldn’t do anything about it. She had paid the price of standing strong in her faith in Jesus.
Persecution on the Rise in China
Ruth is just one of the believers in China whose lives have been completely changed by the persecution against Christians which is growing once more.
Looking back to the 70s and 80s, churches in China faced staggering persecution. Church meetings were raided. Pastors and believers were arrested and thrown into prison. The situation was desperate. There were no Bibles, no seminaries, no church buildings, and no income for pastors and workers. Many believers were on the run from the police with no place to call home.
But in 2000, as if the turn of the century heralded a new chapter of hope and liberty, restrictions eased, and the Chinese church enjoyed a decade of relative freedom. Harassment of Christians was sporadic and Bibles and other spiritual materials were readily available.
However, by 2014, this precious window of freedom gradually began to close as China once again plunged into an era of control and uncertainty. Under the current administration, there has been a complete reversal of religious freedom. Persecution reached a high point in recent years, with crackdowns on churches on a scale not seen in the last two decades. Many church leaders and believers have been shocked by the intensity of the pressure on them, particularly young Christians.
“Dramatic Action” by Employers
One of the ways ordinary Christians are experiencing this rise in persecution is at their places of work. Christians who openly follow Jesus and share their faith can be singled out for harsh treatment, as Ruth, the singer in the army, experienced.
Another who experienced this is Grace Ouyang*. She is a gentle sister in her late 40s. At one time she was the deputy head nurse in a big urban hospital, rising through the ranks over a period of two decades. She is a fervent Christian who shared the gospel with many colleagues in her hospital.
Grace was well positioned to be promoted to head nurse, but she was bypassed because of her faith. This setback didn’t stop her from continuing to serve in the hospital faithfully, neither did it put a dent in her enthusiasm for evangelism.
But things took a turn for the worse about three years ago. One day, senior officials of her hospital suddenly turned up at Grace’s office.
“There was no prior warning,” says Grace. “They came in, sat down and interrogated me for a whole day without a break. I later found out they questioned many of my colleagues too. They pressured them to provide information about my ‘religious activities’. This sudden, dramatic action by the hospital management made me look like a criminal!”
From that day, Grace’s colleagues kept their distance, afraid they might get embroiled in this seemingly serious incident. After the investigation Grace was demoted and given non-essential duties. Her new income was a fraction of what it had been.
Grace wrestled with the injustice for 12 months, repeatedly asking God why this had happened to her. Her professional career was in tatters, and her hard work over many years had come to nothing. She felt lonely and betrayed.
“With God’s grace, the frustration and grief gradually left me,” she says. “I eventually found peace when I accepted what I had always believed: that only God’s work has eternal value. Everything else is temporary. It will all pass away.”
Raids Happen Quickly
Churches have also felt greater pressure since the new regulations governing religion were implemented with greater force in 2018. The government is actively targeting unregistered house churches to “invite” them for registration – otherwise they are illegal and may be raided.
“Raids happen quickly,” says Caleb*, an Open Doors worker. “Some churches have been shut down. One was located in a five-story building in a small city. The church took up two floors of the building and had enough seating for 200 brothers and sisters.
“This venue was raided, shut down and sealed off. The authorities came inside and smashed all the equipment. New renovations were also destroyed. The church was closed and bolted from the outside. The believers were devastated.”
Restrictions, pressure, warnings and sometimes, surprise raids. These are all part of Christian life for Chinese Christians in 2020. Pastors and co-workers regularly debate the pros and cons of registering their church with the government, and the risks and consequences they will face if they refuse to register and continue as unregistered house churches.
In some cases, just the fear of persecution can be detrimental. One church had about 100 believers. The pastor of the church was far from prepared for persecution, so even though the authorities didn’t actually come looking for him, on hearing that other churches in the area had been closed, he panicked and let fear overtake him.
Distressed, the pastor told the brothers and sisters what was happening nearby, passing on his fear to them. In less than two months, one third of the congregation had left. A few months later, when we visited them again, we found that another third had “caught the fear” and left.
How Is the Chinese Church Responding?
As far as the authorities are concerned, the fewer churches there are, the better. Fewer churches mean less work for them. From the outset, the government’s goal has always been to cripple the church to where it becomes weak and hidden from the public eye.
To avoid detection and closure, Christians are moving from venue to venue, staying fluid. Many house churches have simply downsized and meet in believer’s homes.
They are in fact living out a well-known Chinese idiom ‘Jiǎo tù sān kū’ (狡兔三窟) or “A crafty hare has three burrows,” which means “To succeed you must have alternative options, especially to escape danger.”
Like a hare with three burrows, the Chinese church is learning once again to downsize, meet “underground,” be versatile, and prepare “escape plans” in the event of a raid.
Caleb shares, “Many house churches are like water in a river. Whenever an obstacle is encountered, they will not fight it with their own flesh. Instead, they would stream past the obstacles and change course, but would still continue to flow towards the big ocean, which is the Great Commission. The ultimate destination never changes. It is just the way we do church is periodically adjusted or modified, to sustain the continuous growth of the kingdom against all odds.
“I would say, most of the churches persevered in these difficult situations without any pushback against the authorities. When big meetings are not allowed, they just meet in small groups. Counter actions to fight back directly are rare. The older leaders and believers who went through decades of persecution were frustrated in the beginning, but they bounce back quickly and stand firm in their faith.
“The younger ones who became Christians in the last ten years or so tend to be more shocked. It will probably take longer for them to get used to the harsh environment and accept this as the new normal in the years to come.”
New Challenges Lead to Awakening
During the years of relative freedom, the church in China started to morph into something new. “Modern” you might say. Or maybe just a copy of western churches. The old passion for God’s presence and power, and the focus on spiritual disciplines, were gradually superseded by other “priorities” like contemporary church management models, building church facilities, and the intellectual pursuit of theological studies.
Caleb says, “Though we continue to see more and more converts added to the church year after year, less persecution and a shallowness of spiritual formation has led to a weakened body of Christ as a whole. Grit and resilience tend to be missing in the spirituality of many leaders and believers who emerged in the last decade or so.”
Most churches have found this wave of persecution difficult because they were not prepared. Many are still scrambling to know how to respond.
As churches downsize to avoid detection, they have to grapple with issues such as a lack of leaders for all the new house churches, the availability of suitable meeting places, small group leadership training, discipleship of small group members, and how to carry out creative, impactful youth work.
It is against this backdrop that Open Doors has moved quickly to strengthen the persecuted church through persecution preparedness training, small group discipleship training, youth ministry and youth leadership training, and presence ministry.
Caleb says, “It is our mission to help the churches rediscover their precious spiritual heritage. We want to see Christians in China stand firm and strong under persecution through God’s grace and power. We want to see a vibrant, persevering church that will not bow to the enemy’s schemes. This is our dream.”
Chinese churches have responded by asking Open Doors to journey with them. They have “woken up” and need help. They want to understand the biblical foundations of persecution, they want training for their pastors in one-one-one and small group discipleship, and support and resources to disciple their youth.
“This is awakening! Thank you so much for this great learning opportunity,” one sister shared after attending training from Open Doors. Her husband had been imprisoned for distributing Bibles in the past, and she had experienced persecution on many occasions. “I used to experience a lot of persecution. While my life has become stable, my spirit has become less alert. This training is very timely. It’s time for us to prepare, as persecution is escalating in different areas in China. I will pass on my learning to other brothers and sisters.”
The Need to Prepare for Persecution
One young pastor who received persecution preparedness training shared that his father’s church was told to register or close down. The authorities added a “sweetener” by saying if they registered, the church would be allowed to continue meeting, as long as they first submitted a name list of all the believers in the church. Finally, the church elders agreed.
But it was a trap.
Using the name list, the authorities immediately targeted the older believers and threatened them, berated them, and forbade them from going back to church. They warned them that if they went back to church the authorities would block their children and grandchildren’s education and future employment prospects.
The older brothers and sisters were trapped and angry. Understandably, the pastors and leaders of the church regretted their decision to register.
When the young pastor shared what he had learned about persecution with the leaders of the church, they said they wished that they had been able to attend the Open Doors training before they had registered – then they would not have given in so easily. And they certainly wouldn’t have agreed to register.
In the end, the young pastor and his co-workers all knelt and prayed together. They recognized the need to spend quality time with the believers in their church to prepare them in how to respond to any future persecution, and to treasure their faith, never give up, and stay committed to the Lord Jesus.
The incident made it clear that many churches in China need help to prepare for the challenges that lie ahead.
Stand with Your Church Family in China
2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist party. Caleb shares, “We anticipate the government will exert even stronger control over all aspects of society for the sake of stability. Local churches will have to stay very low-profile, and be more adaptive and creative in the way they do meetings and ministries.
“For example, discipleship training on a person-to-person or small group basis outside the church premises, will probably gain traction as the days of doing big meetings are long gone. Indeed, it might very well be a blessing in disguise, as people rather than program will, once again, become the focus of the church ministry in China.”
Your prayers and support are helping Open Doors to provide practical training to equip believers in China as they prepare for rising persecution. Peony*, the director of Open Doors work in China, says, “It is vital that we stand with Chinese believers during this difficult season, to encourage them and strengthen their faith.”
One of the ways that we can support our Chinese brothers and sisters is through prayer. Peony says, “I am grateful that people everywhere are willing to pray for the Chinese church. I ask that Christians everywhere pray for the faith of Chinese Christians, that they would be strong and bold. Pray that they would never give up, no matter how tough the persecution. Please pray that Chinese believers live lives worthy of their calling, and that they set a wonderful example for the young ones to follow.
“I also ask that you pray for the Chinese church, that they learn to stand up to persecution, not responding to their persecutors in anger but in Christ’s love, thereby turning their hearts back to the Father.”
*Pseudonyms used for security