When we arrived in China, we had no idea what to expect. Was it OK to bring a Bible into the country? Were there any churches? What if authorities found out we were Christians?
My husband and I moved to China a few years ago so he could take a new job in his company. Since that time we have been blessed to meet many people and have some amazing opportunities. Although we are not part of any missionary organization, we have been privileged to work alongside some people who are.
Let me tell you what we have learned about Christianity and the church in China.
A Church for Expatriates
We were surprised and relieved to find the city we moved to had a church for expatriates (people living outside their home country). What a blessing to attend a church with believers from around the world! The tears rolled down my cheeks as we sang praise and worship songs that we also sang in our church back in the States.
We found it unbelievable we were able to freely worship in China! After attending services for a few weeks, however, we learned the disturbing fact that, while we were allowed to worship freely in our church, Chinese citizens were not allowed to worship with us. The Chinese government placed restrictions on the Expatriate Christian Church. All of our services had to be in English, and only persons holding a valid passport from another country, their spouse, and children could attend.
This saddened us greatly, and so we investigated what worship opportunities were available for Chinese nationals. Could we interact with them?
The Chinese Church
We discovered no clear picture of the church in China and how it works. What the church looks like and how it operates varies greatly from area to area. The larger, more industrialized, modern cities with large numbers of foreigners seem somewhat more open to religious activities than smaller cities with less Western influence. However, pockets exist in some of the small cities and rural areas where the Chinese church is flourishing. It largely depends on what the local government will allow.
Chinese nationals may legally worship in a Protestant church only in one of the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) churches. The “Three Self” stands for self-governing, self-teaching, and self-supporting. The Chinese government is head of these churches and sets guidelines for what can and cannot be taught.
Many Chinese Christians refuse to attend TSPM churches because the government is the head and they believe (and rightly so) that Christ should be the head of the church. Chinese Christians also greatly distrust the government and do not want any restrictions on what can and cannot be taught. This has led to the development of the underground church in China. These churches are illegal because they refuse to register with or come under the authority of the Chinese government.
The Underground Church
The term underground church may bring to mind a small group of people secretly meeting in covert places to worship God. In some cases, this is true because of government persecution. But it isn’t always the case. In fact, there are some very large underground churches with hundreds of people meeting in a relatively open manner.
These churches might better be called unregistered churches. In these areas, government officials still try to pressure members to register their church with the government. But when church members refuse, the churches are still allowed to operate. However, members always run the risk of being picked up and possibly jailed by the police. Most, if not all, of the church members have at least been brought in for questioning by the police.
Because of the uncertainties of the unregistered churches, and the fact that they are illegal, it is risky for a foreigner to attend an unregistered church, especially on a regular basis. To do so draws attention and scrutiny from the government and greatly increases the risk to both the foreigner and the unregistered church members. Some foreigners are willing to take these risks and will train or teach for these churches. But it is a very big risk. While this type of involvement is needed, this avenue is not recommended for the average American or foreigner.
We know of one expatriate church in China where both expatriates and nationals freely worship together. The government is aware of this church and its activities and still allows it to operate. It gives us hope there may be more such churches in the future. But until that time comes, the best place for Americans and other foreigners to be involved in a national church in China is in the TSPM churches
Foreigners are welcome to attend TSPM churches. The services are conducted in Chinese, but some of the churches, especially those in the larger cities, offer headphones that provide an English translation. We have felt very welcome in these churches.
While foreigners are allowed to attend TSPM churches, there are restrictions. Church members are permitted to evangelize only those people who enter the church. Evangelism outside the church is illegal because it is considered “interfering with other’s religious freedom.”
Many of the TSPM churches do not allow foreigners to take an active role. But some others allow foreigners to teach English Bible studies and to work with church staff to put on special programs and performances (Easter, Christmas, etc.).
We even know of cases where the TSPM church and the expatriate church have worked together to put on a carnival in the courtyard of the TSPM church. While illegal to evangelize outside of the church grounds, it was OK to host a large carnival visible to the public to draw people into the church.
If the leadership is willing, there are legal, creative ways to reach people. The kinds of activities allowed, of course, largely depend on the attitude of the church’s leadership and also the government’s minister of religion for the area.
If you go to China, there may or may not be formal teaching opportunities at TSPM churches in your area. But there probably is some way to be involved. And there is always an opportunity to reach out to the nationals on a personal level. You cannot go out and evangelize on the streets. But by developing friendships, we have found that many are hungry to learn more about the Bible and want a deeper understanding of God and the Christian life.