In a vast concert hall at the upscale Century Theatre in Beijing, a June 11 celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party came from a striking source: leaders of Chinese churches.
Officials from the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the China Christian Council (CCC) organized the celebration and concert for more than 1,700 Chinese pastors, lay leaders, and government officials. The pair of government agencies oversees China's countrywide network of registered churches-the only churches legally recognized by the Chinese government.
Standing in front of a giant red flag dotted with white doves, TSPM official Cai Kui summarized church-state relations: "In the past 90 years, the Chinese Communist Party . . . has never stopped caring about and helping Chinese Christianity."
Across town, a few dozen members of Beijing's largest unregistered church were preparing for the prospect of arrest. Christians from Shouwang Church-a Beijing house church with nearly 1,000 members-were facing their ninth Sunday of attempting to worship outdoors. (Church leaders called the outdoor meetings in April after they said government officials blocked access to the church's indoor facility.)
By the next morning, police detained at least 14 men and women approaching the outdoor plaza for worship. Officers released the church members by midnight, but the pattern continued: By mid-July, police arrested at least 400 Shouwang members attempting to worship outdoors. Dozens remained under informal house arrest, blocked from leaving their homes on Sunday mornings (see "Counting the cost," May 7, 2011).
The conflict represents an unprecedented challenge by Chinese Christians to Chinese officials, and neither side shows signs of relenting. But the showdown highlights another element in the complicated dynamic for Christians in China: the pressure to officially register churches that will operate under government rule.
Shouwang leaders have refused to register and join the TSPM network, citing objections to government oversight of the church. In late June, Shouwang leaders reported that TSPM representatives arrived at detention centers and asked church members to leave the church or abandon outdoor worship.
That prompted at least one U.S.-based evangelical group to call for a boycott of TSPM activities-particularly a TSPM-sponsored Bible exhibit coming this fall to four U.S. locations, including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte, N.C.
But other evangelical groups say the complicated dynamic in China requires a more realistic outlook: They say officially registered churches include genuine believers who often need as much support as Christians in churches that remain officially illegal.
The Three-Self movement began shortly after the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949. The government-initiated effort promoted the idea of churches pursuing three "selfs": self-government, self-support, and self-propagation. But Communist officials-who also insisted that churches cut ties with foreign missionaries-maintained control over the TSPM leadership.
Though government officials now allow some foreign mission work, they still oversee the TSPM and require that churches register with the government and join the TSPM network. Reports vary on what that oversight means: Some foreign workers say that pastors in some registered churches freely preach biblical Christianity. In other regions, they say that the government restricts activities like Sunday school and outdoor evangelism.
The TSPM constitution makes clear the group's goal is to foster patriotism and devotion to China: "The aim of this organization is to lead Christians to love the nation and the church . . . and enable the church to adapt to the socialist society." The group's first duty: "Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Government, to unite all Chinese Christians to deeply love our socialist homeland and abide by its Constitution, laws, regulations and policies."
Many congregations, like Shouwang, refuse to register, objecting to government oversight. In a June 14 open letter, Shouwang leaders wrote that the congregation is "a house church that exalts only Jesus Christ as Lord: regardless of whether it is today or some time in the future, [we will] never join any non-church government entity."
Other Chinese churches have joined the TSPM network, and some evangelical groups have worked with the registered churches: They say those churches include genuine believers with many of the same needs as Christians in unregistered congregations, including a dire need for seminary-trained leadership.
The Outreach Foundation-a Tennessee-based group that connects Presbyterian churches to foreign mission projects-works with registered churches in five Chinese provinces. The group helps with Bible schools and seminaries, provides scholarships and books for seminary students, and conducts a week-long English camp for church leaders.
Jeff Ritchie, associate director for mission, says working with registered churches has allowed the group to operate openly in the country. And he says the teaching he's heard in registered churches is "very orthodox. . . . Even more so than some of our own American Christians."
First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Wilmington, N.C., has worked with Ritchie's group, but pastor Ernie Thompson says the church first started a mission in Jiangyin, China, in 1897. The congregation closed the mission in 1951 under pressure from the newly empowered Communist government. More than 50 years later, an opportunity arose to construct a pastor's training center for registered churches in the same area. Thompson's congregation helped underwrite the project, along with other American churches.
According to a translated version of a Chinese news article celebrating the opening of the training center, the local Chinese "director for all recorded speech" said he hoped the center would help the registered church "become a model of patriotism, to build a harmonious society and promote economic development in Jiangyin City." Another Chinese news article said the center offered "office space" for TSPM.
And the project wasn't without problems: When the church sent delegates to China one year later, Thompson said they learned that the Chinese government had "rezoned" the new training center's property to use for other purposes. "The government has compensated the church there by providing property at the new site where the new church and training center will be built," Thompson said. He wasn't sure whether the government would pay for the new building.
Still, Thompson said his church is committed to continuing the work: "It looks to us as if there are good, faithful Christians working in both the registered and the unregistered churches."
The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), a New York--based network of Christian organizations and denominations that includes Wycliffe Bible Translators, World Reformed Fellowship, and the Presbyterian Church in America, began meeting with registered church leaders in China in 2008.
Sylvia Soon of WEA says the effort has involved developing relationships with TSPM leaders, discussing needs, and voicing concerns. (Soon says the WEA doesn't fund projects in China, but connects church leaders to Christian organizations that might be able to help.)
Soon declined to describe the concerns that WEA has raised with TSPM leaders, saying the talks are private, but she says that the organization has expressed its support for unregistered churches. And she says the group also supports registered churches that preach the gospel: "With the official church in China, the believers there are no less our brothers and sisters than the unregistered churches."
Critics of TSPM acknowledge that some registered churches preach orthodox Christianity. David Aikman, a 23-year veteran Time magazine correspondent who for three years served as Beijing bureau chief, says some registered churches are evangelical. But Aikman, who wrote Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Regnery, 2003), said, "It's quite intolerable and inexcusable" for evangelical groups to support TSPM activities. Aikman cites as recent evidence of longstanding oppression the July report from Shouwang Church leaders showing that TSPM representatives arrived at detention centers to pressure church members to stop meeting.
The Shouwang leaders wrote: "Three-Self church personnel showed up at many police stations to persuade, 'educate' and even rebuke the imprisoned brothers and sisters in an attempt to get them to leave Shouwang Church and join one of the Three-Self churches or to ask us to unconditionally abandon our outdoor worship."
That report led ChinaAid, a U.S. advocacy group, to call for a boycott of TSPM activities, including the Bible exhibit scheduled for its U.S. tour starting in September with stops in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Dallas, and Charlotte-where it will be hosted at the headquarters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). A spokesman for BGEA said the ministry's representatives working on the exhibit weren't available for comment.
At the Beijing celebration of the Communist Party's anniversary, TSPM leader Cai Kui said the registered churches' vision is to "adhere to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party as we always have, adhere to serving the overall interests of the Party and the government, adhere to the policy of independence and autonomy in religion, adhere to being of one heart with and on the same path as the Party . . . then we will certainly create a more brilliant tomorrow for China."
Shouwang Church leaders don't share that vision and say they will continue to insist on the right to meet at the indoor location they purchased over a year ago, saying that worship is the most important part of the Christian life. And though the church insists its goals aren't political, Aikman says the conflict has drawn a clear line: "This is the first bona fide civil rights movement in China since the Communist Party came to power in 1949."
-with reporting by Emily Belz
The choice of Esther for Sunday sermons [transmitted to members online] during the period of outdoor worship is symbolic. Prior to being forced out of the previous rented premises in early April, Shouwang's Sunday sermons had been around the Acts of the Apostles for a few months. That is about the beginning and expansion of the Christian church. And Shouwang was planning to plant churches in other parts of the city or the country.
The book of Esther tells a story of how God delivered the Jewish people from a genocide in Persia plotted by the empire's highest official. The immediate reason for the plot was that a Jew in the Persian capital refused to kneel down and pay honor to the highest official.
In the case of Shouwang, the issue of worship place is a reflection of a deeper struggle over the legality of the non-state-owned church in China. The government under the atheist Communist rule of course does not want any independent religious organization to exist and expand.
But more than 30 years after [economic] reform was put in place, it looks impossible for the authority to control everything. It has considerably shifted its ground on the economy, having to allow non-state-owned companies to exist and expand. Now, it is increasingly faced with the continued rise of the non-state-owned churches, which it has long considered belong only to "the Western culture."
A few weeks or months might be still too short to solve the decades-old problem. As a matter of fact, there have been different opinions about the Shouwang governing committee's decision to worship outdoors even within the house church. Some people held that the church could worship as separate groups indoors (since Shouwang currently has dozens of family Bible study groups and fellowships) and some others warned that it was too sensitive to hold outdoor services at present when what was called "Jasmine Revolution" was spreading from North Africa to Asia.
On May 31, the Shouwang governing committee sent emails to church members announcing Pastor Song Jun, Minister Jiang Lijin, Deacons Ji Cheng and Yuan Yansong left Shouwang Church due to disagreements over outdoor worship. For more than once, the Shouwang governing committee has issued open messages explaining the outdoor worship decision. In a letter, it said, "We ask the Lord to preserve the unity of our church, that despite of our different viewpoints, we may still be able to submit to and bear with one another."
As for how long the outdoor worship will last, Shouwang Church said that if the problem of worship place could not be solved, they would continue to worship outdoors until Christmas 2011. They would reassess the situation and devise new plans for the coming year. That means Shouwang seems to have been prepared for a longer road ahead. In the history of the Christian church, a year or even a decade would not be a long time. But the next few months or even the next few weeks might witness another turning point for the church in a country whose ancient name is, surprisingly, "God's Land."
-Promise Hsu is the English pen name for a writer who has been a member of Shouwang Church since 2006