“Greetings to the church of America, our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are part of you in the body of Christ, just as you are part of us. Though we are of different ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, and at different stages of spiritual growth, the Gospel levels and unites us. Thus, we long for your prayers for the church of China. But it is not just for China. It is for Christ and his kingdom that you pray for us.”
– a Presbyterian house church pastor in China
Now is an intense and a hopeful time for the church in China. During the past 40 years, Christianity has grown rapidly in the country; scholars estimate that by 2050, nearly 15% of the population will identify as Christian. Yet if these predictions are accurate, the church’s growth likely will happen against a backdrop of persecution.
Though the country is long past the slogans of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s “Little Red Book,” the church is entering what may already be the most serious time of persecution since the 1970s. Since the central government implemented new religious regulations at the beginning of 2018, authorities have closed some prominent house churches and initiated smaller, softer attacks on less-well-known churches.
The most notorious attack of the past year has been on Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. Its pastor, Wang Yi, a prolific writer and poet, is an important voice in the house church movement. He has been outspoken regarding his theology of the eschatological nature of the church in the city and of the importance for the church’s submission to Christ alone.
In December 2018, Wang Yi, his wife, the elders and deacons of Early Rain, and hundreds of church members were detained and arrested. The church’s property was almost entirely destroyed, including the sanctuary — where more than 500 members worshipped each week — the adjacent seminary, and the library that housed hundreds of translated theological works.
Since their arrests, Wang Yi and his wife have been held in criminal detention, and their 12-year-old son has been placed under house arrest with his grandmother. Members of Early Rain still endure harassment.
Though China may feel a world away, pastors such as Wang Yi and churches such as Early Rain have more similarities with us than we may think. Wang Yi is an ordained Presbyterian minister, and Early Rain belongs to a Chinese Presbyterian movement. Multiple networks of Reformed churches are now spread across China, many of which have adopted “The Book of Church Order,” which has been translated into Mandarin and contextualized for the local realities and commitments of the traditional house church. Wang Yi and his congregation, along with hundreds of thousands of others, are our spiritual siblings who share our particular ecclesiological commitments.
Bryan Chapell, Julius Kim, Paul Tripp, John Piper, and Tim Keller have all assisted with training house-church pastors and speaking at large conferences. Dozens of other teaching elders, seminary professors, and women in ministry have worked to help provide materials, expertise, and training to leaders of China’s urban house churches on topics ranging from gospel renewal and Christ-centered preaching to Christian education and women in the church.
These American leaders are witnessing the suffering of those who have become their friends and co-laborers in the gospel. Even for Chinese Christians who do not experience the intense persecution that Wang Yi and Early Rain have faced, the pressures are rising. As partners in the gospel of Christ, how can we increase our support for our brothers and sisters in China?
We offer three practical suggestions that keep in mind the changing nature of China, missions, and the global church.
Pray for the house churches in China.
This is the first thing Chinese pastors ask of their brothers and sisters in Christ in the West. Prayer is an active response to the suffering and needs of your brothers and sisters in Christ. According to Scripture, prayer is not passive: it is the frontline of the spiritual battle in which the whole church is engaged. Through prayer, you actively stand with China before the throne of God.
Pay for Chinese government leaders to govern justly and righteously, because God will hold them accountable for their actions. Pray that these trials will refine and strengthen the churches in China and that our sisters and brothers there will have strength and courage to stand firm under increasing pressure. Pray that believers in China will count the cost and make adequate preparation to face this battle. Most importantly, we should pray that Christ will be lifted up and glorified as house churches in China walk the way of the cross.
As churches in China continue to mature, the relationship between Western churches and Chinese churches will transition into mutuality. The public nature of how our Chinese brethren are suffering is lighting such a candle in the world that shall never be put out. Let their faith and perseverance light up the fire in your own heart. In a time when every American election causes many to fear about Christians’ right to exist, every Supreme Court confirmation battle seems to be a fight over our nation’s soul, and every legal setback seems to be a slippery slope toward full-blown persecution, perhaps there is no better time for believers in America to humble ourselves and learn from those familiar with the marginalization of the church — our brothers and sisters in China.
Organizations like China Partnership are working to translate and publish content written by Chinese pastors. Western believers have much to learn from the resilience and humility of Chinese believers walk the way of the cross, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41) because they trust that their suffering only brings them closer to the cross of our Lord. We have much to learn from their devotion to “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
Despite raids by police and threats of arrest, house churches continue to gather and preach and pray every Sunday. Their devotion to these spiritual disciplines is preparing their bodies and souls for whatever is to come. If we were placed in their situation, would our spiritual disciplines give us the resilience to endure this kind of suffering? Would our ecclesiology be strong enough to unite our members through trial? Even as we offer significant support, service, and encouragement to the Chinese church, these churches have much they in turn can and do offer to us.
We must remember our unity with our brothers and sisters in China. “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Corinthians 12:26). We are one body with the house churches in China. Their suffering should jolt us out of our complacency and comfort.
Take some time to learn about what is happening in China. Write letters to local churches in China to encourage our brothers and sisters that they are not alone. Host prayer events at your church to pray for China. Travel to Malaysia with a team from your church to attend the next convention of urban, Reformed house churches as an international guest. Give financially to support the work among Chinese house churches. You can contact organizations like China Partnership to learn more about any of these opportunities to serve your brothers and sisters in China.
We have much to learn from their faith in the unseen. The saints of the past all “died in faith, not having received the things promised” (Hebrews 11:13). In their trials, our Chinese brothers and sisters are showing us what is most important to them. They seek a homeland, they desire a better country — a heavenly one — and they look forward to the city with a foundation designed and built by God. All China’s recent prosperity and wealth cannot capture their hearts.
Westerners may not face such national persecution, but we may be even more enslaved by worldliness. So then, as Hebrews says, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
Ryan Zhang moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China, at age 12 and calls Cincinnati, Ohio, his American hometown. Ryan received his master of divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained teaching elder in the PCA. He lives with his wife and children in Cincinnati and serves as an assistant pastor at New City Presbyterian Church.
Hannah Nation first traveled to China in 2005 while a Covenant College student. She later served with Mission to the World and worked with Chinese scholars in a variety of capacities both in China and the United States for nearly a decade. She completed a master of arts degree in church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and daughters. Hannah is a member of Christ the King Presbyterian Church (PCA) and writes frequently for various platforms.