The church in China, like China itself, is complicated. Western missionaries laid much of the foundation for today’s church over 150 years ago. Recent growth in Christianity began and spread from the countryside. Various sources estimate there are between 80 and 140 million Christians in China today, owing largely to a period of explosive growth beginning shortly after the death of Chairman Mao.
China is a very performance driven environment. Purely unconditional love is an alien idea and often interpreted as being selfish. Understanding that God has made us in His image and thus relational, we have an inbred desire for unconditional love and acceptance. This is not to say that Chinese people do not love … they do! But rather love’s expression is often conditioned upon performance and compliance. This idea is quite foreign to the Western mind, but is quite prominent to the Eastern mind. As such, always trying to seek parental approval and not always measuring up leaves a hole in people’s hearts that Christ’s unconditional and freely given love fills. Chinese people, in general, do not struggle with the idea of being sinful. In fact they are often overly self-critical. The idea of one who unconditionally accepts them, forgives them, and loves them is an overwhelming emotion. This catalyzes their journey to faith and creates a great desire to share this amazing gift!!
When considering church planting and evangelism, the final clause of Acts 2:47 comes to mind: “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” Christ’s sovereign commitment to grow His church is being carried out in two primary ways in China. The first derives from China’s cultural make-up, the second from political and physical restrictions. These two factors stated, the catalyst for people coming to faith is their search for unconditional love and meaning in their lives.
Unlike the West, China does not have formal church planting programs – they just do it! China’s believers are natural church planters because they are natural evangelists, wanting to share the unconditional love they have discovered. Chinese society places a strong emphasis on the family. As a result, when one family member comes to faith, they immediately and enthusiastically share their faith with their extended families. In urban environments, the “family” extends to include colleagues and college classmates. Frequently over 50% of these family members will come to faith. When this happens, they have the nucleus of a new house church – and it gets “planted.” If not this outcome, the new believers are faithful to keep sharing and many will come to faith over an extended period of time. In the meantime, these new believers will join an existing house church and start growing in their faith. As a result the existing house church network organically grows from the family nucleus or the “adding to” of existing churches resulting in new plants when they reach physical size barriers.
The second factor fueling growth is political and physical restrictions – which are interdependent. The Church in China and the government co-exist in an uneasy symbiosis. Neither side wishes to intentionally antagonize the other resulting in confrontation. One of the practical ways this plays out is by not getting “too big” in any one location. This, coupled with the physical limitations of a house church (the houses are small) naturally leads the church to plant new churches. In the countryside this happens in the 75-125 person range and in the city at 50-75 people. In this way, the house churches do not antagonize the government and the government largely leaves them alone. As well, issues associated with shepherding groups larger than this size with lay-leadership factors into their church planting.
As is the case, nationals will always be more productive, cost effective, and efficient at reaching nationals. This is THE challenge in China today. Not church planting, not to encourage them to be evangelistic or missions oriented beyond their borders, and not to create more formalized church structures like we have in the West. In fact, the West can learn a great deal about church growth from China! Rather, and simply stated, China needs to develop and equip a generation of church leaders with the tools to lead and shepherd their fellowships – and this is nothing short of a God-sized undertaking.