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Growing pains, great gains

God is granting massive growth to the church in China, but with it come great challenges. Mature Chinese Christians are finding ways to counter heresies, rampant abortion, and state-school indoctrination

Growing pains, great gains

An elderly Christian looks up John 3:16 with his magnifying glass. (Jimmy Lam/Redux)

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Church leaders baptize a new Christian at a Beijing house church.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

People sing during a prayer service at an underground independent Protestant church in Beijing.

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A Chinese pastor (left) prays before communion at an underground church in Beijing.

Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

A Bible used at an underground church.

Photo by June Cheng

Children at an unregistered school.

NORTHERN and EASTERN CHINA—In a Christian bookstore, customers flip through books over an espresso, purchase totes with 1 John 4:12 printed on their sides, and meet for Bible studies. Nothing surprising about that—except that His Light Books & Coffee sits in a Beijing-outskirts shopping plaza, where poplar tree pollen swirls and drifts like snow.

In a modest hotel in East China, banquet rooms hold a wedding reception and a sales meeting with a motivational speaker. Nothing surprising about that—but in another room a pastor is baptizing 12 men and women in white robes at the conclusion of a three-day training conference.

Christianity continues to surge throughout China. Professors, lawyers, even police officers are professing Christ in the Communist nation. As long as unregistered house churches stay small and keep away from foreigners and making loud statements, the government leaves them unmolested.

Christians are not only worshipping on Sunday but making their presence known throughout the week in ways large and small: In a Christian-owned, Hebei province restaurant known for its dumplings, each private dining room has a different Bible verse taped to the back of the door.

Yet this ever-expanding group of first-generation Christians is facing the growing pains of maturing in a society that has erased God from the public sphere for more than half a century. After professing Christ, many young believers don’t know how to discern between truth and lies. Deep-seated attitudes developed by a lifetime of Communist propaganda and atheist education are difficult to shake. The legal illegitimacy of house churches slows down discipleship: In some, pastors abort their babies, marriages split, children leave the church, and cults cajole the gullible.

And yet, the good news about the Good News is that creative believers are finding ways to fight sinful tendencies. I traveled in many parts of China during April and saw where the church is heading in three crucial areas: theology, sanctity of life, and education. (China’s government has often imprisoned Christians and critics of rampant abortion. We have changed the names of persons in this story to protect their security.)

SMOKE CURLED UP INTO THE NIGHT SKY from the table-top charcoal grills laden with lamb skewers as a dozen 20-somethings from a local church in Eastern China chatted and laughed. Amid the group sat David Chen, a friendly 26-year-old with dark-rimmed glasses who currently leads a small group at his church. Yet not long ago, Chen hated churches and cursed pastors.

Chen professed belief in Christ when he was younger and attended about four or five different house churches in his area, but still struggled with his inner demons. Although he had grown up an optimistic boy, his family fell into debt and pressures piled on. He contemplated killing others and committing suicide. At church he felt the preachers touched on outward behavior rather than issues of the heart—“throughout the whole service, they didn’t give people a real answer.” He felt disillusioned as he watched the happy churchgoers return to their problems as soon as the service ended.

One night, he noticed his dad watching the sermon of a Singaporean Chinese church online. Listening in, he found a clear explanation of the gospel that didn’t paper over his problems but cut to his heart—“this message is real, this is from God,” he thought. From then on, he started following Pastor Joseph Su online and joined the church’s local church plant in his city. He’s been at the church for a year now.

Chen is not unusual, Su told me: Traveling around China, he has met many like Chen who profess Christ but don’t see how the gospel affects everyday life. Many came to Christ after feeling disillusioned from all they’ve experienced—the corruption and materialism of society, the failure of Communism, the destruction of families from the one-child policy. They need shepherding to rebuild their worldview through God’s Word.

“You will see spiritually hungry people in China, but you always have to ask the question: Do you see really rooted Christians?” Su asked. “The gospel doesn’t just come as an impact … but it must transform your mind, it must change your thinking, change your perspective. … And you realize that it is very weak over here.”

As Communists who grabbed power in 1949 drove out foreign missionaries and tore down denominations, Christians scattered into secrecy. Without open communication with other believers and denominations to uphold cardinal truths, many Christians were prey for cults and heresies. Most cults in China claim to be offshoots of Christianity: Among them is the dangerous Eastern Lightning cult, which claims Jesus will return as a Chinese woman from Henan. Currently in China, at least five persons claim to be the reincarnated Christ.

Many Chinese Christians sift through the internet for sermons: Some encounter the true gospel, but others embrace false doctrines such as the prosperity gospel. So as Su visits and preaches to the mainland church plants four times a year, he’s careful to redefine basic terms and chide those who try to determine God’s will based on their feelings: “Can’t Satan also give you peace?”

I listened on an April afternoon as about 100 local believers filled the hotel banquet room to hear him speak, while the rowdy party two doors down left streaks of vomit along the hallway and in the bathroom sink. After every session Christians sought him out with their personal dilemmas—what to do with the unbelieving husband, the estranged children, the incurable sickness? As he spoke with them one by one, he also reminded them that he won’t be coming back forever: His goal is to disciple local leaders so that they can take care of their congregants’ problems and he can reach other areas.

So far, those who found Su’s messages online and craved authentic teaching have founded a dozen churches. He wants them not to sugarcoat their words: “Unless the gospel you preach is really significant and draws the line between life and death, then you’re not going to create much impact [on Chinese people].”

WHEN RUTH JIANG first professed Christ in the 1980s, the issue wasn’t too many different teachings but rather too little teaching: All her rural house church possessed was the book of Luke—yet the 30 attendees committed the text to memory and returned to their hometowns to evangelize—and eventually created one of the five major house church networks in China. It now includes millions of believers.

Wearing a green padded jacket and bifocals, the septuagenarian Jiang has the demeanor of a sweet grandmother, but she offers fiery lessons about God’s wrath against idolatry. She and others her age faced persecution, imprisonment, and government surveillance, yet when asked to name the house churches’ biggest challenge these days, she answered without hesitation: abortion.

“We always knew abortion is murder, but we never looked at it in such depth,” Jiang said after attending a pro-life training course. “This is something the church needs to hear. This is a bigger deal than we thought.”

The top leaders of the house church network—many are middle-aged women—gathered in a hard-to-find building on the outskirts of a city in Northern China. There they learned about Bible passages on the value of human life and the sin of murdering the innocent. They then watched a graphic video of what an abortion does to the baby. As the images of severed arms flashed on screen, women covered their mouths, sobbing and wailing as they cried out to God. The speaker asked those who have had abortions to stand up: 70 percent did.

In a blue sweater and hair pulled back in a ponytail, Esther Peng clutched her hands to her heart as tears streamed down her face at the thought of her own abortion. Family-planning officials had forcibly aborted her mother-in-law’s child at eight months, an event that left the woman emotionally scarred. When Peng found herself pregnant with her second child she immediately got an abortion, fearing that otherwise she would fare the same as her mother-in-law.

Peng professed faith in Christ 15 years ago and asked God for forgiveness for her abortion. She always felt that government policy gave her no choice, but while watching the video she sobbed. She told me she should have paid any price to keep the baby, even if it meant losing her job or her home: “I kept thinking, ‘What if that baby was going to be used greatly by God?’”

The second half of the training focused on the forgiveness found in Christ for all sins, including abortion, and practical steps churches could take to protect life. Armed with teaching materials and strong convictions, leaders returned to their homes to in turn teach the pro-life message to the pastors under their care. Pastors would then share the message with their congregants and give them DVDs to share with friends. In total, conference attendees hoped they could reach 8 million persons.

When Jiang and Peng returned home, they arranged for an extra day to be added to their monthly Bible training on the book of Exodus. Women craned their necks to read about the stages of fetal development, exclaiming “Wah!” and “Aiya!” as they realized heartbeats begin at six weeks gestation.

Holding a three-month fetal model in her hand, Peng asked the women how old they thought it was. Answers ranged from 3 to 8 months: Although most of the women have had both children and abortions, they had never learned what the baby developing inside of them looked like.

Peng said the government no longer performs forced abortions but propaganda works to convince couples they cannot afford to have more than one child. Even among the crowd of pastors, economic pressure was a major reason they noted for having an abortion. “How many children did your parents have?” she asked. “Six! Eight!” shouted the pastors. “And weren’t they much poorer than we are today? And we all survived, didn’t we?” The crowd murmured in agreement. “It’s not because we can’t afford it,” Peng continued. “It’s because we don’t want the baby to affect our lifestyle.”

Jiang pointed to the problems within the church as a result of Christians displeasing God by destroying the life He dearly loves: “We are saving people while killing our own children. If we don’t repent, our churches can’t bless others. If we repent, joy will fill us because we are already saved.”

THE ONE-CHILD POLICY has also hurt those who survived. With constant attention from their parents and two sets of grandparents, many children grow up spoiled and selfish, while bearing the enormous pressure of making their parents proud.

James Smith, an American pastor of a local house church in China, said he’s seen 5-year-olds who couldn’t feed themselves because they’ve been spoon-fed every meal. Parents who need to work send their kids off to their grandparents, who are even less likely to discipline them. Smith often preaches on the importance of family at his Mandarin-speaking church. He travels the country to speak on discipline, counsel families, and sell his book on childrearing: It comes with a wooden paddle for spanking children.

Many Chinese Christian parents worry about the influences their children encounter once they enter school. Schools are often super-competitive environments as millions of students vie for coveted spots at top colleges. Christian parents are concerned about Communist propaganda and atheist teaching in schools, as well as the negative influences of other students.

For the past 10 years churches, concerned Christian parents, and Christian educators have created alternative schools, mostly without legal registration. Hundreds of church-run schools, Christian schools, and homeschool co-ops dot the country, yet the lack of standards means they vary greatly in quality.

About five years ago, parents at Smith’s church started pulling their kids out of public school in order to homeschool them. Yet homeschooling was difficult as very few Chinese Christian resources exist and most of the parents couldn’t use English-language curricula. Seeing the great need, Smith decided to start a school at the church: Three years later it has 40 students from elementary to high-school age.

On a recent Monday morning, prospective parents and their young children arrived at the (literally) underground church school. Before beginning the tour, Smith stressed the big decision these parents would need to make in sending their kids to this school—once they started attending the unregistered school, they wouldn’t be allowed back in the public school system and could not attend college in China. Still, hundreds of parents are vying for the four open spots next semester.

Dividers split the auditorium into smaller classrooms. In one corner, four headphone-wearing students watched a DVD from the Christian curriculum A Beka Academy. A young American teacher sat with fourth-grade girls reading Anne of Green Gables. The noise level could be distracting as the English class competed with Bible lessons in Chinese from across the room.

As for the risks the parents take for sending their kids to an unregistered school, most of the parents I spoke to planned on sending their kids overseas or hoped that the government would loosen its policy by the time they graduate. Two or three churches have also started their own colleges, but the lack of expertise in this area makes growth difficult.

The father of a 6-year-old boy on the school tour said he leads a church in his home and is eager to send his son to this school if he has the opportunity: “We want our kid to grow up in a place where the Christian faith is emphasized,” he said. While he knows that he can’t guarantee his son’s salvation, he believes that having a solid foundation in Christ can bring him back during the wayward teenage years. “But under the Chinese school system, it would be more difficult to say.”

GOD CONTINUES TO BRING explosive growth to Chinese churches, but He doesn’t wave a magic wand so that growth is without problems. Still, the testimonies I heard during this most recent trip were extraordinary. One former high-ranking Beijing police official known for brutality came to Christ after he was healed from a life-threatening illness. A business owner stopped offering bribes. A woman who had taught Mao’s Little Red Book in schools now wakes up early to read her little black Bible. God’s beat goes on.

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.


  • BradinDenver
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:21 pm

    Thanks for the reminder of the high stakes issues our brothers and sister face inside China with courage, resourcefulness and faith.

  • kmefam01
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:21 pm

    Isn't it dangerous to be posting these pictures of people in the underground church?