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CHENGDU, China—The spicy smell of mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper permeates the air in Chengdu in southwest China, wafting out of restaurants selling wontons and noodles drenched in red chili oil.
On one busy main street past a fruit stand advertising hand-squeezed orange juice, around the corner from a men’s clothing store blaring Korean pop music, stands an unassuming low-rise office building that now houses one of the most influential house churches in China, Chengdu Early Rain Reformed Church.
On a sunny Sunday, about 700 congregants shuffled into the newly purchased office space that’s been renovated into a spacious church auditorium. Accompanied by a piano and robe-clad choir, young and old sang the hymn “Whiter Than Snow” in Chinese, before listening to a sermon on God’s design for marriage. That afternoon, the church’s singles ministry held a formal debate on whether Christians should allow their parents to set them up with a nonbeliever. The audience of about 100 murmured at each point and counterpoint.
Early Rain does not fit the common assumptions about house churches in China. It meets in a commercial space, not in a home. Its members don’t keep to themselves—and they are not low-key. A quick online search reveals the church’s address and sermon podcasts from Pastor Wang Yi. The weekly bulletin spells out the church’s finances, its meeting times and locations, and its pastors’ phone numbers. The church started a presbytery, a seminary, and a classical Christian school. Next year it plans to open the country’s first Christian liberal arts college. Ministries reach out to the most marginalized in Chinese society—the politically sensitive, the unborn, the orphaned. Early Rain is also the first house church to use legal means successfully to counter government persecution.
Early Rain has its detractors who claim Wang goes too far in pushing the government’s buttons. They say churches should remain faithful within the space the ruling authorities carve out. Yet more urban churches are following in its footsteps: More are renting or even buying office space, reaching out to the community, and applying their faith to social and political problems. More are seeing the need for the structure and accountability brought about by denominations.
Yet as a trailblazing church, Early Rain is in the crosshairs should the government decide to crack down on unregistered churches. The church leaders temper their expectations and plans with the possibility that the government could shut them down at any time. Despite the risks, these bold believers continue the work God has called them to and believe that no church can fall outside the will of the Father.
PASTOR WANG, 42, speaks in a measured tone, peppering his speech with Chinese idioms and references to Reformed theologians. Most Chinese preachers are fiery, but Wang’s quiet intensity reflects his past as a teacher. That’s not to say he minces words: He calls the government-run Three-Self Patriotic Movement church a “movement of the Antichrist.”
Wang grew up with no knowledge of Christianity. He was 29 before he met a Christian believer. Still, as a young man he rejected the materialism inherent in Communism and later became interested in Christianity while studying Western systems of government. Like many Chinese intellectuals in the 1990s, he became a “cultural Christian” who revered the values of Christianity from an academic standpoint but didn’t make a personal confession of faith.
In the early 2000s, the gospel starting spreading from the countryside into urban centers, and these intellectuals started coming to a life-changing knowledge of Christ. Christian democracy activist Yu Jie, a close friend of Wang’s, brought him to his first church service. Yet Wang felt nervous as he watched congregants passionately singing and praying to their heavenly leader. That brought back memories of the leader-worship present in Communism: “Because in the past we worshipped a false god, now we feel scared to worship the real God.”
Over the next few years, God began changing Wang’s mindset. He started defending house churches persecuted by the government and found that these Christians possessed a true freedom that dwarfed his scholarly pursuit of “freedom.” While investigating cases, he attended humble village churches, waking up at dawn for early morning prayer meetings. Slowly, the knowledge of Christianity trickled down to “faith for my life.” A Christian co-worker started meeting weekly with Wang’s wife to study the Bible, and soon a small group formed in his living room. He began to see the cracks in his self-righteous veneer as he realized he was only willing to help others as long as it didn’t inconvenience him. By the end of 2005, Wang professed Christ and was baptized.
THE FELLOWSHIP at Wang’s house grew. As members studied the Bible, read theology, and interacted with overseas churches, they found themselves being more and more influenced by Reformed theology. Wang toyed with the idea of becoming a full-time pastor, yet still felt a draw—perhaps a prideful one, he admits—to continue influencing society as an intellectual.
When a magnitude-7.9 earthquake hit Sichuan in 2008, killing 87,600 persons, Wang’s church suddenly became a receiving center for Christians all across the nation who flooded into Chengdu to provide aid. Wang was in his 10-story apartment building when the quake hit. He watched the buildings around him sway several feet in each direction: “Seeing buildings move, you realize that they aren’t solidly planted … nothing is stable. Life is short, so you need to do the most important and worthwhile things.” Seven months later, Wang quit his job at Chengdu University and became the pastor of Early Rain.
Because of Wang’s past as a human rights advocate, as well as his 2006 meeting with former U.S. President George W. Bush, officials carefully monitored the church. While other churches could easily rent hotel conference rooms for Christmas Eve services, officials claimed Early Rain was holding illegal religious meetings. Early Rain fought back and brought the accusations to court. Before the trial began, officials called Wang and said they had canceled the charge, claiming irregularities in the procedure.
In 2009, officials kicked Early Rain out of its rented building, forcing the church to meet outside by a river for three months. During that time, the church leaders secretly arranged to buy a new office space, which would afford them greater rights. Again the church openly appealed the government’s eviction charges, and again the officials canceled the proceedings. Since then, the government has taken a step back, only detaining Wang during sensitive times such as the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The relative freedom has allowed the church to expand its ministries, including by starting a Chinese classical Christian school.
ABOUT A 40-MINUTE Uber ride away from the Chengdu city center sits a cluster of newly built villas, each identical in its boxy structure and fenced-off courtyards. Inside one of the villas, seven squirmy third-grade students sit at their desks learning how many 2-cent lemons they can buy with 10 cents. On the desk of one student lies a worn and doodle-covered copy of the Small Children’s Catechism in both Chinese and English. When the bell rings to the tune of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” the students rush down to the underground cafeteria where they are joined by other schoolmates—six sixth-graders and 13 ninth-graders.
Covenant Reformed School is a night-and-day difference from the public schools these children left: They learn about China’s Cultural Revolution and other historical events glossed over in the Communist education system. They examine both Western and Chinese classics from a biblical worldview. They learn to think for themselves about how their faith affects the current political and societal problems plaguing China. Covenant is also an unregistered school, meaning students won’t receive an accredited diploma at graduation, and the school could shut down at any time.
Mirro Ren, a 20-year-old student who has attended Covenant since its inception in 2013, says she’s seen a big change in herself and her classmates in the past few years as they’ve stopped regurgitating their teachers’ words and started thinking critically. Ren, who is a few years older than her classmates, pointed to a recent debate the class had about whether time exists in heaven. Students referred to Bible verses, the theory of relativity, and logic, something Ren believes they would not have done two years ago: “Also, we wouldn’t have been able to debate without getting into an argument.”
Covenant headmaster Matthew Su, a thin, bookish father of three, believes these students already have a better understanding of the humanities than most college students—their teachers are often also reading these books for the first time. As a first-generation Christian school, Su says, Covenant is “growing, praying, and repenting of sin” as teachers create a foundation for a thoroughly Chinese classical education.
Churches from around China visit Covenant hoping to replicate the school but struggle to find mature Christian teachers who can teach from a biblical worldview. In response to this great need, last fall Early Rain started a three-year Master of Education program made up of equal parts theology, humanities, and education courses. For those with more immediate needs, Early Rain created a one-year certificate program, half of which can be completed during school breaks.
In the fall of 2017, Early Rain plans to open a Christian liberal arts college, just in time for the first Covenant graduates. With a school, college, master’s program, and seminary, Early Rain would be the first Chinese church to have a complete education system.
‘If you don’t do it, how would you know He didn’t give you this opportunity?’
When Li Yingqiang, the college’s founder, tells other churches about those plans, the main response is bewilderment: How can a house church start a college? Li said Chinese Christians need to rethink their ideas of college: Rather than a large campus, why not start with a few committed teachers and 20 students? Li has considered the possibility that the government may shut down Early Rain even before the college’s doors open, yet “we know that decision is in God’s hands, not the government’s. First you do it, and if you get closed down, maybe it’s because God hasn’t finished preparing you to start the college yet. But if you don’t do it, how would you know He didn’t give you this opportunity?”
EARLY RAIN is also leading in other areas, especially in regard to sensitive sanctity of life issues and care for political petitioners. For the past four years, the church’s pro-life ministry has spoken out against abortion by giving talks at churches, passing out fliers, and launching social media campaigns. The group has helped about 15 mothers facing unplanned pregnancies: Some had abortions, but others gave birth to healthy babies—one of whom the group’s leader, Jonny Fan, had the honor of naming.
Over time, Fan bumped into a conundrum—if the ministry convinces a mother to keep her baby, what happens if the mother can’t care for him or her? Chinese culture views adoption as an unnatural act, although quiet illegal adoptions are becoming more common as a larger percentage of Chinese women become infertile—likely due to the high abortion rate. As Fan studied what the Bible has to say about adoption, he realized adoption is not just a last resort, but “it’s what God is calling us to do.”
So Fan has added a focus on adoption to the group’s mission, and in March he invited an American couple to speak at the church about their experience adopting two Chinese children. With 200 church members in attendance, many felt convicted and eager to learn more about adoption and foster care.
Ministries that reach out to petitioners and the families of political prisoners are even more sensitive, with many church members steering clear out of fear of losing their livelihood or endangering family members. Wang’s stance is that the church doesn’t necessarily support the individual’s cause, but believes that he or she still deserves to know Christ’s love.
In China, “petitioners” are citizens seeking redress for local grievances—and they are a difficult population to work with. Many are farmers who had their homes unlawfully taken from them and are filled with vitriol against the government and the world. Officials see them as rabble-rousers, and others stay away because petitioners are “too much trouble.” Yet every month, Huang Weicai and volunteers from the church put together a petitioners fellowship meeting that features hymn-singing, pastoral messages about God’s love, prayer, and a time for petitioners to tell their stories. In the beginning, the volunteers felt the petitioners were using them as trash cans to unload their problems, and Huang said it was only by God’s strength that they continued the ministry each month. Now Huang says the group is more open to listening to the gospel, and some have even professed faith in Christ.
Working with difficult people facing great injustices, “you begin to lose the hope you once had in the world, and all you can do is place your hope in Jesus,” said the 65-year-old Huang. “Otherwise how do you keep living? In China there are too many things that we could complain about.”
WHEN ASKED ABOUT THE FUTURE of the house church, Wang responded that the next step for the Chinese church is to “know who she is in the context of church history and in relation to Chinese society.” This, he believes, can only happen through the formation of denominations.
Since the expulsion of missionaries from China in 1949, the church has been nondenominational, separated only between government-run churches and unregistered house churches. Some praised the lack of denominations as a quality that made the Chinese church more pure, yet a host of problems cropped up: Cults swayed young believers, pastors spouted false teaching to their congregations, and churches largely kept to themselves.
Wang believes denominations occur naturally, even in China, as each house church adopts its own biblical interpretations and traditions. The next move is to build a system of church governance to keep churches in line and to protect Chinese Christians from heresies. This is a sensitive issue to Chinese authorities, as it would unite disparate churches and create an authority outside of Communist Party control.
In 2013, Wang and Pastor Paul Peng of Enfu Church sought the help of American presbyteries to set up a native presbytery in Chengdu, which has now expanded to four churches in the area. They’re helping churches in other cities start up their own presbyteries as well. When I met with Peng, he had just returned from Shandong province in eastern China, where he gave an elder ordination exam to a group of churches in the process of creating a presbytery. Within the next five to 10 years, Wang expects China to have at least seven presbyteries.
When authorities questioned Peng about Early Rain’s newly formed presbytery, he assured them it would make their jobs easier as the group would root out corruption among church leaders and prevent social unrest. While the officials were likely unconvinced, Peng noted that several nonbelievers attended their elder election meeting, just to see what an organized election looked like.
STEPPING OUT INTO THE OPEN is rife with risk, especially as the climate for religious liberties and freedom of speech continues to chill under President Xi Jinping’s administration. Yet openness allows the church to takes its place as a city on a hill to influence all levels of Chinese society—from the elderly seller of rice porridge, to the lonely pregnant college student, to the top officials in their marbled halls.
Should the government begin a nationwide campaign against house churches, Wang is ready for the worst. Early Rain would be a natural target, he said, because “they would want to crack down on a church that is more influential and open so that everyone knows winter is really coming.” It’s a cost of being a pioneer, but one that he’s willing to pay: “There always has to be someone walking in front to test the waters for others.”
This story has been updated to correct the description of Wang Yi’s position at Chengdu University.
Listen to June Cheng discuss “House church on a hill” on The World and Everything in It.