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What comes to mind when you hear the term “house church”? Perhaps you visualize a dozen believers secretly gathered in an apartment, singing hymns a cappella, listening to a short sermon, sharing a meal, and then going off their separate ways.
Yet in China, the term house church is sometimes a misnomer: “House church” refers to any church outside of the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), regardless of its size or whether it actually meets in a house. In Chinese, they are called jiating jiaohui, or “family church,” more for their lineage than for their current reality. Especially during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, Christians had to worship secretly in homes or face persecution. By the grace of God, Christians persevered in their faith and the church grew as they evangelized to others in desperate need of hope.
Today, house churches look different. While some house churches remain inside living rooms, others rent office buildings, conference rooms, banquet halls, or even buy their own church building. I’ve written about Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu, which has defied the conventional ideas about house churches not just by its size (with hundreds of congregants), but by its expansive ministries and openness. It’s been incredible how much Early Rain has been able to accomplish, despite the government’s recent, tightening control over religious groups.
On Monday, Pastor Wang Yi and other church leaders went to the local police station to submit legal complaints about the persecution they faced on May 12 for putting on a memorial service to commemorate the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. When police refused to engage with them, they stood outside the station holding signs that read, “God loves the world” and “We don’t harbor resentment.” Police confiscated the leaders’ cell phones and detained the eight of them.
Later on, church members gathered outside the station, sang the hymn “The Cross Is Our Glory,” and inquired about their leaders’ whereabouts—which led to more arrests. According to the church’s Facebook page, they faced beatings and threats in detention. At 2 a.m., police finally released all 19 believers, including Wang.
Another example of a congregation that defies the conventional view of house churches is Beijing’s Zion Church, which holds six services each week with a total of 1,600 congregants. The church meets on the third floor of an office building with a spacious sanctuary, a giant screen behind the pulpit, a modern worship band, and a multimedia team. To one side is a coffee shop and bookstore where congregants browse theology books and chat with friends as they sip iced coffee. At the end of each service, ushers hand newcomers a red carnation and invite them to an informational meeting to learn more about the church and its ministries.
Headed by Pastor Ezra Jin, an ethnically Korean citizen of China, Zion has been around since 2007, and has been largely been left alone by the Chinese government until recently: Last August, the government successfully pressured the church’s landlord to kick Zion out of its meeting space, although the church had signed a 10-year lease and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovations. The government also tried to install surveillance cameras inside the church sanctuary, which Jin refused to allow. (I will write a story on the persecution of Zion Church in a future issue of WORLD.)
For now, church services, Bible studies, Sunday school classes, small groups, prayer meetings, seminary classes—essentially all aspects of church life—continue as normal at Zion and Early Rain. These two house churches are changing the description of what a house church can look like, and so they’re facing the brunt of government pressure, along with other areas with large Christian populations, like Zhejiang, Henan, and Anhui provinces.