China and the threat of the church

Sanjiang Church...before it was demolished.
Sanjiang Church…before it was demolished.

Originally published in INContext Ministries’ World In Motion, Issue 99, May 2014.

Photos have emerged on Chinese social networks showing the controversial demolition of a large church in eastern China. This followed weeks of protests by parishioners, who saw the move as indicative of a larger crackdown on churches. Sanjiang church was located in Wenzhou, a coastal city in Zhejiang province that is often referred to as the “Jerusalem of the East” due to its large Christian population, which is for the most part Protestant. Unlike many
underground churches in China, Sanjiang was one of those sanctioned and controlled by the government. (FRANCE24)

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Chairman Mao Zedong, head of the Communist Party of China, started to enforce communism and its ideals on the Chinese people by removing traditional and cultural elements from society. Capitalists were especially disliked by the communist regime. Mass persecution of Christians was widespread as thousands were sent to re-education camps across the country.

In 1949, when the Communist Party took over leadership of the country, the Christian population was fewer than one million. Today, more than one hundred million Chinese (an estimated 10 percent of the population) claim to adhere to Christianity. But the government of China – officially an atheist state – only
recognises registered Christians, a group constituting a small minority within the country.

Demolition underway.
Demolition underway.

The Chinese Church today consists of two distinct parts. Firstly, there is the Three Self Patriotic Movement (named for the focus on self-governance, self-support and self-propagation), a Protestant church formed in 1951. It was banned during the Cultural Revolution but is now the only registered form of Christianity allowed in China. Secondly, there is the vast, unofficial, underground church that was established when believers tried to avoid capture, torture and imprisonment at the hands of Mao’s government.

From a Christian perspective: The demolition of the Sanjiang church in Wenzhou came as an unsettling surprise for the Three Self Movement and the wider Christian community. Until now, the Three Self Movement has been left to operate with relative freedom in the country. But the demolition of the Sanjiang church suggests that the Chinese Christian population is still seen as a threat to the government, even those who are registered and monitored.

Sources from within China have also confirmed that that on 8 May, ten church buildings were torn down by the Chinese government, with the notice “forbidden to have religious meetings” placed on the ruins.

Two hundred Christians have also been arrested in recent weeks. A member of the underground church movement likened the situation to that of the 60s and 70s, and believes that things could get worse.

In spite of the intense political oppression, the growth of the Chinese Church has no parallel in history, from 2.7 million in 1975 to over 75 million in 2010, and an estimated 130 million by 2015. Western scholars have, however, claimed that the revival in China has finally come to an end, as a new generation of believers are more apt to compromise with western liberties and a corrupt prosperity theology that has infiltrated the church.

The survival and growth of the Church in China is one of the most decisive and important phenomena impacting the global Church of our generation. After many decades of receiving countless international Christian mission workers, China is now positioned to become one of the greatest ’sending’ nations, second only to the United States.
On 13 March 2011, Chinese Church leaders signed an agreement with mission leaders in the Gulf region who would accept, mentor and disciple missionaries sent from China to the Muslim world. This was part of a new movement known as ‘China to the World’ – a small and secret event with potentially massive consequences.

Chinese Christians, having been persecuted for generations, know no other kind of Christianity. And now they are utilising the lessons learnt through this persecution as training for living in other persecuted countries. The recent demolition of the churches and the arrests of believers suggest that the trouble is not over for the Church in China, but praise God that the movement of the Gospel beyond China’s borders has already begun, and that Chinese Church leaders have expressed their commitment to staying strong, regardless of what is come.

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