The Chinese church that I visited this morning stuck out like a sore thumb amidst a bustling marketplace. It was a large four-story building, almost completely pink in color, and the golden cross on top could be seen throughout the area. A woman who appeared to be in her mid-fifties greeted us (myself and some friends) and directed us to ascend to the third floor, where a service was just about to begin. I had a quick chance to have a look around the church and encountered a number of small rooms where choirs were rehearsing and the elderly and disabled were gathered in front of TV monitors. All around us, Chinese men and women of all ages passed by as they went into nearby rooms or entered the stairwell.
When we entered the sanctuary on the third floor, the room was already filling up fast. To my surprise, men and women were being directed to sit in different parts of the sanctuary. In the middle of the room, many rows of pews had been reserved for the women while the men were directed to sit to the right across the aisle in a much smaller area. I immediately remembered having a similar experience when I visited a Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania some years ago.
After I had located an empty spot on a pew, I looked around and immediately felt very comfortable. In front of me was a moderately sized platform with a wooden choir rise on the left. A golden cross much like the one that was perched high atop the church was at the back of the platform and against the wall. Two tall- back light colored wooden chairs were placed a few feet in front of the cross. A golden minora containing seven electric lights, which were never illuminated during the service, stood towards the center of the stage. Just below the stage, and the to the left, a woman was enthusiastically playing a piano while a young man sat in front of a drum set, sticks in his hand, waiting for the service to begin. A worship team of three women and two men were standing in front near a small podium, which later would be used by the preacher.
While the sanctuary definitely could have benefited from some stained glass windows (there were just glass windows in place), my eyes were drawn to a beautiful mural located in a corner of the room which depicted the wise men gazing at the star which would eventually lead them to the birthplace of Jesus. I really felt as if I were in a church sanctuary back in America with one notable and rather humorous exception; the wooden pews were adorned with black, green, and white camouflage padding.
The people in attendance were mainly from the younger generation but there appeared to be some middle-aged people interspersed amongst the congregation. Just like any church that I have ever attended in America, some people were dressed for the occasion while others, such as myself, were simply wearing jeans and a sweater. No one, however, seemed to be focused much on others. Everyone was intently watching the worship team as they began the service.
The congregation seemed to come alive as the worship team led one of the most beautiful and touching songs that I have ever heard in China. The song, entitled "5 o'clock in the morning," comes from a collection known as the Caanan Hymns, miraculously written by a peasant girl in Henan, who could by all accounts not even read music before she wrote almost 1000 hyms. The song is a prayer to God that He will bless China's harvest and bring peace upon the nation. As we sang this song, I could not help but look around and watch as people raised their hands, pumped their fists, and looked towards heaven. Their voices and expressions overwhelmed me as I sat in my pew. We sang other hymns that spoke of God's love and praised Jesus for his mission on earth.
After the worship service concluded, a man wearing large reading glasses, who looked to be in his mid-thirties, approached the podium and said a few sentences in Chinese. At first, I thought that he was inviting the new visitors to come to the front of the sanctuary but I was wrong. He requested that the new 'unbaptized' visitors come to the front so that they could receive some literature and a special prayer. More than 10 people stood up and made their way forward. The prayer was very simple but in it, the man prayed for the salvation of those standing in front.
The message that was delivered by the same man wearing the large round glasses was entitled "The Grace of the Water." It was a message about God's amazing love and grace. The message contained numerous references to the Old as well as the New Testaments of the Bible. The man was not reading lines of a sheet of paper; his words were delivered forcefully and the congregants often responded with a hearty amen.
The service concluded almost exactly one hour after it had begun. As we made our way out of the sanctuary, more people were coming in for the next service. The familiar hymn "Glory to His Name" followed us out from the speakers on the various television monitors that had been placed near the doors.
This was only the second time that I had visited a Three Self Church in China; the other service that I had visited had been in another city thousands of kilometers away. Just like that experience, I came away from this service puzzled by the constant criticism that is leveled at these 'government' churches by leaders of house church movements in China and those who support these movements worldwide. Some time ago, a Christian teacher and preacher stated to me that "nothing good can come out of the Three Self Churches." Others have said that these public churches are devoid of the real meaning of Jesus and are simply tools of the Communist government in China. Yet today, I believe that what I witnessed were a group of people who were truly passionate about worshipping and serving God. There was no sense of insincerity or show. The Bible was used and the name of Jesus was lifted up.
"Are there restrictions placed on these churches by the government?" I later asked a close friend as we returned to our home district.
"Not really" she explained. "These churches can pretty much talk about whatever they want as long as it does not have to do with the Chinese government." Interesting, I thought. I was not sure if that could really be counted as a restriction, however, since churches in America are also 'supposed' to stay away from political involvement if they wish to maintain their 'tax free' status.
"What about house churches in China?" I inquired of another friend later. "If preachers in government churches are so free to say what they want then why is there a need for the underground religious movement in China?"
"The house churches are all about convenience," my friend explained. "There are many people in the countryside who live nowhere near a church and need a place to gather." This explanation could be part of the answer; although there are more than 45,000 government churches in China, this is a relatively small number compared to the Chinese population. In comparison, America has nearly eight times as many churches as China while having less than a fourth of the population that China has. There are plenty of people in the suburban areas of China who would not have the time or the financial resources to journey to a church each Sunday.
However, I suspect that there is another reason why Chinese Christians are seeking alternatives to the Three Self Church. For many seekers in China, just accepting that there is a God in heaven requires a major change in thinking since most people grow up believing in themselves and what they can see around them. While the Three Self Church may sufficiently meet the spiritual needs of a seeker and even a new believer, many here have often suggested that these 'government' churches are lacking in the kind of 'sound doctrine' that is necessary for a new Christian to grow. Many who come to the Lord through a Three Self Church find that house churches are much better places to be discipled. Most Three Self Churches in China, such as the one that I visited today, are very impersonal in nature due to the thousands of people that flow in and out of their doors each Sunday. House churches in China provide an important personal connection that growing Christians really need. Nevertheless, I do believe that many Chinese people have probably found the Lord by attending a Three Self Church.
Unfortunately, house churches in China are illegal. The persecution that has taken place against Christians by the government for decades in China is targeted at these groups of Christians who worship together without official permission.
"The government sees all religion as the same," a Chinese friend of mine explained to me. "There are groups of people who call themselves religious who do things that the government doesn't think is good for society." Although she did not mention it by name, I knew that she was most likely speaking of Falun Gong, a religious cult in China which has drawn the ire of the government here for what is perceived to be practices that are physically harmful. Unfortunately, there are also some people who call themselves Christians in China, albeit small groups, that speak out strongly against the Chinese government. As a result, the Chinese government seems to take into account these extreme examples and assume that all religious activity not sanctioned by the state is harmful.
I could write another entire article on the issue of persecution; in fact I have. You can search for religious persecution on this website. No matter, it is nice to know that even in the 'government' churches of China, people have a chance to hear the 'Good News' and worship with other people who are also seeking after God.