Christians in China have had a difficult several years. The Chinese government kicked missionaries out of the country, tightened restrictions on religion, and cut off access to the world with its aggressive “zero COVID” policies. After a growing discontentment prompted unprecedented protests last year, the government finally dropped its pandemic restrictions.
Solomon Li, an overseas ministry leader who has served the Chinese church for the past 30 years, finally had a chance to return to China this year for the first time since the pandemic began in 2020. (Li’s name has been changed due to security risks.)
He met with 150 pastors within one urban house church network and shared with CT about the new challenges and opportunities that Christians face in this post-pandemic era. The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
China’s “zero COVID” policy, which aimed to keep cases as close to zero as possible with strict lockdowns and mass testing, only ended last December. How did the pandemic impact the house church leaders that you met with?
In general, it became more difficult for them to hold Sunday services, but many of them still tried to meet in person as much as they could. It also made things more difficult for fellowships and house visitations. People feared that they were spreading germs by gathering together. These were some really tough years.
One reason these churches wanted to continue meeting offline is that they were concerned about intentional ecclesiology: What is the doctrine of the church? Can online or Zoom services be acceptable in the long term? Their answer, based on the Bible, was no. Online church is the exception to the rule. If we can go out shopping, then maybe we can provide the opportunity to have Sunday worship in person.
The COVID-19 pandemic also happened in parallel to new religious policies. While “zero COVID” affected everyone, the intentional tightening up and targeting of house churches added another layer of difficulty to Christians. If the government is closely watching your church, it is hard to resume in-person church. Even online church is difficult.
Yet because there are so many churches in China, it would be very costly for the government to monitor everybody. So while some large churches were targeted, a lot of other churches just continued meeting with minor difficulties.
What encouraging stories did you hear about how God worked in house churches during the pandemic?
I found that some churches met throughout the entire pandemic—they never stopped meeting in person for even one Sunday worship. I don’t know how they managed to do that, but it just shows that there is room for that. I think that how a church fared during the pandemic is not based on external factors but internal ones: How ready were church leaders to deal with crisis? How do they comprehend what churches are? How are they adjusting themselves to reach out to the flock and provide leadership and pastoral care?
One church in a major city started gathering in February 2020 at the beginning of COVID-19 with 17 people. When I visited in July, they had grown to three congregations with 150 people at the largest congregation (the smaller congregations had 40–80 congregants). One reason the church grew so much was because people’s hearts were still seeking the Lord and seeking worship. If a church was healthy and continued to hold worship services, people would come. A lot of the growth came from church transfers, yet about 20 to 25 percent of the attendees were non-Christians.
At times the church couldn’t meet together, especially during outbreaks, but they were creative in building up community. They asked different families to film themselves reciting a children’s catechism. Then they edited it together and played the video during the virtual Sunday service to provide a sense of togetherness.
Some churches didn’t have the ability to provide good care or didn’t have the strong theological structure to move forward. So Beijing Zion Church, which is a relatively mature church, supported these churches, bringing them into the Zion family. They formed a huge online church with nearly 10,000 people from all over China. At the same time, they still wanted their members to gather in local churches.
Every church tried to do things in different ways. It was a time of consolidation. Some churches grew bigger and bigger, while other churches disappeared.
News reports often mentioned that China’s “zero COVID” policy hit universities especially hard. At the same time, campus ministries have historically played a large role in introducing young people to Jesus. How have these ministries fared during the pandemic?
Colleges were one of the most tightly controlled places because COVID-19 can spread very quickly on campus and impact the whole city. The students were sort of jailed on campus and no one could access them. Some pastors encouraged their students to come out every week for church.
In general, COVID-19 and the government’s tight control over education made campus ministry a very different reality from the past. A lot of the fruit of churches today come from the effort of campus ministries in the 1990s and early 2000s by missionaries from Korea and the West.
But today there is such tight control on campuses. They use facial recognition to determine who can access the door and they teach students to reject any approaches from religious groups. This is making campus ministry very difficult. We are losing the next generation, and I fear the momentum of church growth will be stopped.
Still, there are some very creative leaders doing campus ministry. For instance, one urban church sent 60 college students to five cities around China for short-term mission trips last summer. They shared the gospel with a total of an estimated 10,000 people. It’s a means to train the younger generation. I still see these very courageous and creative ministries going on, and we need more of them.
What was the most surprising thing you found when you returned to China after several years away?
Chinese people are so resilient. With the pandemic and the political change, a lot of people are realizing that China is not moving in the right direction. But in the midst of all that, they are still living their everyday lives.
From the outside, we think China has become so political, but in everyday life, many people don’t care about that. Sometimes people even joke about it. I really admire Chinese people’s resiliency. Yet on the other hand, if they don’t care about what’s going on, it makes gospel sharing more difficult.
I’m also surprised by the emergence of some great Christian leaders. Even though a lot of things are hard, God has raised up leaders with great vision, great passion, and godly character. They try to share the gospel and take care of their flock. Their leadership has led the church to grow. It moved me to see that the Resurrection is real, and the Holy Spirit’s work is real.
This makes me really hopeful. I think a lot of people are pessimistic about China, but I think this is the most hopeful time for China in the past 30 years. I asked Chinese pastors: Would you want to be in a fully modernized, well-developed society that has little room for the gospel? Or in China where everything is uncertain, fluid, and challenging, but through the last 150 years, God has been creating larger room for the gospel? So many people are eager to learn and to hear the good news.
As society in China is changing, how should Christians change their approach to evangelism?
I think we need to speak “different languages” to different people. There are some people who just keep moving no matter what is happening around them. However, another group is leaving China because they can’t live with China’s current situation. They want to protect their wealth and their children’s futures. Some of them are leaving for idealistic reasons. [Last year 10,800 millionaires left China, and 13,500 more are expected to leave in 2023, according to Henley and Partners.]
So, the first group of people we can reach are the idealistic people whose hope in the country is broken and who are seeking answers. The second group are those who are not the idealistic type but who are so worried about their safety. Both of these are people that diaspora Chinese churches should be prepared to reach out to.
When we speak to them, we really need to be down-to-earth and realistic rather than sprouting high and lofty theology. We need to have heart-to-heart discussions. Otherwise, people will say, “What does this have to do with my everyday life?”
What impact does this exodus from China have on house churches?
A lot of Christians are leaving the country, especially the more educated and more resourced ones. One pastor told me that eight families in his church left China last year. Another pastor was discouraged because three key leaders left China—people who had committed to die together in the same church in the same city. That will have a huge impact on these church leaders. They need to rethink: What is the essence of church and what are you building upon?
At the same time, how does this exodus provide an opportunity for diaspora Chinese churches in the US and around the world?
The challenge is that there are so many Christians coming. You don’t need to share the gospel, you don’t need to do evangelism, people will just come into your church.
Imagine your church has 100 people and in one year it grows to 180 people. That entirely changes your demographic landscape. How does that impact the culture of your church? This is a large challenge for existing churches.
Then, when pastors in China try to start new churches overseas, they assume they can do the same things they did back home. Yet in a new country and culture, the dynamic changes. Your authoritarian way of starting a church doesn’t work anymore in Thailand as it did in China. There are a lot of changes that they need to adjust to as they learn about a new culture.
Chinese church leaders in the US need to understand the current mainland Chinese culture and why these Chinese people immigrated to the US. Just because you speak the same language doesn’t mean you really understand them. There’s a huge opportunity, but a lot of work needs to be done.
I’m still very hopeful. China has been through all these national disasters in the past 150 years, yet through it all, the gospel has never stopped and the church has never stopped. Hopefully the current shake-up of Chinese culture will open doors for the gospel to enter through.