On the eve of the Communist victory in 1949, there were around one million Protestants (of all denominations) in China. In 2007, even the most conservative official polls reported 40 million, and these do not take into account the millions of secret Christians in the Communist Party and the government. What accounts for this astounding growth? Many observers point to the role of Chinese house churches.

The house-church movement began in the pre-1949 missionary era. New converts—especially in evangelical missions like the China Inland Mission and the Christian & Missionary Alliance—would often meet in homes. Also, the rapidly growing independent churches, such as the True Jesus Church, the Little Flock, and the Jesus Family, stressed lay ministry and evangelism. The Little Flock had no pastors, relying on every "brother" to lead ministry, and attracted many educated city people and students who were dissatisfied with the traditional foreign missions and denominations. The Jesus Family practiced communal living and attracted the rural poor. These independent churches were uniquely placed to survive, and eventually flourish, in the new, strictly-controlled environment.

In the early 1950s, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement eliminated denominations and created a stifling political control over the dwindling churches. Many believers quietly began to pull out of this system. They chose to meet in homes, although such activity was highly dangerous. According to a Communist source, by the mid-1950s these groups had grown to be "more numerous than all the other Protestant churches combined."

In 1953, the chairman of the Communist-controlled Religious Affairs Bureau attacked the "rapid growth of meetings in the home" as "suspicious." By 1958, the year of enforced "church unity," the TSPM was prohibiting house churches altogether: "All so-called 'churches', 'worship-halls' and 'family-meetings' which have been established without the permission of the government must be dissolved."

At "accusation meetings," Christians were encouraged to denounce their own leaders as "lackeys of Western imperialism." Despite this, a number of key evangelical leaders took a stand against Communist Party interference in church affairs. Wang Mingdao, pastor of the independent Christian Tabernacle in Beijing, accused Y. T. Wu (the first chairman of the TSPM) and his later successor Bishop K. H. Ting of denying the basic doctrines of evangelical faith. Wang was imprisoned for 23 years. In the south, Baptist-trained Lin Xiangao (later known as Pastor Lamb) was also imprisoned and sent to do slave labor in the coal mines. Allen Yuan in Beijing was sent to labor camp for opposing the TSPM. Many others were also persecuted. It is very doubtful whether the church would have survived in China without their sterling testimony and patient, Christ-like suffering in the dark days under Mao.

The crucible

Helen Willis, the last Protestant missionary to leave China in 1959, reported that Christians in Shanghai were meeting "frequently in twos and threes to pray, often with tears and much earnestness." Some even met every Sunday in a home to share the Lord's Supper. In 1962, four years after most churches had been closed, a Chinese writer in the Hong Kong Standard described informal Christian activities springing up in many places, despite persecution:

… although the visible and formal churches are dying out, the invisible, formless, non-political and true ones are growing in number in Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing and other towns and cities … The wife of a former professor at Beijing University belonged to a small prayer group of four Chinese women … She says there are many such small groups formed by people whose churches have either been shut down or taken over by the Communists. They meet irregularly but not infrequently at different homes for prayer meetings, Bible study and fellowship. They have won many souls who have found God a great help in time of trouble.

There seems little doubt that the long nightmare of the Cultural Revolution (officially 1966-76, although the period of major violence and anarchy lasted only from 1966-69) was the crucible from which the Chinese house churches emerged spiritually refined and poised to spread the gospel across the nation. For an even longer period (1966-1979), all church buildings were closed and Christian activities were banned. Bibles were burnt, and many church leaders (including TSPM pastors) were imprisoned for long years in labor camps. Meeting for prayer and Bible study was extremely dangerous. Miners met in the depths of the northern coal mines, their hymnbooks and scribbled Bible verses disguised as Mao's "Little Red Book." Miao Christian tribespeople in the far southwest hid Bibles in mountain caves to which they climbed for secret meetings.

While the official church was moribund, the house churches kept alight the flame of Christian witness. The church survived as a lay movement, often led by poorly educated Bible women who memorized Scripture and passed on the faith to family members and (if they dared) to neighbors and friends.

Reports from underground

By the early 1970s, the full force of the Cultural Revolution was spent. In 1971-1972, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon visited China, and two places of worship for foreign Protestants and Roman Catholics living in Beijing were opened. The general situation for Chinese Christians was still extremely tight, but by now the first reports of house-church activities were leaking out to Hong Kong, mainly from coastal provinces.

In 1972, a report from southern Fujian said that meetings were more open but were still held only with relatives and close friends. Later reports spoke of 200-300 mainly young people attending Christian meetings in unfurnished rural buildings, as well as a community of over 1,000 believers that had sprung up over the last four years. Many had been converted, including at least one Communist cadre.

In 1974, there were reports of 50,000 Christians meeting in Wenzhou, Zhejiang—now known as the "Jerusalem of China" because of its explosive church growth. These groups became increasingly organized throughout the '70s and held regular Bible studies, witnessing meetings, prayer meetings, training sessions, and seasonal Christian retreats. Early reports of house-church activities in the Wenzhou area have recently been confirmed by the Chinese scholar Li Feng:

They had no churches, but used the mountainous areas of this locality, meeting in mountain valleys, lonely places etc, meeting together at night rather than in the day. They had no pastors, but many believers organized themselves and produced their own leaders. They had no Bibles, but they recited them from memory, using hand-written copies and mimeographed sheets to meet their needs. Although some secret meetings were discovered, local Christian activities continued uninterrupted.

House churches were active not only in coastal provinces but also in central, rural provinces like Henan. In the late '70s and early '80s, a number of charismatic peasant leaders, such as Zhang Rongliang, Xu Yongze, and Brother Shen, emerged in the Henan house churches. Their evangelism and leadership were so successful that the Fangcheng Church, the New Birth Church (popularly known as "weepers"), and the China Gospel Fellowship each now claim several million members, as do two similar networks based in the neighboring province of Anhui. Since the 1980s, they have expanded their evangelistic activities all over China as far as Tibet and Xinjiang in the far west and Hainan in the far south.

Expansion and persecution

In 1978, the new Communist leader Deng Xiaoping "reversed the verdicts" concerning the millions of people (including Christians) who had been unjustly persecuted during the Mao era. Soon after, the TSPM was formally resuscitated and the first places of Christian worship were officially reopened. For the next few years, the house-church movement saw colossal expansion. Many early leaders, such as Wang Mingdao, were released from prison and provided biblical teaching and godly counsel for the burgeoning movement. Pastor Lamb was released in 1978 and returned to Guangzhou. Today, 30 years later, he leads a flourishing house church of some 3,000 people in the heart of the city.

In 1982, however, the Communist Party published "Document 19" on the control of religious affairs. This stated that "so far as Christians carrying out religious activities in house meetings are concerned, they should in principle not be permitted, but they should not be rigidly stopped. Through work undertaken by the patriotic religious personnel [i.e. TSPM and CCC] to persuade the religious masses, other suitable arrangements should be made." Although various refinements have been added in the last 25 years, this still remains the basic policy of the government towards the house churches. In principle they are frowned on, but in practice the actual implementation of the policy varies considerably from time to time and place to place.

During the government's "anti-spiritual pollution campaign" in 1983, hundreds of house-church leaders and evangelists were arrested and some were sent to labor camps. Although by 1984 the campaign was brought to a halt, the government has sought periodically over the last two decades to enforce registration of all house churches, which means (with a few exceptions) supervision under the TSPM. Although a few independent house churches have applied, the majority have decided to remain unregistered. They believe that the liberty to worship and evangelize free of Communist Party interference is worth the risk of harassment.

At the grass-roots level, however, there is often little difference between registered and unregistered Christians. Many registered churches can trace their origins back to small home-meetings that outgrew their original meeting places and applied for official recognition in order to build larger church buildings. And many of these "official" churches continue to run home-meetings in the cities and to be responsible for pastoral work and preaching in house churches in the suburbs and in the countryside. Local churches in both circles exhibit a fervent Christ-centered, Bible-based faith expressing itself in evangelism and, increasingly, holistic ministry impacting society. Preaching, prayer, evangelism, healing and caring for the sick, visitation, and practical support ministries (such as clinics, old people's homes, ministries to HIV/AIDS victims and drug addicts, and disaster relief) all flourish.

A new urban face

Since Deng Xiaoping restored limited religious freedom, the house churches have developed in unforeseen ways. In the early days, the center of gravity was largely in the rural areas, where even the leaders were often farmers with only primary school or lower- middle school education and virtually no Bible or theological training at all. This led to needless dissension over secondary issues and left many churches open to the devastating inroads of cults such as "Eastern Lightning." In recent years, the torrent of migrant workers from the rural areas into the cities has left many rural churches facing a crisis in leadership and even membership.

Today, the cutting edge of Christian ministry in China has moved from the villages to the cities, many of which are less than 1% Christian. A new wave of students and graduates, including those who were converted and received theological training overseas, provide dynamic leadership. In two decades or less, 50% of China will be urban. Many house churches are already spiritually experienced and well equipped to take up this challenge. So far, although they minister in an increasingly materialistic society, their zeal shows no sign of abating.

Tony Lambert is the director of China research for Overseas Mission Fellowship (OMF) International.

No Compromise

Wang Mingdao (1900-1991)

Wang Mingdao was born in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion. His mother named him "Iron"—a name that foreshadowed his courageous life. He became a Christian at the age of 14 and later gave up his dream of being a politician to devote himself to Christian ministry. At one point he retreated to Beijing's western hills and read the Bible though six times in 62 days—giving him a deep love for Scripture that grounded his preaching.

Wang worked to build an independent church with its own leaders, its own financial support, and its own evangelistic efforts. By 1949, his Christian Tabernacle (originally a small household gathering) had grown to 570 members, making it one of the largest evangelical churches in Beijing. Wang became widely known as an evangelist and speaker across China. He emphasized doctrinal purity and took a firm stand against any form of political involvement, believing the church and the state to have separate functions. Only the gospel could save his people.

During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), Beijing fell under the control of the Japanese army, which sought to control the churches of North China. Wang was invited to join the Japanese-led Chinese Christian Federation of North China, but he declined on the grounds that his church was already an indigenous church, not pro-British or pro-American. The Japanese threatened him so many times that he kept a coffin in his house to prepare for the possible consequence of his stance. But the authorities took no action against him. This amazing turn of events, interpreted by Wang as divine protection, strengthened his willingness to be a martyr.

When the Communists came to power in 1949, Wang continued to stay away from politics and refused to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. His reasons were not political but theological: Many in the TSPM had been influenced by modernism, which denied the inerrancy of the Bible and the miraculous elements in it. He wrote articles arguing that the so-called "imperialist poison" of the missionaries was for the most part the truth of the Bible: "We are ready to pay any price to preserve the Word of God … Don't give way, don't compromise!" For such nonconformity, Wang, his wife, and other young Christians from his church were arrested at gunpoint in 1955 and taken to prison.

After being confined in a prison cell for a period of time, Wang cracked and signed a statement confessing that he was criminal and promising to join the TSPM. He was released, but he felt he had betrayed Christ like the apostle Peter and grieved bitterly. He revoked his previous confessions as forced lies, and for this he was imprisoned and tortured repeatedly for the next 22 years.

Wang was released in 1979—old, toothless, and nearly blind and deaf. He lived in Shanghai with his wife and son, and regularly held meetings with Christians in their small apartment until he died on July 28, 1991. He is widely recognized as one of the most influential and respected Chinese Christian leaders of the 20th century.
—Yading Li