What Kind of House Church?

One of modern missions’ most romanticized concepts is the house church. But to talk about ‘the Chinese house church’ is somewhat akin to talking about ‘the American house’. It’s a useful concept in some very general ways, but practically useless if you’re trying to tell your realtor what kind of house you want to buy. Nobody buys ‘the American house’; everyone buys ‘an American house’. So never be satisfied when someone tells you they work with ‘the Chinese house church.’ That’s not enough information for you to get on board with their plan. EVERY missionary I’ve ever met would say they’re working with the Chinese house church – but they are doing vastly different things. There’s a huge range within this category of ‘Chinese house church’. It’s generalizations of this kind that leave many missions workers in situations that neither they nor their supporters would ever approve of in other countries. Below are some of the axes along which Chinese house churches are arranged – make sure you consider them next time you hear some talk about ‘the Chinese house church.’

Range of Size

Some house churches only have a handful of people, while others run several hundreds. Obviously, when house churches get that big, they tend to leave the ‘house’ behind. It becomes apparent that the technical meaning of ‘house’ is just ‘unregistered’ or ‘underground.’ In Chinese, house churches are called something like ‘household churches’, while the government churches are called ‘church buildings’. There is a certain perception among many Chinese believers that house churches should be small – or they lose their ‘family’ nature. This is one of the reasons that we avoid the use of the term: it suggests to some an inward focus and a disinterest in growth.

Range of Organization

There are some churches that have full-time pastors. Others (the vast majority) have a part-time (and partly-trained) preacher. Still others have no fixed leader, but wait on the infrequent visits of itinerant preachers to receive teaching. Then you have the meeting-place. Though the smallest of house churches meet in a member’s home, it is not uncommon for urban churches to rent their own apartment or commercial space. Obviously, these two factors create a huge spectrum of operating costs. There are no-building, no-pastor churches that have practically no regular expenditure. Then there’s churches that are paying one or more pastors a decent salary and meeting in places that can seat hundreds. Another factor to consider in their organization is their relation to other house churches. Some of them are completely independent, while others are linked in varying degrees to a denomination-like network (though the roles of these networks are certainly overstated).

Range of Tension

Meaning, their feelings about the government and the government-sponsored churches. It seems the majority of house churches would not openly condemn the Three-Self Church, and some of them would even regard them as an equally-legitimate work of God in China. In fact, there are some house churches that are practically just home Bible studies made up of Three-Self church members (this is just another reason why caution needs to be used when employing stats about the size of the Chinese church)! On the other end, some house church pastors would be vehement in their opposition to the government churches and would gladly take any of their members they could! Related to this axis is the political involvement of the churches. There are a few churches that are very vocal about their views of the state of religious freedom in China. Others have a far more submissive attitude regarding the state, keeping their political opinions to themselves.

Range of Theology

It is commonly observed that there are no denominations in China. While that may be true in the strictest sense of ‘denomination,’ wherever there is doctrine, there can be distinction between kinds of churches. This apparent lack of denominations can be a cloak that Christian workers hide behind rather than be honest about the kind of church they’re working with. While there are many house churches not formerly associated with any network or hierarchical structure, there are many that do in fact have a name for what they are. Last year our church made a one-day survey of a couple dozen villages in search of rural churches. When introducing ourselves as members of a church from the city, the rural believers almost without exception immediately asked what kind of Christians we were! But even among the ‘unlabeled’ churches, there is a definite doctrinal spectrum. A huge segment has definite Charismatic leanings. The vast majority would accept women in a pastoral role. Baptist churches (in name or doctrine) would be one of the rarest breeds of house church.

Range of Openness

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, ‘if we foreign workers get in trouble in China, we’ll just get kicked out of the country; but if the Chinese believers get in trouble…(ominous pause).’ Before coming here, this led me to the understanding that Chinese believers were extremely secretive and very wary of foreigners’ brash attempts at helping the Chinese churches. But all the discoveries of the past years have turned that perception on its head. In truth, those Chinese house churches with no foreign involvement tend to be the most open, while those with foreigners tend to be the most paranoid and closeted. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides. There are some house churches that are still careful about who they invite to church, how large of a crowd they’ll gather, how much noise they’ll make, etc. But it seems that the larger part of Chinese house churches are now functioning much more like churches in open countries. We have been both educated and emboldened by the courage of some of these churches and leaders in China. One more word on this: I fear that there is a tendency for some house churches that otherwise operate very openly to, for whatever reason, exaggerate the dangers of foreigner involvement. This has resulted in countless English teachers being reassured that all their labors are for the good of ‘the Chinese house church’ – a.k.a. a church they’ve never attended and that they know precious little about.

So remember, in all your dealings with the Chinese church, whether going or sending, that Chinese churches, like any other church in the world, can be more or less pure. You wouldn’t lightly choose to join or cooperate with a church in your own country; don’t be flippant about the kind of churches you join or cooperate with in China!

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3 Comments on “What Kind of House Church?”

  1. John Nasett February 21, 2012 at 10:25 am #

    Jake,

    Great job of expressing what I have found to be true in my China experience from 1990 until now (but seldom write about). I suggest combining all of your blogs with some kind of an index for those who are interested in finding straight talk on the “work of the ministry” in China today.

    uncle John

  2. Brandon February 22, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    Great source of information and instruction concerning churches in China! This is another reason why pastors (such as myself) and churches should be more educated in our efforts to support “a Chinese house church” or any other ministry. A little more accountability never hurt anyone!

    • Septimus February 23, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

      Amen, you’d be surprised of how many folks even after we make our presentation at a church still automatically assume we’re going to teach english!

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