Frequently Asked Questions About The Protestant Church in China
Judy Sutterlin and Don Snow *
I. Church Members and Others Who Attend
How many Christians are there in China? How many belong to the registered churches? How many belong to unregistered churches? Because many congregations do not have membership lists, it is difficult to know the exact number of Christians in China or the comparative number belonging to registered and unregistered churches. There are at least fifteen million Protestant Christians and probably more.
Is it only old people who go to church? No. Although many worshipers are older, large numbers of younger people also attend and declare their faith in baptism. Some congregations also have Sunday School classes for children of Christian families.
Are the majority of believers women? There are more women than men in most of the congregations in China. The percentage of women is generally over 60% and there are a few areas where it may be as high as 90%.
Are any Chinese intellectuals involved in or interested in the church? Some intellectuals are believers and church members, and some, including some well-known poets and scholars, accept the Christian world view but are not members of the church.
II. Church Growth and Evangelism
Is the church growing? Yes. Though the percentage of new believers varies quite a bit from one area to another, growth is occurring and in some areas the rate is very high. In addition, new churches are constantly being organized and built.
Who does evangelism? What form does it take and where does happen? Chinese Christians are encouraged to demonstrate Christ’s love in the way they live, and most evangelism happens in one-to-one contacts. Evangelism also occurs when non-believers come to churches, either invited by friends or relatives or drawn by a special service or religious event. By law foreigners are not allowed to proselytize.
What is required to become a baptized member of the church? What form of baptism is used? Most China Christian Council churches require new believers to attend worship for at least a year, attend a class for new believers and be questioned about their faith by the church leaders. New believers can usually choose the method of baptism — immersion or sprinkling.
What is the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM)? The term “three-self” refers to self-support, self-government and self-propagation, and the TSPM is a movement within the Protestant church in China to promote these principles. It began in the 1950’s in order to promote the idea that the Chinese Church is not dependent on or controlled by foreign mission bodies, that it is possible to be both a Christian and a good patriotic citizen, and that Christians should identify themselves with the aspirations of the Chinese people.
What is the China Christian Council (CCC)? Founded in 1980, it aims to be the umbrella organization for all Protestant Christian churches in China and seeks to unite Chinese Christians around their belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It works to provide for theological education and for publication of the Bible, hymn books and other religious literature. It encourages the exchange of information among local churches in evangelism, pastoral work and administration. It has formulated a church order for local churches, and seeks to continue to develop friendly relations with churches overseas. The CCC and the TSPM are known as the “two national Christian bodies” (liang hui).
The Chinese church has been described as “post-denominational.” What does this mean? Are there still differences between CCC churches? Denominations went out of existence in 1958 under the influence of the “Great Leap Forward” and the lack of financial resources. However, some differences related to past traditions are still apparent. For example, in some churches the style of worship is more liturgical, in others it is more in the free church tradition. One congregation may even offer several different styles of worship. (Some groups like the Seventh Day Adventists, the True Jesus Church and the Little Flock try to maintain a more distinct identity, but in many places even these are part of a TSPM/CCC related church.) On the whole, the strategy of Chinese Christians has been to try to join around what they have in common to be one body, while respecting differences within that body and allowing for differences in theology and in liturgical styles.
IV. TSPM/CCC Relations to Other Christian Groups
How do the Protestant and Catholic churches in China relate? Protestant and Catholic Christianity are separate bodies, who respect each others rights as religious believers. Except for cooperation in proffering suggestions to the government about religious policy to further respect for and protection of the rights of all religious believers, they have had very little contact so far.
How is the TSPM/CCC involved in international ecumenical relations? The TSPM/CCC recognizes and values the fact that it is a part of the Body of Christ which includes churches and believers around the world. The CCC is a member of the World Council of Churches and welcomes relationships with any church organizations that demonstrate their willingness to relate as equal partners with of mutual respect for one another.
What kind of contact is possible between foreigners living in China and local Christians? There is no legal restriction in contacts made at worship or in informal contacts as friends. Most Amity teachers find contacts with church members limited only by the language barrier and individual choices. In most places, however, local Chinese are not permitted to attend services or religious gatherings organized and led by foreigners.
V. Registration of Churches
What is the difference between a registered and an unregistered church? A registered congregation has chosen to comply with the government regulations for registration of places of worship and has met six general requirements. If anyone tries to infringe upon their rights under the law, they have legal grounds to seek rectification of the situation.
What are the six requirements for registration? 1-2) The congregation must have a fixed place and name. 3) There must be citizens who are religious believers regularly participating in religious activities. 4) They must have a management organization composed of citizens who are religious believers. 5) They must have persons meeting the requirements of the particular religious group to lead religious services. 6) They must have their own legal source of income.
Why are there still unregistered churches? Some congregations disagree theologically with any kind of civil registration for churches and therefore choose not to seek registration. Others are strongly committed to a narrowly defined set of theological beliefs and are not willing to have fellowship with other Christians who do not fully share their convictions. Additionally there are congregations which have applied for registration and are awaiting approval, and some which have applied and been denied because they do not meet one or more of the requirements above or because local officials have unfairly denied the registration. (There is a process to appeal the denial of an application to register.)
What are “house churches”? This term is unclear because both “home meeting points” and “meeting points” are often described as “house churches.” They usually do not have their own ordained pastor and rely on lay leadership for most of their activities. A “meeting point” has its own building, while a “home meeting point” meets in a private home. Many Christian groups start as home meeting points, grow into meetings points, and from there sometimes become churches with a church building and pastor.
Are there registered “meeting points” and “home meeting points”? Yes. In fact the majority of registered Christian bodies are meeting points. Many home meeting points operate as adjuncts (like Bible study groups) of registered meeting points or churches, so home meeting points don’t need to register in most provinces.
What is the “underground church”? A more appropriate description might be “churches which chose to remain unregistered,” which usually means they do not relate to the local Christian Council or TSPM. “Underground church” is often a misnomer as some of these congregations are quite public.
Are there registered churches that are not a part of the TSPM and the CCC? Yes. Registration does not require a congregation to join either the TSPM or the CCC.
Do unregistered and registered churches work together? If so, why? If not, why not? In some areas individual congregations have worked well together, but in many cases unregistered congregations prefer not to work with registered ones. Attitudes of individual congregations may be rooted in theological differences, misunderstandings, or mistrust.
VI. The Rights of Christians
Are Christians persecuted in China? The Chinese Constitution and laws provide for the right of all citizens to hold their own religious beliefs and to engage in regular worship and other “normal” religious activities. However, religious policy and its implementation in specific areas are two different things. Interpretation of the policy by local government officials may vary, and they do not all equally abide by or enforce the rights upheld by the policy. In some areas, cases of harassment, imprisonment and other kinds of persecution do occur. Church leaders respond to these on a case by case basis, working to have believers’ legal rights honored. Rights are most easily protected for members of registered churches because their legal status helps in appealing to higher governmental authorities for help in ending any illegal infringements.
Are Christians held back in their career opportunities? Certain kinds of jobs require party membership, and because Christian faith and party membership are incompatible (though there is a growing number of party members who become Christians!), a Christian would not be eligible for such positions. (To keep this in perspective, note that only 5-6% of the total population are party members.) In other cases, bosses may initiate or encourage discrimination, but illegal actions can be challenged.
VII. Elements of Worship in TSPM/CCC Churches
What are sermons in TSPM/CCC churches like? Sermons are generally conservative expositions of a Biblical text, focusing on topics like salvation, ethics or seasonal themes. They encourage believers to help society as part of their witness to Christ’s love. (Being both a good Christian and a patriotic citizen are encouraged in much the same way as in our countries.)
What are public prayers in the church like? Traditional prayers of the church are used as well as prayers offered freely from the heart of the person praying. There is no prescribed form and no restriction.
When and how often is the Lord’s Supper celebrated? This varies from one congregation to another. Churches with ordained pastors choose freely how often to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and often follow the original tradition of that congregation. Those without ordained pastors wait until one can visit and lead that service. The same is true for services of baptism.
VIII. Bibles And Other Christian Resources
What can I tell people who want to bring or send Bibles to Christians in China? Bibles are being published in China, and smuggling of Bibles from abroad engages Christians in an illegal activity which tarnishes the witness of the church and generates suspicions that all Christians engage in illegal acts. Smuggled Bibles can be confiscated, and possession of them also put recipients at risk as participants in an illegal act.
The best way to help provide Bibles is with contributions to the United Bible Societies, Amity or other groups like Volunteers for China (VFC) who support the CCC in the printing and distributing of Bibles.
How many Bibles are printed in China? Since 1987 the China Christian Council has published more than 55 million Bibles in China (at the Amity Printing Company), and is continuing to publish several million each year. Before the Amity Printing Company was established, an additional three million Bibles were printed on other presses.
How can a person get one of these Bibles? Bibles can be purchased at most churches. The costs of Amity Bibles are subsidized, hence relatively low. The churches obtain the Bibles from one of the over 70 distribution centers throughout China. Even churches who prefer not to work through the CCC can obtain these Bibles. There is a growing number of Christian bookstores in China and a variety of Bibles and other Christian literature is available. Even public bookstores often have Bibles for sale.
Is the Chinese Bible printed in China different from those available overseas? The Chinese Bibles printed in Nanjing are the traditional Union Version translation. This translation is also still used by most Chinese congregations in all parts of the world, including Hong Kong. Though other recent Chinese translations exist, this is the one most accepted by the majority of believers in China. It is printed in both the complex characters, familiar to the older generation, and in the simplified characters, which the younger generation can read, mostly the latter.
Does the Amity Printing Company print any other resources for the churches? They also regularly print hymnals and other Christian literature for use in the churches and for use by individual Christians. These materials are made available through churches and bookstores.
Can foreigners give Christian books and resources to Chinese Christians? There is generally little concern over an individual gift, but foreigners are not allowed to distribute printed religious materials without prior permission. (This prevents the distributing of materials whose theological grounding is questionable.)
IX. Leadership in the Church
What do Chinese Christians see as their greatest challenge? Many feel the greatest challenge is leadership development. There are relatively few ordained pastors to shepherd increasing numbers of new believers. In Zhejiang Province, for example, there is just one ordained pastor per 10,000 believers.
Why is there such a shortage of ordained leadership? This is in part a result of the closing of churches and seminaries during the Cultural Revolution. During that time no training of leaders could take place. It is also due to the rapid growth in the number of believers in recent times. In addition, many areas are slow in ordaining today’s younger seminary graduates.
What are the ramifications of the scarcity of trained leadership? With lack of adequately trained leadership, strange beliefs, heresies and even cults can develop, especially in the countryside. Guidance of well-trained leaders can help in discernment.
What is the Chinese Church doing to develop new leaders? The CCC and regional and provincial Christian Councils have opened 17 seminaries and Bible colleges since 1980, and a few theological students are also sent overseas for further training. In addition to the regular course of study training future pastors, there are many places which also offer lay training courses. The Chinese Church relies heavily on its lay leadership.
How are the newly trained leaders being integrated into the work of the church? Sometimes there are very dedicated older pastors working hand in hand with enthusiastic younger pastors. On the other hand, sometimes committed older leaders have trouble truly sharing positions of power with the younger generation of leaders. Sometimes, as both generations have difficulty accepting each other’s vision for the work of the church, the generation gap in the church leadership can be a difficult and sensitive issue. In some areas the younger leaders are able to serve with the natural enthusiasm they bring. In other areas they can be disheartened by delays in achieving the level of participation they would like to have.
Does the government choose the church leaders? In general church leaders are chosen by the churches. However, in some areas the CCC has experienced pressure from local governmental officials in making appointments. In 1996 a Religious Affairs Bureau official from Henan Province wrote an article (printed in the Chinese church magazine, Tian Feng) criticizing any government appointment of church workers as illegal and harmful, pointing out that the Chinese constitution guarantees the right of lawful organizations to govern themselves.
X. Finances in the TSPM/CCC Churches
Where does the church’s money come from? Does it come from the government? For registration, a church must have its own legal income. In most cases monies come from offerings which members and others who come to worship put in offering boxes at entrances to the church building. Some churches also have other money raising projects or businesses. For example, a church in Shandong Province has a tea shop and uses the income to help pay church workers. There are also churches who have received and may still receive payment in rent and compensation for property confiscated by the government during the Cultural Revolution, but this is compensation rather than a government subsidy.
How are the pastors paid? Are they paid by the church? Older pastors are retired from jobs they held when churches were closed and have pensions from that source. Therefore, less money is needed in church budgets to support them. Some Provincial Christian Councils provide the pastors’ salaries. In other areas the pastors are paid by the church. In some poor areas where the church cannot afford to pay a living wage, younger pastors often become bi-vocational.
How can a foreigner contribute money to the Chinese Church? A foreigner can freely place money in the offering boxes at the churches. Other monetary gifts can be given as long as they are designated for or can be used for projects initiated by the Chinese Church itself.
For more information on the church in China today: Read the Amity News Service at www.amityfoundation.org
* Dr. Judith Sutterlin is retired after teaching for over 25 years in China with American Baptist International Ministries.
* Dr. Don Snow, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, has taught English for over 30 years in China. He currently is Director of Duke’s Kunshan University near Shanghai and has authored numerous books about TESOL