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More growing pains, more great gains

Trials of many different kinds have not stopped the work of these Christians in China


Chinese Christians worship at a non-state-sponsored church. Zhongming Jiang

More growing pains, more great gains
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What’s the cost of faithfulness? For Christians living in China, it may be a police raid, an arrest, or censure for following Biblical teaching. Setbacks like these are what can strengthen believers’ resolve—or break it.

In the May 2015 article “Growing pains, great gains,” I visited three groups of Christians working to help mature the burgeoning Chinese church: a Singaporean pastor whose online sermons led to church plants throughout China, an American missionary family leading a house church and school, and a group spreading the pro-life message to Chinese Christians.

Two years later, the situations for these three groups have changed—for better and for worse. Authorities detained the Singaporean pastor in late April and forced him to leave the country. A disgruntled church member called the cops on the Americans’ house church, leading to raids on the church and school. Meanwhile, despite temporary opposition, the pro-life group has grown, helping more mothers keep their babies. It has even registered as a legal organization.

Through trial and tribulation, all three groups remain firmly committed to helping the Chinese church flourish and grow deeper roots into fertile soil.

A worshipper takes notes at a church in Chengdu.

A worshipper takes notes at a church in Chengdu. Zhongming Jiang

Kicked out, but not down

When I last saw Singaporean Pastor Joseph Su (names in this story have been changed for safety reasons) in 2015, he was preaching and baptizing new believers inside a well-worn hotel conference room in eastern China. Since 2010, Su had journeyed to China three times a year to hold conferences and disciple the leaders of his church’s 25 small church plants. Attendees knew Su from watching his sermons online, and when he visited, they’d line up to ask for advice on living out their faith at home and at work. Not once, Su told me then, had they faced government interference.

This year, in late April, Su was preaching in a large northeast city when about 20 police officers barged into the room, video cameras in hand. The police forced the 130 conference attendees to write down their names and identification numbers and took Su, his two co-workers, and several Chinese church leaders to the local station. There, the main investigator told Su they had broken Chinese law by gathering for religious activity without a permit. Su said the investigator seemed to know a lot about him and his church and questioned him about the church’s connection with the United States (the Singaporean church’s founder currently heads a Chinese church in the United States).

The police fingerprinted them, took their photos, and had them sign a statement, before releasing them with a warning: If you want to come back to China to preach, go through the registered Three-Self church. They held on to the foreigners’ passports, forcing Su and his co-workers to cancel the rest of the conference and book a flight home for the next day. At the airport, the police returned their passports and snapped photos as Su and the others boarded the flight as proof they had left the country.

Su suspects that someone reported them, causing the police to take action. The church does not publicize its conferences, but spreads news of the events by word-of-mouth among the church plants. Still, all of Su’s sermons in Singapore and China are live-streamed on a WeChat account. The Chinese government targets pastors from the United States and South Korea more often than those from Singapore, but Su believes his connection with the American church intrigued the authorities.

‘[Persecution] is good for the Chinese people because without these trials and pressures, we grow very superficial.’

Su has no plans to re-enter China anytime soon and may hold future training events in Hong Kong or Taipei, cities to which Chinese church members could easily travel. For now his top goal is to ensure the Chinese government does not shut down his church’s social media accounts and online sermons, which reach more people than his conferences in China. “This is the way the ministry is growing. It can’t be stopped,” Su said. “I think [persecution] is good for the Chinese people because without these trials and pressures, we grow very superficial.”

American missionary Aaron Smith preaching at a house church.

American missionary Aaron Smith preaching at a house church. Handout

Patient in trials

In the outskirts of a large northern Chinese city, longtime American missionary James Smith and his sons, Aaron and Mark, together pastor a Mandarin-speaking house church and run a Christian school out of the same location. Foreign-run churches are especially sensitive in China: The government fears Christian ties to the West. Yet Smith’s church has met for the past 15 years by staying low-key and vetting newcomers.

But troubles began recently when a church member approached the Smiths asking if they could help a friend in need. The man, John Xu, claimed to be a missionary from western China. He said he’d been persecuted by the government and was struggling to provide for his family, including four children and a fifth on the way. The church decided to rent an apartment for the family and invited Xu to join the church’s Bible institute.

Yet after a few months, Xu began secretly contacting other church members, criticizing the Smiths and saying the church should rid itself of foreign leadership. Last fall, Xu approached Aaron Smith, asking the church to give him money to send him back to western China, and when Aaron refused, he left upset.

Two weeks later, Xu’s wife had a miscarriage, and Xu snapped under the emotional toll. He lashed out at the Smiths, ranting about their poor leadership on the church’s WeChat group and defaming the pastors on his own social media account. When Aaron and his father tried to talk to him in person, an irate Xu cussed them out and threatened to report the church to the authorities.

Before church the next morning, Aaron instructed his wife to pack up some essentials for the two of them and their three young daughters in case they weren’t able to return home in a while. The church service began as usual, but after the singing ended, Xu walked in pounding his Bible and screaming, “I have something to say!” Congregants tried to ignore him, and the service continued. Frustrated, Xu pulled out his phone, dialed the police, and reported an illegal religious meeting with foreigners present. When a 75-year-old woman pleaded with Xu to stop, he shoved her roughly, prompting the men in the congregation to drag him out of the service.

At that point, Aaron knew they had 20 minutes before police would show up. The church leaders prayed, held a quick vote to excommunicate Xu, then dismissed the congregation. The Chinese leaders quickly gathered the illegal Bibles, songbooks, literature, and identifying items such as computers, placing them in the back of a van. The Smiths also left, knowing the church would get into more trouble if police found foreigners on the premises.

When the police arrived, Xu told them everything he knew about the church, including the addresses, phone numbers, and Chinese names of the Smiths. Since police had not found any foreigners or illegal books on the site, they couldn’t launch a larger investigation, so they simply asked the Chinese church leaders to sign a statement saying they would only worship at the Three-Self church and left.

James and his wife booked tickets back to the United States the next day, while Aaron’s family stayed in the homes of various church members for a month. Afterward, they rented a new place in the countryside.

Meanwhile, the church continued to meet: Congregants held Thursday night prayer meetings in homes, and every Sunday rented a different facility for two hours. The church was open only to its members, who learned the location of Sunday worship each week through a Saturday text message. Attendance remained high. “The Lord blessed us through this trial,” Aaron said. “We saw the growing of our faith and the faith of our church people as many of them traveled one to two hours to get to the new locations.”

In March, police showed up at the church’s school, which still met in the church building. Although the school had a business visa, the police asked questions about the foreign teachers, whether the school relied on any foreign money, and how the school was related to the church. The school decided to send the foreign teachers home, and the leadership plans to separate the school from the church.

James and his wife safely returned to China in March to continue their work with the church. Aaron and his family, currently in the United States to meet with donors and speak at churches, also plan to return to China long-term. During the recent trials, Aaron said he was reminded of James 1:4: “But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”

“If we’re going to be the people God wants us to be, we need to allow the trial to work in us,” Aaron said.

Chinese nurses attend newborn babies at a hospital in Xiangyang.

Chinese nurses attend newborn babies at a hospital in Xiangyang. Imaginechina via AP

An unexpected welcome

While foreign pastors feel the heat, a pro-life movement in China is progressing largely unhindered. In 2014 and 2015, I attended training events by a pro-life group seeking to teach Chinese house churches about the sanctity of life. During my first trip, I visited the group’s pregnancy help center, housed inside a hospital in central China.

At the time, the ministry was struggling to stay afloat. While the Christian hospital director had originally promised that women seeking abortions would first visit a counselor at the pregnancy center, the non-Christian doctor in charge of the ward barred volunteers from meeting with the women. Furthermore, ministry leaders had difficulty finding enough volunteers to man the center. On that sweaty summer day, a distressed volunteer asked me to pray God would allow the center to stay open and continue its work of helping mothers keep their babies.

Today the center is up and running with a paid counselor and a consistent team of volunteers, and the uncooperative doctor has been transferred to a different department. Incredibly, the government allowed the group to legally register as a nongovernmental organization in China called Good Neighbors Center for Pregnancy Help. The Christian hospital director who originally greenlighted the center retired from his position and now works with Good Neighbors to promote pregnancy help centers at other hospitals.

Good Neighbors hosted a party last Christmas, and 12 women showed up who had found help at the center: Some were pregnant, others had babies bundled close. They shared how the center supported them in giving birth to their babies even when their parents, boyfriends, and doctors pressured them to abort. In order to reach more people, Good Neighbors plans to start a nationwide hotline for women in crisis pregnancies.

Jim Peters, the American pro-life activist who started this group in China, said that after six years of training local leaders and crisscrossing China to teach churches about the sanctity of life, he’s “worked himself out of a job.” He handed control to a local pastor, who now trains Chinese leaders to continue the work.

While Good Neighbors has shared the pro-life message in the four major house church networks, Peters admits it’s difficult to follow up and track how often these pastors preach pro-life messages from the pulpit. The work has also faced setbacks as government scrutiny of house churches increases: Authorities barred “uncles” or top leaders of the church networks from leaving the country and warned house church pastors that they are gathering illegally. This has led to the cancellation of training sessions held at those house churches.

However, the pro-life work itself hasn’t faced direct government persecution, and Good Neighbors’ newfound legal status indicates that pro-life issues are becoming less sensitive in China. In fact, encouraging mothers to keep their babies can actually help China correct a demographic problem caused by the long-standing one-child policy: Even though the government switched to a two-child policy last year, Chinese couples still aren’t having enough children to care for the country’s rapidly aging population.

“I think the government probably wants to end the population control policy completely if they could do so without losing face,” Peters said. “That’s why they’re allowing us so much freedom: They welcome it.”


June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

@JuneCheng_World

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