Editor’s note: This article was written by an elderly Christian who is a regular member of a registered church in north China. Through his years of observation, it analyzes why some believers choose to meet in a house church, the type of church with Chinese characteristics.
The house church is called a family gathering. It is commonly known as “the meeting point” that some Christians regularly meet in a believer’s house, engaged in prayer, Bible reading, and other religious activities, according to the Dictionary of Christianity published by the Commercial Press in 2005. A small fixed religious group is formed without any explicit leader, but a convener spontaneously emerges in religious activities that last a certain time.
The house church is one of the characteristics of Chinese Christianity. Without legality, the group is not affiliated with CCC&TSPM. The family meeting point I know can accommodate 1,500 people at most. In some certain places, the number of house church congregations can exceed those of large TSPM churches. The house church is categorized into four types: one owned by or subordinate to the TSPM church, meeting points of different denominations, family gatherings, and heretical meeting points. We talk here about orthodox house churches, without regard to any heretical meetings.
Let’s analyze eight reasons why some believers choose to meet in house churches.
1. The house church presents strong affinity.
In urban areas, the house church is comprised of neighbors and community owners who are familiar with one another; in the countryside, the members are village members and even believers with ties of kinship.
With a family atmosphere, rural Christians meet at the convener’s private house or even on a heatable brick bed (kang) which is popular in northern China.
Compared to large, solemn registered churches that set many rules with strict management, the house church has a more relaxed style. After meetings, the congregation chats with each other, particularly among elderly women. As some churches offer free lunches, people cook, eat, and drink together. The home atmosphere adds intimacy, comfort, and happiness to those who lack family love.
2. The house church’s cell groups are attractive.
The house church forms neighbors and community residents in cities or villagers, fellow mountain residents, and subdistrict believers into several cell groups.
The biggest feature of the groups is the familiarity between members to such an extent that personal details such as where they live, how many family members they have, their health conditions, family incomes, and even about their children are transparent. If someone is absent from a meeting, the cell group leader will immediately know and respond to it. For example, one of my relatives used to gather in a registered church, but she lives alone with multiple kinds of diseases.
Without her child around her, she relies her daily life on the help of a believer who lives in the same community. If there is any problem with the plumbing, her cell group members come to repair it. A large church with thousands of people cannot do that.
3. The location is close to the homes of believers.
According to consumer psychology, people prefer to shop on the way or in close places.
A house church is in the vicinity of the neighborhood. Sometimes a home church sits only tens of meters away from believers’ families or up to a ten-minute ride. After casual talks, members arrive at their church. However, one has to take a bus to a remote large registered church; after church services, mass believers rush to the bus, which may disgust other passengers.
Particularly in the winter in north China, a Christian has to spend about one hour transferring to another bus on the way to his megachurch. If there is heavy snow causing traffic inconvenience, some believers will walk as much as more than two hours to their churches, let alone the possible risk of slips and the consent of their family members.
4. Unbinding from religious policies and laws, the house church is without restraint.
Free from the government administration and religious policies and laws, the house church is basically without restraint and can even do as it pleases. For example, regarding the baptism of seekers, the house church can immediately baptize anyone at their request without going through the formalities that take up a lot of time. While minors are forbidden to enter religious sites, some house churches can receive children since some believers have the duty of babysitting. If children are not permitted to enter the church, they would rather not go there.
The biggest problem is the suspension of in-person meetings in TSPM churches during the COVID-19 pandemic, but house meeting points have never ceased gathering. Some Christians who have formed a decades-long habit of going to church naturally move to house churches.
5. The house church has strong mutual help.
First of all, the house church offers mutual help in materials and funds among one another. Funding at a low cost is for daily necessities and disease treatment. Some house churches with foreign affiliations are sufficient with money.
Secondly, its members share reciprocal household chores. Believers can offer door-to-door cleaning services and daily supplies purchase for the elderly, sick, and disabled as well as babysitting for churchgoers at all times.
Thirdly, counseling, assistance, and stress relief about mental health and families can be given to congregations at any time. Some will even listen to nagging about domestic trivia and offer sympathy and comfort to one another. These kinds of mutual help and fraternity make believers feel at home.
6. Pastoral care may be unrefined but down-to-earth.
We should admit that most rural house churches offer “unrefined” pastoral care and even some pastors have never received any theological training. They preach very common words in sermons, and some interpret the Bible through human will or share chicken soup for the soul stuff. Knowing the specific situation of every member, house church pastors can preach down-to-earth and speak directly on the right topics based on the listener’s circumstances so that their words can be more readily received by them. Even some storytelling or chatting styles are popular among congregations. These preaching styles have an advantage over “formal speeches” by official churches.
7. Some house churches are made up of elites.
“Elite” house churches have two types. The first kind is formed by expatriates and returnee students, including leading intellectuals in different fields and many who have joined foreign denominations before returning to China. Back home, they hold bilingual services in Chinese and their foreign languages. Pastoring and maintaining the church by themselves, those congregations do not absorb members as readily. They gather at a place with good surroundings and preach sermons systematically. On festivals like Christmas, they would come to official churches. Those churches are pleased to take in young and mid-aged intellectuals and some TSPM churches introduce some members into their churches.
The second type is composed of businesspeople. Bosses and entrepreneurs gather in a distinct way: tea parties, exchange meetings, treating one another to big meals in turns at noon, or formal services in a small church. This type of group is called “business fellowships” or “entrepreneurship fellowships”.
8. There is little power or interest struggle in rural house churches.
There is no power organization such as a church administrative board or deacon board nor the position of senior pastor, president of the local Christian council, or chairman of TSPM in a rural house church. As a result, there is little power or interest struggle. What’s more, the convener has the spirit of self-devotion.
An old sister who runs a business purchased four commercial apartments in a first-tier city for the meeting place. She never accepts any offering from Christians. This avoids corruption and scheme against each other.
One of the best examples of how a registered church deals with unregistered is Beihai Church in Guangxi Province. The megachurch is not in charge of its subordinate family meeting site which is responsible for its finance by itself. It solves the greatest obstacle of an underground church affiliated with an official church.
Can we absorb the virtue and resist the dark side of the Chinese church to preach the gospel, including forming the “united front” of the house church and the meeting point?
May God bless us and be with us!
- Translated by Karen Luo