Book Review: China’s Urban Christians

Chinas's Urban Christians Book Review

Whilst I’m working on an article for a secular website on Christianity in China, this is one of the books I wanted to read. Focusing on the urban Christians in China, this book blends theology, missiology, ecclesiology, sociology, politics and geography to make a text that is fascinating to read and very thought provoking. Noting that the the well-known historic growth of the church in China has predominantly been rural and charismatic/pentecostal, this study focuses on the church in China’s hundreds of growing cities, the Christianity practiced by many young urban people.

This is very much a story of a church and country/culture in change. With useful observations on expatriate and international Chinese communities, this focuses particularly on the rapid urban expansion of China and the way that the Churches have gone along inside and with this growth. The key here is one of change – with a particularly interesting emphasis and set of lessons around leadership. Many church leaders in urban settings in China have not got the revivalist heritage of the rural house churches – it was interesting to me to note the increased importance of and interest in Reformed Theology, echoing Tim Keller’s approach. There is a fascinating discussion of the merits of leadership in different ways, which to me speaks to a wider range of church contexts than just urban China.

At the heart of the change and growth in urban Chinese Christianity are new economic realities:

Having fixed public locations for worship raises new economic considerations and is itself evidence of the new economic realities shaping the urban church. Although there exists great disparity between the financial resources available to an urban migrant congregation as opposed to one composed of middle-class professionals, the unregistered church in general is moving toward greater self-sufficiency. It relies far less upon donate resources from outside China and upon purely voluntary, often bi-vocational, leadership. Instead it is able to fund its own programs, including renting worship space, and to pay the salaries of full or part-time staff. Urban Christians commonly pay for various types of training and seminars, from marriage conferences to seminary-level courses and even trips to the Holy Land. They are willing to purchase books and other resources, in contrast to a previous generation of Christians who believed that ‘if it is for ministry, then it should be free’, and who relied on generous overseas donors for supplies of Bibles and training materials. The church’s self-sufficiency removes the temptation that often accompanied surreptitious transfers of funds from donors outside China into the hands of a few believers (often including the pastor and a few close relatives or associates) responsible for their use

Clearly, there a range of dynamics going on here – one of the key threads in the book is the relative normality of bi-vocational pastors and other church leaders, in contrast to many Western expectations, but necessary to function and thrive in a challenging culture. It is of course now historically, geographically and numerically inaccurate to see the Chinese Church as some short-term, recent growth phenomenon – this book gives plenty of lessons for those of us in the West, in my opinion.

As well as lessons, examples and encouragement, some of the stories of practical faith found in this book are inspiring. As well as oft-quoted statistics (testimony, mostly) about 90% of rural churchgoers coming to Christian faith due to a miraculous encounter, the stories of Christians in the city are challenging and inspiring. I found one story of a Church keen to engage with culture, rather than be ‘otherworldly’, particularly interesting:

Shouwang Church in Beijing, whose vision is to be ‘a city built on a hilltop’, typifies this decided shift. Not all urban Christians would endorse Shouwang’s overt public stance, particularly vis-a-vis the government. Nevertheless, Shouwang’s pioneering role is widely recognised and has even been acknowledged in China’s official media. The Church began public worship services when it brought together its ten home fellowships in 2005 and began renting space in an office building. It has published its own periodical since 2007 and also has its own web site. Its leaders have been outspoke about the need to be ‘on the surface’ instead of ‘under the water’, a stance which led them to engage in lengthy discussions with government officials over a period of years in an effort to gain legal recognition.
      When those negotiations eventually failed, resulting in Showing losing its premises, its leaders resorted to holding worship services outside. On the morning of November 1, 2009, hundreds of congregants, along with robed choir members and musicians with their instruments, gathered in Beijing’s Haidian Park in an unseasonably early snowstorm, much to the chagrin of passersby and police, who watched nervously but seemed uncertain as to how to respond. The congregation later moved into another rented facility, but when the landlord of that property was pressured into discontinuing the lease Shouwang again took to meeting outdoors. In a pastoral letter sent the night before Easter 2011, Pastor Jin Tianming, who was under house arrest, wrote, ‘The outdoor in the outdoor worship is not a means to an end but a stand we are making before our Lord of glory and the authorities. It is a kind of worship before the only true God who is the only head of church. And in this particular period, it is a worship that is even more precious than any hymn or sermon and would much more please God’

This is the frankly challengingly beautiful faith of the urban Christians in China. Gathering wherever, pastored by someone under house arrest, speaking up to and with the authorities, yet committed to worshipping God.

My review of this book could have gone on a lot longer – there are dozens of lessons to learn in its pages. I’d strongly recommend that this is a book read widely by those thinking about ‘leadership – the cost of entry to read this book is minuscule compared to many leadership conferences or courses, and the learning is encouraging, challenging and easy to hand. For those – like me – interested in the Church in China, this is an important interim history. I’m excited to see what happens next.

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