25th April, 2011
Since the embattled Beijing Shouwang Church had its first outdoor public Sunday service in a snowstorm on 1st November, 2009, the world has been watching. Now Beijing's largest underground "house" church is making headlines again. Some 300 parishioners have been arrested these last two Sunday's for worshiping outdoors, without state permission.
Why would its members insist to pray in the open air and risk being detained, fired, threatened, or forced to move out of their rented homes?
"An open and public Sunday worship is not a political act. It's a fundamental expression of regular Christian life."
The question was raised by church leaders. Bloggers soon followed. "Was Shouwang Church right to meet publicly?" "What is the good for the church to disobey the government?" "Why can't Christians be good citizens and law-abiders?", they asked. Others said the church must compromise to stay out of trouble.
Yet, based on my own experiences and views of prominent scholars and pastors, the answer is simple: An open and public Sunday worship is not a political act. It's a fundamental expression of regular Christian life.
The Bible tells us that followers of Jesus Christ must not stop worshiping the Lord. Take Hebrews 10: 25. "not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching."
After 169 members were detained on April 10 and church leaders put under house arrest, the congregation still continued with a public Sunday service. This wasn't proof of disobedience as citizens, but an expression of honesty and faithfulness to the Lord. They are gladly following the Lord’s teachings to bear witness to God’s love. But they also pray for the government and their countrymen.
As Christians, they can't rebel against their allegiance to the Lord despite facing danger. Otherwise, they would betray themselves as liars to their conscience, the people and the Lord.
So, why did the church give up the previous indoor space?
Beijing Shouwang Church has over 1,000 regular attendants. Even its three separate services were packed from the corridor to the pulpit. The rented facility had only one narrow door but no windows. This made it difficult to breath and to evacuate in emergency situations such as fire. It also confined church growth. Additionally, having been repeatedly urged by the landlord to leave, church leaders were forced to end the lease contract.
Why did the church not seek another indoor space instead of going outdoors?
For Christians, the most important aim of attending Sunday service is to worship the Lord, to experience a more intimate relationship with Him and to build up fellowship with parishioners. While the best place could be a spacious indoor place, the church was forced to take the outdoor choice.
Just before Christmas 2009, we submitted full payment of $US4 million (27 million yuan) to a property seller for purchasing the 1492 square metre second floor in an office building. But until today the owner has not turned over the keys to the church. The church managed to seek a lease contract with another spacious hotel, but it canceled the contract after government pressure.
Why didn't the church break the congregation into smaller groups and go back to private houses?
If the congregation is divided into smaller groups again, the church will take a backward step. It will not avoid conflicts. Why?
• Most of those detained in recent raids since April 17 were reportedly caught and taken to different local police stations either when they gathered in small groups of about 8 or 10 people, or on the way back, separately. Some were caught at a restaurant or at a coffee table.
• Those under house arrest did not get a chance to go out of their own apartment. One elder was blocked in his apartment for 10 days without being able to leave. Another elder had his apartment door blocked by uniformed police. Obviously it is not a matter of size, but more of how the government treats this church.
"For Christians there is no significant difference whether to worship the Lord privately, in small or large groups, indoors or outdoors, in hotels or in the wilderness. The church, as the body of Jesus Christ, must be faithful to the mission the Lord has given."
For Christians there is no significant difference whether to worship the Lord privately, in small or large groups, indoors or outdoors, in hotels or in the wilderness. The church, as the body of Jesus Christ, must be faithful to the mission the Lord has given. Focused on the Lord's evangelism plan, known as the Great Commission, Shouwang Church feels it must go forward. Since 1993 it grew from just over 10 people to more than 1,000 members now.
To work more effectively and develop a children’s Sunday school, charity projects, youth groups and other ministries, the church turned 13 fellowships into two sister congregations, meeting in the same office building. It took the semi-underground house church into the open. The church submitted all the papers seeking legal recognition as a non-governmental organisation, but was rejected.
In 2008, the two sister congregations united. Many people misunderstand these steps as building a mega church like in the United States. It enabled the church to be active in helping victims from China's Sichuan Earthquake and core-worker training programs. Another major step was taken in 2009 with a church building campaign. It challenged the current state-church relation in China.
Why does the church not join the official denomination to seek state approval?
This question is unfair. It could also be asked: why does the official church not transform itself into a free, independent church? For the true Christian a church means a community of believers in Jesus Christ, through whom they are reconciled with the Father and unified in the Holy Spirit.
The void of free spirituality for half a century in China is showing. Poisonous food is reported almost daily. Frauds in the virtual, and real, world have deprived people of trust. They are suffering an unprecedented thirst for the living spirit, meaning and value in life. Hundreds of Chinese come to Jesus each week acorss the country.
Even the official Beijing Haidian Church, for instance, has a Saturday night service and seven services on Sunday. From early morning until seven at night. Some 20 minutes before the previous service ends, a long line of people gather outside in rain or shine, hoping to get a seat.
Is there a resolution ahead?
Scholars and official church leaders say there is no moral conflict between being faithful Christians and good citizens. When a house church sees hungry people it feeds them. When it sees the naked it clothe them; it helps thirsty souls find living water. House church Christians also silently swallow the humiliation of being interrogated and taken to police stations. In peace and obedience.
I praise the Lord for placing them in China.
The author is an active member of the Beijing Shouwang Church. This article was first published on BosNewsLife.com.