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What’s a House Church? – The difference between registered/unregistered churches in China

Yesterday I answered some of the questions I get most often about Christianity in China (if you have more please post them below). Today we’ll be looking mostly at the differences between a registered and unregistered church.

Registered Church/Official Church

Chinese protestant churches must be registered with two groups in order to be considered legal; these groups are the China Christian Council (CCC), and the Three-self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). These two groups work so closely together that at this level of understanding, it is not so important to differentiate.

Church in Dali, Yunnan

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement was formed in 1951 as a way of placating the new Communist gov’t that there would be no direct foreign involvement in the Chinese church. The ideals highlighted by this movement though were actually established in the late 1800’s as a guide for establishing an indigenous Chinese church (more on mission in China coming later this week). The three principals are self-support, self-governance, and self-propagation. While these principals might sound like they are reinforcing the party line, I think they are the best hope for creating a Chinese church that truly addresses the needs of the Chinese people.

Church in Longzhou

Church in Longzhou

These two organizations also run China’s 13 seminaries as well as provide oversight for the Amity Printing Press and the Amity Foundation.

For a church to become registered it needs to have 50 core members, a seminary trained minister, and a fixed location for worship.

Underground church/Unregistered church

My understanding of this kind of church is somewhat limited because I have never actually attended any of their services. The reason for this is not that I think they are not true Christians or anything like that, but because I worry that a foreigner attending worship with them might attract unwanted attention from local authorities.

These churches often refuse to register with the TSPM and CCC because they believe they are too tightly controlled by the gov’t, or are not fully conveying the message of the Bible. Other times they do not register because they do not meet the requirements for registration.

Many of these underground churches receive funding and training from Christians outside of China. This can lead to some strange interpretations of the Bible, since the trainings are often short, and not held in Chinese (If you are thinking this is only Evangelical American missionaries, you might be surprised to know that there are also scores of Korean missionaries in China promoting this kind of church). For example one of my colleagues noticed that a student was suddenly far too serious and had stopped smiling. He asked her if something was wrong to which she replied, “Christians should never smile because Jesus has died.”

However it is important to remember that these churches vary widely in their teachings, and it is my understand that many of them are theologically sound.

Laws Effecting Churches in China

While people have freedom of belief in China, this is vastly different from freedom of religion.

For example churches are not to advertise, or publicly try to attract new believers. I learned this from a student who had tried to make a sign to put outside of the church in Longzhou, only to find out that it was not allowed. She was incredibly disappointed to learn about this and the other ways the gov’t restricts proselytizing.

These laws are in place because China also technically has freedom from religion. Essentially this means that a person should have to seek religion, and should not have to encounter it outside of church.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the rapidly growing church in China