'Group-Based, Family-Based, Digitalization': Three Trends of Chinese Churches Intensified in Post-COVID-19 Era

Citizens were undergoing COVID-19 tests in front of Gangwashi Church in Beijing during the first half of 2022.
Citizens were undergoing COVID-19 tests in front of Gangwashi Church in Beijing during the first half of 2022. (photo: Gangwashi Church )
By Ruth WangJune 6th, 2022

With the continuation of pandemic containment and the intensification of religion management, a number of notable changes have taken place in the form and operation of churches in China.

"Group-based, family-based, digitalization" is a brief summary of a recent conversation between house church pastors from different regions about the current situation and the trends of churches in China since the 2020 pandemic. Some of these pastors minister to churches of different sizes, some do the outreach to various groups such as college ministries, and others are engaged in theological education and the promotion of Christian education while ministering.

This trend is not limited to house churches. It is also becoming more prevalent in some Three-Self churches in various locations where regular in-person meetings are not feasible due to the safety measures to prevent COVID-19.

“Group-based” refers to small group gatherings. “Family-based” means that meetings and worship services take place in a believer’s home. “Digitalization” refers to worship, meetings, and training programs held online. Actually, the three changes have begun years ago, but the 2020 pandemic has speeded them up. It can be said that three trends have become more prominent in the Post-COVID-19 Era and the external influences have consolidated them. 

On the one hand, the trends refer to being unable to meet in person in sanctuaries. On the other hand, pastoral ministry cannot be omitted. The "group-based, family-based, and digitalization" model has evolved in response to these needs. Here are some manifestations of this trend: large churches are divided into small groups; the demand for teaching and curriculum materials for small groups has greatly increased; the training for group leaders has been enhanced significantly. Meanwhile, switching back to family-based meetings becomes a focus of more churches. More Christian families are attaching importance to family worship. Online meetings, training programs, and courses have increased tens of times more than before the pandemic.

More than ten years ago, house churches moved their meetings from homes to public office buildings. Nowadays, they are switching from large venues to home-based churches, from the pursuit of large venues to decentralization. The fervor for purchasing and building churches and large venues has ceased. Group gatherings are now taking place in individuals’ homes and various meeting places. The venues of the Three-Self church are also temporarily unavailable due to various circumstances.

Because it is not clear how long the current hardship will last, it is unknown how long the trend of the "group-based, family-based, digitalization" model will continue.

It can be expected that this trend in the Three-Self church may be significantly diminished once their church meetings return back to normal. In contrast, house churches have been more convinced of the “early church” model, or the house-based model, since the government policy measures were tightened in 2014. Additionally, they have observed the improvement of the pastoral care associated with small group ministries. Even if in-person meetings resume in the future, house churches may still rely on small groups, families, and online modes, to a much greater degree.

House churches: Emphasizing that the church is "the gathering of two or three people in the name of Jesus"

The inception of the Chinese house church was in the 1950s. The term "house church" does not refer to worship within families and is not translated into "family church." In the context of the past times, people who did not want to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement could not attend the churches that were officially registered with the Movement. They could only meet in Protestant believers' houses to maintain their Christian faith.

Simply because of this, people often associate the Chinese house church with the scene of gatherings in believers' homes decades ago, especially during the Cultural Revolution. With the opening of the political and social environment as well as the growth of churches, the “New Urban House Church Movement” gradually emerged around 2000. One of its important features was to call on house churches to move from believers’ private homes to public office buildings. Influenced by this trend, many large churches in cities began to raise funds or get bank loans to purchase real estate properties, such as parts of office buildings. This type of “public building model” became the mainstream.

However, following the Zhejiang cross-removal Movement in 2014, China's religion management policies became strict in the management of church affairs, teaching staff, church land, and religious information communication on the internet. One of the big challenges that many house churches faced was the safety issue when churches were operated at a large scale in public spaces. Furthermore, maintaining a public meeting space placed great pressure on the church's finances. In those years, the churches that owned properties in various locations encountered an array of issues, such as difficulties in repaying loans and disputes over venues.

It has been difficult to meet in person since the pandemic began in 2020. A number of house churches have found that the biggest challenge is to make good use of the space regularly even if it is rented. Meanwhile, the economic downturn and the loss of believers brought about by the pandemic have resulted in fewer monetary offerings, an issue that numerous churches and pastors have to deal with.

For various reasons, many house churches have gone semi-underground again, either voluntarily or involuntarily. One of the big changes is that these churches no longer lease office buildings or other noticeable meeting places. Instead, they choose spaces flexible for church meetings, such as small venues and believers’ homes.

As a result, many churches are divided into small units and emphasize small groups. Pastor A, a young pastor born in the 1980s in East China, indicated in March 2021 that the pandemic had little impact on his church. "Because we started small groups since a half year prior to the pandemic," stated him.

"In the beginning, small groups were mainly to prepare for emergencies such as policy tightening. When the pandemic broke out, we transitioned to the format of pastoring in small groups successfully. There has been little impact on the believers, and the ministering to the believers has been advanced," continued Pastor A.

They did not abandon the leased church space all at once. By keeping it, the believers could feel a sense of "home" and belonging because they had been meeting in the church space for years. "Online ministering has been implemented, too. When the pandemic precaution measures are less restricted, a hybrid of online and in-person modes is used. Each small group takes turns to attend the Sunday service in the main hall of the church.”

"Between the founding of the People's Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution, the Christian predecessors had begun to prepare for the future policies. They taught the believers to root God’s Word in their personal life. This is how Christian heritage was able to be preserved even when the believers were not allowed to read the Bible during the Cultural Revolution. Small groups serve the same function and focus more on the lives of believers. Believers build a relationship with God rather than with a church or a pastor. In this way, the believers can stand before God no matter what circumstances they are facing."

Pastor B, a middle-aged pastor in Beijing, has been ministering to emerging churches in the city for many years. He stated that one of the important lessons that the pandemic had taught them was the perception of the church. "Church is not a building where believers meet. According to Jesus, the church is ‘the gathering of two or three people in His name'.”

Pastor C, ministering to a church of migrant workers in a second-tier city in East China, shared a similar view that we have to let go the "temple-centered" doctrine in the post-pandemic era. The "temple-centered" doctrine had caused the church to struggle when the government policies became strict and when the pandemic hit. “The traditional Christian church followed the 'temple-centered' doctrine in its worship service and identity, with the church replacing the temple. Meetings need a physical space, which leads to the church-centered model. In-person meetings are centered around and hosted in a certain building, and the Christian church could be seen in public. The social gathering becomes the main expression of the existence of Christian belief. However, there would be challenges associated with this type of church meetings in a building when physical space is constrained. To the believers accustomed to using the church collectively to define their faith and identity, Christianity could not be manifested in the void. Their faith might be jeopardized. In turn, it will try every means to strive for its manifestation and expansion of the church's physical space. This will inevitably conflict with the secular world. As a matter of fact, many concepts of the traditional church today do not come from Jesus, but from what Jesus opposed. They could be the traditions long abandoned by the Jews. This is one of the main reasons for the difficult situation of the Christian church today."

He called out, "The model initiated by Jesus is the model of the free union of Christians, which is unlimited in number and gender. It could range from two or three people to a dozen. In a more meaningful way, several people learn and grow together, improve themselves, impact their families, and make the world a better place. 'This is my command: Love each other.' (John 15:17) This teaching is not to oppose church gatherings but the temple-centered practice. In such unusual days with space constraints, now is the time for Christians to accept the changes, be molded, and grow. This could be the best way to testify for Christian faith in the present moment.”

Before the pandemic, a number of senior pastors of Chinese churches believed that the most important reason for the growth of house churches in China was to follow the example of the "early church.” Today, church activities move from public spaces such as office buildings to families and small groups. This is the recurrence of the essence of the "early church" from the perspective of the house church pastors.

However, Pastor D, who has been concerned about the theological education of house churches, stated that it was critical for the time being to develop a consensus and a unified foundation of Christian theology among various denominations and churches. Today’s church was forced to go underground again due to the circumstances, and believers met in families and small groups. It was rare to see churches in public. "Under such circumstances, heresies and cults will continue to make waves. When there is time and opportunities, we should hurry to establish a comprehensive theological education system... If our thinking is not on the same page, we will become fragmented and disorganized over time when the church is constantly scattered,” he added. 

He was concerned that if a consensus of the sound doctrine was not reached and communicated, "people would develop churches in their own way after churches go underground. When there is a sudden reopening one day, we may see all kinds of heresies. To unite everyone with a sound doctrine is more important than anything else. First of all, we need to hurry to integrate the principles of the Christian faith. Other tasks such as ministering strategies are secondary. Otherwise, it is very likely that the Chinese church will be completely hopeless."

The Three-Self church: Finding that small groups have an impact on ministering to believers

Since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, the large churches associated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in various locations have been struggling even though they own spaces for church activities. The days when these churches are open are fewer than the days closed due to the COVID-19 protective measures.

A church with more than 1,000 believers in a city in Heilongjiang counted the days when the church was open: In the past 828 days, the church switched back and forth between "double suspension of opening" and "resuming in-person meetings," with only 157 normal opening days.

This is not an isolated case. The Three-Self church has been facing similar situations in at least a dozen provinces. For instance, the churches in provinces such as Jiangsu and Zhejiang resumed church activities in May 2022. According to the precautionary measures of Hangzhou against COVID-19, fifty people can be in a meeting, but the maximum is 300. This indicates that the Chongyi Church, probably the largest mega-church in China, could only hold 300 people when there are normally 5,500 people in one Sunday service. Some other cities are experiencing the same challenge. A church with a congregation of several thousand people may only allow 100 people to meet at a time. Moreover, requirements such as vaccination or PCR within 48 hours are imposed.

Church closures and the lack of in-person meetings have become a challenge to the mega-churches in cities with regard to ministering to their congregations of thousands of people.

Consequently, many Three-Self churches have shown interest in small groups and started to put them into practice a few years ago. Small group meetings in families began to take shape. The church has been divided into groups of about 10 people for small gatherings and ministering. A number of grassroots pastors of the Three-Self churches found that the ministering in small groups was more thorough than the previous format of mass gatherings in a church building. Some brothers have observed several small group meetings held in the family and benefited from their observations. They learned that the scale of such meetings is relatively small, ranging from three to six or seven people. Group members gather at believers’ homes for fellowship. They share their feelings and thoughts about faith as well as their visions for the church. The group cooks together after the fellowship, and the members build closer relationships with each other. The group enjoys itself and has a great time.

Yet, there are challenges. For example, it is difficult to manage when there are a large number of groups. There were instances where group leaders lured away from the members. Heresies and cults have secretly sent their members to serve as group leaders and poach the members. In view of this, churches are focusing more on the training of group leaders and ministers.

Meanwhile, the Three-Self church faces more restrictions on online ministering. Many local religion management departments have prohibited the Three-Self church from any type of online pastoring. As a result, the church pastors can only share messages via the 60-second voice mails on WeChat to avoid the requirement of sermon submission. With the implementation of the Administrative Measures for Internet Religious Information Services since March 1st, a number of local Three-Self churches have dismissed their WeChat groups to be exempted from the required submission of monetary offerings. The difficulties in online ministering have increased the demand for small groups in the Three-Self church.

Given those external changes, more and more registered churches focus more on the cultivation of core staff and the inner construction of their congregation rather than the previous pursuit of church building scales and the number of members. 

Online vs. in-person ministry: Complementing each other but with controversies

Five or six years before the 2020 pandemic, Pastor X of a house church in Hangzhou started to minister to the believers through QQ, WeChat, and other platforms. At that time, many were skeptical and critical of his approach. Many pastors believed that “the internet is evil” and tried to avoid it as much as possible.

After the pandemic outbreak, the challenge of meeting in person has directly caused the online meeting to skyrocket. Some believers received links to more than three online meetings within a day.

It has been more than two years now. The importance of online ministry is becoming more evident to pastors and churches although there are controversies surrounding it. For instance, the debate on whether or not to hold communion virtually has been going on for more than a year. Although some Three-Self churches have held communion virtually, this issue remains controversial and divisive.

The paradigm shift from the church with a physical space to online ministering has been challenging. These challenges are addressed in the preface of the first issue of The Church, 2022. It is a Christian magazine published by pastors with a house church background. “Pastors and believers in some churches are experiencing external persecution. When churches are voluntarily or involuntarily divided into small groups for meetings, church workers are overstretched by running between multiple sites or groups. When the church is defined as 'a called-out assembly (Ekklesia)' but 'dispersed' in form, it is in a crisis of 'dissipating' fundamentally.” Therefore, they hope to explore the concept of the church from the perspective of "community building" and to renew pastors’ perception.

Although there are all kinds of controversies, the consensus of most pastors and churches is that online ministry is important, especially in the current difficult situation. However, in-person meetings are far more essential and irreplaceable. Even if the scale is small, in-person meetings can be very effective.

Increasingly more churches and believers are starting family worship

Besides holding small-scale meetings in individuals’ homes, family worship among family members has become another topic of attention and discussion in the difficult situation nowadays.

Some churches have started to encourage their congregations' family worship at home, believing that this is an effective way to improve family harmony and pass on the faith to the next generation.

When the church has to go underground and is rarely seen in public, "the private family space" could become a way for Christians to live out and pass on their faith, a pastor reminded.

- Translated by June I. Chen

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