Post-Pandemic, Will China’s Church Be Changed Forever?

Each day, Aaron Zhang—all names in this story are pseudonyms—wakes up and helps his two children get ready for their day. His oldest is in elementary school, and like a growing number of other Chinese Christian families, their family homeschools.

Last year, they were dreaming about overseas mission work. Zhang even quit his job to prepare. But now, with restrictions tight, the family can’t obtain or renew passports. Their goal of being missionaries is on hold indefinitely.

These are difficult days for Chinese believers, and darker days loom. On February 1, 2020, harsh new regulations overseeing every aspect of faith practice went into effect across China. These completed a spate of regulations initially rolled out in 2018.

But during the 2020 rollout, the government’s attention was diverted: one week before, Wuhan was locked down. Chinese society entered a season of intense quarantine and separation.

More than a year later, life in China remains somewhat bizarre, yet largely functional. But there may be no return to normalcy for the church.

Restrictions

The new restrictions require Chinese Communist Party oversight for every measure of religious life—staffing, fund management, gatherings. China’s unofficial churches, known as house churches, have operated in recent decades in an ambiguous space: they have rented public space, welcomed visitors, and been open about some of their activities, all without official government sanction. The February restrictions effectively close that era of semi-openness.

In China, there may be no return to normalcy for the church.

More ominously, these measures specify that all religious activity within China must promote and support the Chinese Communist Party.

“I think a lot of the churches could disappear,” said S. E. Wang of China Partnership. Still, “God is leading the way forward. This pandemic . . . is not the beginning of the end; it is the end of the beginning.”

Short-Term Opportunities

Even before COVID-19, a lot of Chinese house churches couldn’t meet face to face.

“Persecution prepared the Chinese church to face this pandemic, because it forced churches to close their public meeting places,” said Simon Liu, a pastor who trains unregistered church planters.

All religious activity within China must promote and support the Chinese Communist Party.

Since the pandemic, Chinese pastors have held online crusades. These are not intended to replace Sunday worship, but to preach the good news and unite disconnected Christians. And they require courage: the evening’s preacher must be willing to show his face to a non-vetted crowd, which can be dangerous.

“The risk is there, but I think more and more see opportunity,” Liu said.

The online meetings average 1,000 to 2,000 direct connections. One northeastern Chinese pastor began his message this way: “The Christian hope lies in this—we are not stronger or purer than others, but rather than believing in ourselves, we believe in Jesus, who upholds us whenever we fall, who strengthens us when our strength is drained, who loves us when we are in pain.”

Christians have invited their family and friends, but also have asked their enemies. “Some people have even invited their local police,” Liu said. “The persecuting parties feel like they are also vulnerable: ‘Maybe I could get this virus. Maybe I will die. . . . You are not afraid of death, so maybe something in your faith is quite unique.’”

Persecution prepared the Chinese church to face this pandemic.

Believers have also done what they can to serve and care, whether next door or around the world. Chinese social media were replete with stories of Christians donating masks and caring for quarantined neighbors.

A Chinese Christian in New York received nearly 6,000 masks from mainland Chinese Christians at the beginning of the pandemic. Those masks came in small packs of 100 or 200, from Chinese brothers and sisters who reported it took as many as nine hours to obtain and ship one such small package.

Long-Term Worries

Even while leaning into short-term opportunities, Chinese pastors see problems ahead. The pandemic likely ushered in the beginning of a new reality.

In the United States, churches radically altered the life of their bodies to conform to pandemic norms. Although some of those modifications will remain, most American churches have already returned to worshiping together. In China, things may not ever revert to pre-pandemic days.

“This is not short term,” Wang said. “Even if the pandemic is over, the public space has been squeezed very small for the churches to gather. There is no public space for people to go back to.”

He’s referring to tightening government controls, which mean house churches will no longer be able to rent commercial space for corporate worship, as many have been doing.

In China, things may not ever revert to pre-pandemic days. . . . ‘There is no public space for people to go back to.’

Private space is also tightly controlled. These days, nervous neighbors are more likely to report a gathering of 20 strangers. “Basically, you cannot have larger than two families, or three,” Wang said. “That will be a new norm for Chinese churches.”

“The Devil is using this opportunity to crack down on the church, that’s for sure, but God will use it in a different way,” one Chinese pastor said. Before persecution intensified in the last several years, many in China were attracted to the celebrity-pastor model. Gifted teachers attracted national and even international followings.

This new normal means less elevation of central leaders and a sharper focus on smaller groups. As Christian communities are broken down into smaller clusters through plague and persecution, church leaders must raise up a new generation of local leaders equipped to walk their people through marriages, deaths, and family conflicts.

Much of the training has to be indigenous: many missionaries were driven out of mainland China last year. Even after the pandemic ends, the number of overseas workers ministering in China will be much smaller than before the pandemic.

To that end, preparing capable teachers remains a priority.

“Even if today everything is going down, all of a sudden the door could open widely,” Wang said. “It is our responsibility to make that start to happen, so that when the door opens, a group of ready preachers can go to the streets and stadiums and preach the gospel.”

Pandemic and Persecution

The book of James is clear that no one knows what tomorrow will bring. Life is a mist that appears and then vanishes.

“The pandemic and the persecution have led to a new situation,” one Chinese pastor said. “We still do a lot of active planning, but more humbly we say, ‘Lord, if you are willing: this is your time. Use it.’ . . . We don’t know what the future holds.”

Chinese Christians have watched God work in uncertain times before. During the Cultural Revolution, believers were forced underground for decades, and many Western observers despaired at the church’s future. But in the 1980s, the Chinese church experienced an explosive period of growth. Today, there may be as many as 100 million Chinese believers.

“Sometimes we feel like God is pretty close to these things; sometimes we feel like God is pretty far,” Liu said. “But we know that everything is under his control, and he is behind everything. Whatever happens is God’s way to prepare his church. He is always preparing his church.”

Aaron Zhang agrees. “Through uncertainty, we depend on our certain God,” he said. “God calls us to live an uncertain life, so that we can trust and rely on him.”

Let’s Be Different in 2021. (But Not Like That.)

We love to be unique. We express our individuality in what we wear and how we look. We pride ourselves on knowing that obscure band from Brooklyn. We’re excited to tell others about the hole-in-the-wall restaurant we discovered last weekend.

As Christians, we’re called to be unique—but not like that.

It’s something different to be unique in a way that leads to being laughed at, to eating lunch alone, or to being thrown into a fiery furnace. That’s what happened to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

At the end of the seventh century B.C., Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon conquered Jerusalem. He took the three young men to Babylon as exiles and commanded them to fall before his idol statue (Dan. 3:6).

Everyday Idols

It may not seem like it at first, but as Christians we are in a similar situation today. We too are exiles, living in a land not our own. As much as I love New York City, where I live, my true home is the heavenly city God has prepared for us (Heb. 11:16). And while we may not be commanded to fall before a statue or be threatened with death, we’re confronted with all sorts of idols. What is an idol? Tim Keller defines it this way:

It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything that you seek to give you what only God can give. . . . An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.”

By that definition, we daily encounter idols that demand we fall before them.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were unique in a highly visible way. When everyone else fell before the statue, they stood. And people noticed. Some told the king that they defied his command, and it made him furious. He commanded they be brought before him and said, “If you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” (Dan. 3:15).

But as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood before the statue, so they stood up to the king:

O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up. (Dan. 3:16–18)

That’s the kind of unique we’re called to be. It’s less like the friend whose Instagram page highlights travel to unknown places and one-of-a-kind experiences, and more like the immigrant family whose food or traditions make them feel like outsiders. As exiles, we’re called to recognize the idols of our culture and refuse to bow down to them—even when it leads to rejection, even if it leads to death.

Unique in Every Way

We’re called to be unique in the way we work. The drive for success in our culture is strong; recognition and power can easily become idols. Often that leads to always working and never resting. As exiles, we’re called to work hard, but for God’s glory, not our own. And we’re called to pause every Sunday to rest and worship, even if that means we’re greeted by a full inbox Monday morning or we’re passed over for that promotion.

We’re called to be unique in the way we spend our time. Without even realizing it, we can spend hours a week scrolling through posts or crafting our online persona. Our phones can become an idol, too, and the root is usually a desire to be accepted by others.

Faithful exiles use technology to enrich our lives instead of allowing it to rule over us. There are times when we need to put it all away to meditate on God or spend time with others, even if that means we miss out on something else.

One of the most noticeable ways we’re called to be unique is in our romantic relationships. Where hookups and cohabitation are the norm, we’re to strive for commitment and strange virtues like chastity. In New York City, the pressure is compounded by high rent. Yet even though living together can save thousands of dollars, there are couples at my church who’ve forsaken the idols of sex and comfort and moved into separate apartments, despite the emotional and financial cost.

Unique Even to Death

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego give us an inspiring example of our calling to be unique. Even under the threat of death, they remained faithful. But so often we bow to idols under far less pressure than they experienced. We fail to be unique.

And it’s not just the big moments.

In all the little decisions of our day, we can choose God-substitutes over God himself. And for that, we do deserve fiery torment. Instead of needing salvation from the wrath of idols, we need rescue from the wrath of God.

There’s only one way to be saved from that fire. It’s by faith in the one who stood where we fall and died that we might live.

In the end, God delivered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fire, and the king actually promoted them. In a similar way, if we trust in God, he will save us from the fire we deserve, grow our faith so we can fulfill our calling to be unique, and one day exalt us with Christ in that heavenly city that is our true home.


Editors’ note: 

Don’t miss TGC’s book Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land by Elliot Clark. Get your copy now.

Children with Down syndrome targeted for abortion in UK

Mother tells NHS horror stories of intense pressure to terminate

NHS in London, England. | Reuters/Toby Melville

Political activist Heidi Crowter has sued the U.K.’s National Health Service for allowing the abortion of babies up to birth if they’re diagnosed as having Down syndrome.

Crowter, a woman with Down syndrome, will take her case to the U.K.’s High Court, the Christian Institute reports.

Along with her fellow campaigner, Máire Lea-Wilson, she says that the U.K.’s laws discriminate against people like her by allowing them to be killed. 

“The current law is unfair. It makes me feel like I shouldn’t exist, and that I’d be better off dead in the eyes of the law,” she told The Telegraph.

“The policy basically says that it’s normal for a baby with Down syndrome to be terminated right up until birth.”

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Nicola Enoch, who helps lead Positive about Down syndrome and trustees The Ups of Downs, told The Christian Post that the NHS pressures women to abort children like her son, Tom, who has Down syndrome.

“He’s completely nondiscriminatory. He takes things as they are. He doesn’t judge you by the clothes you wear or the car you drive. He says hello to people no one else speaks to and encourages others to do the same,” she told CP. “His tutor said he’s a breath of fresh air.”

The U.K.’s government-funded NHS uses prenatal testing to find out whether a baby has Down syndrome, said Enoch. Then, it frames the baby as a disaster for the mother.

“It’s the subliminal messages that we don’t even realize. The tone of the conversation,” she said. “That tone of ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘this baby is to be avoided.’”

Research conducted by Positive about Down syndrome showed that upon receiving news from the NHS that their baby had Down syndrome, 69% of pregnant women were immediately offered an abortion. If they said no, NHS officials would ask them again. And again. One woman was asked 15 times, the BBC reported.

Many women tell stories to Nicole of pressure from the NHS to end their babies’ lives.

“It was a high chance result. The midwife said to me, ‘Your only option is to terminate,’” one mother said.

“‘It’s positive for Down syndrome,’ the nurse said. ‘It’s Friday, we’re closing soon, you’ve got 20 minutes to decide whether you want an abortion or not,’” another recalled.

“At 37 weeks pregnant, when I was being induced the following morning, I was told I still had options as to whether I would have my baby. If she was born not breathing or struggling to breathe, they were willing to not help my baby. They were willing to just leave her,” a third woman said.

Enoch said women shouldn’t have to endure the NHS’ culture that pressures women to abort their babies.

“It’s cheaper to terminate than for the child to live,” she said. “Children with Downs require extra support. Every child I know in education requires additional support. Some require extra medical support. People get sniffy about it, but it’s eugenics.”

As technology improves, testing for Down syndrome gets better, Enoch said. Although modern technology has given people with Down syndrome better lives in many ways, it also makes it easy to kill them before they’re born.

“Improvements in the screening process has led to a decrease in the number of Down syndrome births due to a high rate of terminations,” an NHS report reads.

Enoch loves her son, Tom, but said that she would probably have been pressured into aborting him if she had tested him for Down syndrome. When they discovered Tom had Down syndrome, doctors saw the new baby as a mistake.

“It didn’t feel like ‘my baby’ anymore. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Tom. It was everybody’s attitudes that were wrong,” she said.

With Tom in high school, people still ask Enoch if she had gotten a Down syndrome test during her pregnancy.

“If they stopped and thought, what they’re inferring is, ‘if you did, then maybe he wouldn’t be here,’” she said.

Tom taught Enoch that raising a child with Down syndrome requires the same self-sacrifice that raising any child requires.

“I came from the depths of despair to a far better place that I never would have been without Tom. I was always middle of the road, and now I’m higher. Parenting is about adjusting and accepting. That’s what relationships are about. Parenting a child with Down syndrome is like parenting any other child. You love them,” she said.

To save the lives of children like her son, Enoch supports Crowter’s campaign to sue the British government for discrimination because it allows abortion of disabled babies up to birth. They are still seeking to raise $47,354.

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Antifa attack forces Portland church to close shelter, suspend homeless services 

St. Andre Bassette church in downtown Portland, Oregon. | St. Andre Bassette

A group of more than 100 black-clad rioters vandalized a Catholic church in Portland, Oregon, that regularly serves meals and provides shelter to the homeless, forcing the church to suspend worship services and all of its outreach to the needy.

St. Andre Bassette Church in downtown Portland, which is known for helping disadvantaged people in the area, suffered extensive damage after the violent attack Wednesday, The Post Millennial reported.

Three of the church’s front windows were smashed, after which all of its hospitality services had to be suspended, the news site said, adding that the National Guard had to be called in to control the rioters.

“Surveillance video shows a crowd of protesters, all wearing black, march past Saint Andre Bessette Church on West Burnside Street when one person rushes up to a door and repeatedly hits the glass with what appears to be a hammer,” KOIN 6 reported. “A homeless person sleeping on the doorstep hurries away as the glass shatters.”

The video also shows that after the homeless man was forced to flee, rioters stole his blanket and the few worldly possessions he had lying next to him. 

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Father Tom Gaughan was quoted as saying, “The building is compromised because of this. … The actions of this one individual has forced us to cease our outreach and its hundreds of people we normally give food to, we are not able to because I don’t feel like my staff is safe.”

He added, “We ask for everyone’s prayers for peace in our streets which is so long overdue, and pray for our sisters and brothers who call the streets and shelters home. Because the act of one person has prevented us from providing for hundreds of people over the course of a week.”

Police have reportedly arrested a dozen people and confiscated weapons, including firearms.

Portland has witnessed street protests since May.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown responded to the vandalism of the church, saying, “They shattered the windows of a church that feeds Oregonians in need, a women-owned and operated business that raises money for immigrant and women’s rights, and many other storefronts. Indiscriminate destruction solves nothing.”

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