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.”

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Peter Leithart

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Peter Leithart—president of the Theopolis Institute, author of Baptism: A Guide to Life from Death, and many others—about what’s on his nightstand table, favorite fiction, his best piece of reading advice, and more.


What’s on your nightstand right now?

My nightstand has a stack of novels, since evening is reserved for fiction. I’ve got a couple of books by George Saunders, two novels of Alison Lurie, Crash by J. G. Ballard, and Marilynne Robinson’s Jack, which I want to re-read since I don’t think I gave it enough attention the first time round. I’m working down the stack, not reading them all at once.

My daytime, worktime reading is very much determined by writing projects. I’m currently writing a book on the theology of creation, so I’m working through a collection of Augustine’s writings on Genesis, Simon Oliver’s Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed, and Richard Sorabji’s fascinating Time, Creation, and the Continuum. I’ve also been reading through the translated works of Sergius Bulgakov, currently on The Comforter. Of recently published work, I dipped into Bruno Maçães’s History Has Begun.

What is your favorite fiction?

I have a hard time answering questions about favorites, but I can name a few novels that have stuck with me over the years: Walker Percy, especially The Thanatos Syndrome; Dostoevsky, especially Notes from Underground and The Brothers Karamazov; I think Housekeeping is Marilynne Robinson’s best work; Jane Austen is a perennial favorite, partly because she provides a stylistic standard of uncluttered clarity. Over the past year, I especially enjoyed Suzanne Clarke’s Piranesi, though it’s too early to tell whether it has staying power.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

I confess—is it a confession?—that I don’t read a lot of biographies or autobiographies. I used Joseph Frank’s incomparable biography of Dostoevsky when I was writing my little biography, and I used some excellent biographies of Constantine when writing my own book. I enjoy dipping into letter collections, but biographies and autobiographies aren’t a large part of my diet.

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

At the risk of sounding overly pious, the Bible is the book I’ve re-read most often. Nothing else is even close. I’ve read the Bible through at least once a year since 1990, marking down the date and location of completion on a faded blue 4×6 notecard I keep in the front flap of my Bible. I was taught long ago that there’s no substitute for re-reading and re-re-reading Scripture. Each year, I come across things I’m sure I’ve never read before.

I re-read sections of some theology books on a fairly regular basis: James Jordan’s Through New Eyes; John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory; N. T. Wright, especially Jesus and the Victory of God; Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World; Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism, Corpus Mysticum, and his volumes on medieval exegesis. Since my reading is so strongly determined by writing, I’m usually consulting those books again for a current book project.

You’ve not only written numerous commentaries on the Bible and works of theology, but also on Constantine, Athanasius, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and . . . gratitude. What has animated your wide-ranging (verging on polymathic) engagement with these topics and more?

A lot of it is circumstantial. I have had jobs where I’m paid to read and write. Further, throughout my adult life, I’ve been rather free to follow my interests. I spent 15 years at New St. Andrews College, which was small and flexible enough to allow me to reach outside my specialty. Nearly every book I published during my time there started out in the classroom. Since I moved to Theopolis in 2013, I still have the same freedom to dabble. Part of it is illusion: I’m always writing theology, though I preach from different sorts of texts. Part of it is crassly commercial: I wrote all the books you listed because someone invited me to and offered a check if I agreed.

What’s your best piece of reading advice?

Read books. There are so many distractions and temptations to read headlines and snippets. We need to resist the temptation, because something happens to your mind and heart when you read books that can’t happen any other way. When we read novels, we spend time with characters and situations, keeping intimate company with heroes and villains. We learn to love and hate. When we read complex nonfiction narratives or subtle arguments, our minds are made more supple, as we not only learn data but learn the intricate ways things, events, and people are interconnected.

Something happens to your mind and heart when you read books that can’t happen [by reading anything else].

What’s one book you wish every pastor read?

James Jordan, Through New Eyes. Jordan’s book is simply the best introduction to Scripture you’ll ever read, a book that not only teaches about Scripture but sends you back to Scripture with renewed excitement and attentiveness.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

2020 slowed everyone down. Frustrating as it was to cancel everything, it also gave me a chance to slow down, read and write more deliberately, putter around the yard. I’m grateful for the gear shift. But 2020 also revealed some disturbing trends in American politics and culture. Christians need to prepare ourselves for a rocky time in the coming decade.

Sometime last spring, I came across the suggestion to begin each day with thanksgiving for the coming. It should have been obvious to me, since I wrote a book on gratitude, but I initially found it difficult to give thanks for undetermined future things. I wanted more control over how I distributed my gratitude! Over the past year, I’ve been able sincerely to thank God for what he hasn’t done yet, to thank him for things that may not turn out the way I’d prefer. It’s been a good discipline, and has taught me to greet the day with a sense that, whatever happens, the day will present opportunities to serve him.

Early in the lockdown last spring, I walked to the neighbor’s to invite him to pray with me every morning. I figured we need to pray, and also wanted to use the lockdown to get closer to my neighbors, rather than more distant. We were soon joined by another neighbor, and the three of us recently passed our one-year anniversary. I’ve never been part of a daily prayer group before, and it’s been wonderful.

The Bible’s Story on a Kid’s Napkin

We want to make sense of our lives and the world. So do our kids. What narrative helps us do that?

“Only the strong survive” shouts loudest—in the lunch hall, playground, or in a global pandemic. “You do you!” and a Disneyesque “Follow your heart!” are prevalent voices in our culture. But in the Bible, God speaks humbly through the din. Let’s help our kids hear.

Grab a napkin. Pick up a pen or your kid’s fat crayon. Then draw these designs on the napkin while explaining the Bible’s story, step by step. 

The King and His Kingdom

Ruling over everything is the king, full of glory and wisdom. God is in charge, and this is good. From beginning to end and all in between, he guides and cares for his creation. He knows best, and this never changes (Gen. 1; Ps. 47:1–4, 7; 1 Tim. 1:17; Rev. 11:5). 

1. Genesis 1–11

The universe is God’s kingdom, but he focuses first on a garden. He often uses humble beginnings. God designed Adam and Eve to rule together as visible images of him (Gen. 1:26–28)—like living mirrors, flesh-and-blood portraits, royally reflecting God to his watching kingdom. 

But creation’s prince and princess say, “No, my way!” (Gen. 3:6), and their kids spiral into more evil and violence (Gen. 4:1–16; 6:5; 11:1–9). God washes the world and begins again with Noah (Gen. 6–8). But sinners remain (Gen. 8:21) and selfishly focus on their glory again. The kind king confuses and scatters them across the earth (Gen. 11:9).

2. Genesis 12–Deuteronomy

God then draws a sinner (Abram) into a loving relationship with him—a covenant. Starting small with Abraham and his family (Gen. 12–50), God saves their descendants from slavery and even lets them come into his presence by forgiving their sins (Exodus–Leviticus). Many continue to reject him (Numbers), but God keeps loving his people with covenant loyalty. He demands they love him wholly and love their neighbors (Ex. 20:1–17; Lev. 19:18; Deut. 6:5). His kingdom crawls forward.

3. Joshua–Esther

God helps Israel conquer the land he promised Abraham, expanding his visible kingdom (Joshua). He provides judges, prophets, and kings to guide and guard his stiff-necked people who keep breaking his covenant of love (Judges–2 Chronicles). God justly kicks them out (exiles them) from the land because of their constant turning away, but he preserves them while they’re in exile (Esther). He even graciously restores many of them to the promised land (Ezra–Nehemiah).

4. Job–Malachi

And God keeps providing! Regardless of their setting (in the promised land, in exile, back in the promised land), God gives his people songs and wisdom (Job–Song of Solomon) and prophecies (Isaiah–Malachi) to help them think hard about their covenant relationship with him and each other, in good times and bad. 

The King Comes

Before creation, God planned his Son’s arrival, and he prepared for Christ throughout the whole Old Testament. God always rules perfectly, so his Son, Jesus, arrives at exactly the right time. God then inspires the New Testament, and the New Testament unfolds quite like the Old Testament did! Notice the similarities and differences.

1. Matthew–John

God draws sinners who repent and trust Jesus into a loving relationship—the new covenant. (Remember how he did this in Genesis 12–Deuteronomy) Christ now fully shows God’s love for us by dying on the cross for our sins and rising in victory, freeing us from our slavery to sin. In this new covenant, we are still to love God wholly and love our neighbors (Luke 6:27–36; Matt. 22:37–39). But in the new covenant, there is resurrection life and power for us to do that once Christ sends his Spirit (John 7:37–39).

2. Acts

King Jesus extends God’s visible kingdom by drawing more and more people to himself—a people called the church. Remember how he did this in Judges–Esther. This time his kingdom is meant to spread across the whole earth, not just a garden or the promised land. And instead of accomplishing this through fighting, Jesus fills his followers with his Holy Spirit and sends them with the good news of his kingdom to their neighbors and people from all nations.

3. Romans–Revelation 18

And God keeps providing! Remember Job–Malachi. Regardless of his people’s situation (in peace or pain), God sends letters (Romans–Revelation) to help them think hard about who they are in Christ and how to live together in this new covenant relationship with the Father by the Spirit.

4. Revelation 19–22

God will complete his kingdom! And the end will be even better than the garden—a whole new creation. God will conquer his enemies (Rev. 20:10, 15). He will dwell among those from every ethnicity, whom King Jesus purchased with his blood (Rev. 21:3; cf. 5:9). And we will enjoy and glorify him together forever, with Jesus giving us authority to rule with him on his throne (Rev. 20:4; cf. Rev. 2:26–27; 3:21)!

Into the Beyond

What story will help the children in our life survive, even thrive, in this broken world? 

From beginning to end and for his glory, God is bringing the world to peace with himself under King Jesus. From small beginnings, wisely worked over time, he is achieving kingdom peace and covenant love through both beauty and pain. Every ethnicity, status, and age is included—all focused on Jesus, the Good King. 

Tell this story to your children. Draw it on a napkin. Slip these images as bookmarks into their Bibles at the proper places. Help them navigate the Bible by God’s major themes made prominent.

And who says this can only be used for kids? Guide people from all ages, cultures, and walks through the glories and grace of our great God in Christ by the Spirit through Scripture. 


Editors’ note: 

The designs in this article are by Joel M. Dougherty (MDiv, Bethlehem College & Seminary), director of curriculum development at Training Leaders International. His designs appear in What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About and How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament.

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Matt Emerson

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Matt Emerson—associate professor of religion at Oklahoma Baptist University and author of “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday—about what’s on his nightstand, favorite fiction, books on theology, and more.


What’s on your nightstand right now?

I tend to have an eclectic assortment at any given time. Right now, I’m reading: 

What are your favorite works of fiction?

I grew up reading the Narnia and The Lord of the Rings (and Harry Potter) over and over, so those have to be atop the list. But to be honest I often wish evangelicals would also read some other literature in addition to those great works. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Graham Greene’s novels (especially The Power and the Glory), and Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov are favorites. All of them draw on biblical themes and language in order to capture the peculiarities of human experience in unique ways. 

I also try to read poetry fairly regularly. Right now I have William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience at hand, but more often than not it’s a collection of Wendell Berry poems.

With respect to both novels and poems, as well as other genres, I think evangelicals would be well served to fuel their imaginations with the great works of literature both inside and outside the Western canon. Reading great literature helps us grasp—intellectually, but also emotionally and aesthetically—the plight of humanity, the variegated but common nature of human experience, and our shared longing for redemption.

What theology books have most shaped you as a theologian and how?

G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission (IVP Academic) and A New Testament Biblical Theology (Baker Academic)—these two books helped me put Scripture together in a way that I hadn’t previously been taught, or at least that I hadn’t fully understood, both in terms of intertextuality and canonical shape. They’re foundational for anything I do in biblical theology.

Craig Bartholomew, series editor, The Scripture and Hermeneutics Series (Zondervan Academic)—these eight volumes showed me what it is like to read Scripture with the church in an exegetically serious manner and with philosophical and dogmatic questions in mind. I don’t agree with everything in any of them, of course, but the kind of holistic hermeneutic promoted by and used in these volumes, and by SAHS more generally, is what I try to emulate as a theologian and hermeneutician.

R. R. Reno and John O’Keefe, Sanctified Vision (Johns Hopkins University Press)—again, I don’t agree with everything in this book, but it opened up a way for me to understand and appreciate an entire millennium of Christian theological reflection that I had previously consigned to the dustbin of history. Early Christian interpretation and theology are gaining popularity among evangelicals, but this is still an area of inquiry in which many of us are woefully underread and undertrained. I didn’t know what I’d been missing until I read this book, along with a few others on patristic thought, and then started diving into primary sources. 

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

I’m not a big re-reader, but The Lord of the Rings, Narnia, the Gilead trilogy, and other fiction favorites make their way back onto my nightstand regularly. Most of the time I’m trying to catch up or keep up with academic reading, and so fiction—and sometimes poetry—is a way to refresh and recharge my mind and soul.

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?

John Piper was very influential for me early on in my Christian walk, and so here I’d probably point to both Desiring God and Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. Regarding the former, I had no concept of what discipleship meant until I randomly picked up Piper’s signature book in a LifeWay store in Auburn, Alabama. That book helped me reorient my life and my walk with Jesus around God, rather than around myself. With respect to Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, I read that early in my ministry training and I believe it made a lasting impression on me regarding the work of the pastor. It specifically ingrained in me the idea that my vocation is not about me or my success, but about shepherding the flock of God. 

What’s one book you wish every pastor read?

The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine. I’ve never read a book that can humble you, encourage you, equip you, and train you in the basics of the classical Christian doctrine of God at the same time. This book is an absolute must-read for every pastor. Eswine intertwines a deep and profound understanding of theological concepts like God’s eternity, omnipresence, and omnipotence with the practicalities of pastoral ministry. The fundamental point, which every pastor needs to understand deep in our souls, is that we aren’t God—only God is God. We can’t be everywhere, all the time, for everyone. We’re not who people need the most; God is who people need the most. And our job is to point them to him, not to ourselves.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

I think God has to teach us the same thing over and over—we can’t do anything on our own. God has to work in our hearts through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We learn that early in conversion, but the rest of the Christian life is essentially the same lesson in every aspect of our lives. Over the last few years I’ve learned it as a parent, and right now I’m learning that about my job—I can’t put it all on my back. I need the Spirit of Christ to glorify the Father in what I do.