House church (China)

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A house church in Shunyi, Beijing.

In China, house churches or family churches (Chinese: 家庭教会; pinyin: jiātíng jiàohuì) are Christian assemblies in the People's Republic of China that operate independently from the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and China Christian Council (CCC), and came into existence due to the change in religious policy after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the early-1980s.


While these groups are sometimes described as "underground churches" (Chinese: 地下教会; pinyin: dìxià jiàohuì), this term is generally associated with Catholic assemblies who have chosen to operate independently from the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (Chinese: 中国天主教爱国会; pinyin: Zhōngguó Tiānzhǔjiào Àiguó Huì) and the Bishops Conference of Catholic Church in China [zh] (Chinese: 中国天主教主教团; pinyin: Zhōngguó Tiānzhǔjiào Zhǔjiào Tuán).

K. H. Ting, one of the key leaders of the TSPM and the CCC for many years, did not like the term "house church" and preferred to use the term "house gathering" (Chinese: 家庭聚会; pinyin: jiātíng jùhuì). This was because he found designations such as "house church" and "official church" as returning to the pre-Cultural Revolution practice of denominationalism.[1]

Some scholars prefer to use terms such as "unregistered church" to speak about the Protestant phenomenon, because these groups can reach several hundred and do not always literally meet in someone's home.[2] Others suggest the need to discard the "house church" vs. "TSPM church" dichotomy as there is a lot that blurs these divisions, including the relationship between the two groups themselves.[3][4]

Moreover, as a result of the rapid urbanization of China since the 1990s, there has been a growing development within urban Christianity. Some congregations have preferred to self-identify as being part of a "third church" to differentiate from both traditional house churches and TSPM churches.[5]


After the Communist Party established the People's Republic of China in 1949, there was a lot of uncertainty for all religions. During this period, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement would be established for Protestants to declare their patriotism and support of the new government. However, by the time of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), all public religious practice came to an end. Due to the changes in religious policy after the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1980, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement would be reinstated and the China Christian Council would be formed. Protestant congregations that wished to worship publicly registered with the TSPM, but those that did not would eventually be termed house churches.[2]

Since the 1990s, a number of developments have resulted from the rapid urbanization experienced in Chinese society. While house churches originated as being quite independent of one another, a number of house church networks have developed, with some headquartered in Henan and Zhejiang provinces. These networks have sent missionaries all over the country and have even started sending them abroad to neighboring states.[6]

The rapid urbanization has also resulted in migration to China's urban centers and the rise of urban house churches. [7] Some of these have developed through migrant worker communities and university students. Other new communities can be seen among urban intellectuals and entrepreneurs, the latter termed "boss Christians" (Chinese: 老板基督徒; pinyin: lǎobǎn jīdūtú).


House churches in China are generally considered illegal, yet smaller house churches of less than 25 members tend to be tolerated by the government.[8] However, some have grown to a fairly large size, such as the Shouwang Church which reached 1,000 members at its height.[9] House churches today still experience persecution, though the situation tends to differ depending on the region.[10] Scholars such as American political scientist Carsten T. Vala[11] and Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne[12] argue that house churches are subject to "selective persecution" when they cross some "red lines," which include, apart from size, rapid growth, active proselytization, the attempt to form national networks, contacts with foreign Christian organization, and criticism of the government.

House churches may choose to operate legally by joining the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). However, during the 1950s, the TSPM was often used by the government to oppress churches throughout China. While this legacy itself is problematic, joining the TSPM would also result in restrictions such as limiting the times and the locations for religious activities.[10]

Pentecostal characteristics[edit]

The first Pentecostal missionaries arrived in China shortly after the Azusa Street Revival as part of groups such as the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the China Inland Mission, the Pentecostal Missionary Union, and the Assemblies of God. These groups would also be instrumental in inspiring the creation of indigenous Pentecostal groups, such as the True Jesus Church and the Jesus Family.[13]

Today, Chinese house churches are commonly described as being Pentecostal or charismatic.[14] This is often the case due to the experience of miraculous healing. According to some surveys, 90% of converts to Protestant Christianity, in both house churches and TSPM churches, cite healing as a reason for their conversion.[15]

However, a number of scholars have attempted to reconsider this description, using phrases such as "Pentecostal-like" or "Pentecostal characteristics" to indicate this ambiguity.[16]

The Assemblies of God theologian Simon Chan argues that "an adequate definition of Pentecostalism cannot be restricted to phenomenological description" – that is, based on experiences.[17] Chan continues to explain that classical Pentecostal beliefs such as Spirit-baptism and initial evidence are not prevalent in Chinese churches, when compared with miraculous healing.

Edmond Tang has pointed out that only a few groups, like the True Jesus Church and the Jesus Family, can trace themselves back to missionaries coming from Pentecostal denominations.[15] Many of the Pentecostal characteristics in Chinese churches are seen to have parallels with Chinese folk religion, such as trances, ancestral worship, and the use of talismans.[18] Some have described this as a folk religionization of Christianity.[15][18]

Robert Menzies disputes these views, arguing, "The common thread that unites Pentecostals in China with other Pentecostals around the world is their sense of connection with the apostolic church as reflected in the book of Acts."[19]

The hymnal Canaan Hymns, rich in pneumatological themes, is widely used.[20]

Similar organization in other religions[edit]

While foreign media often focus discussion about house churches mainly with relation to Protestant Christianity, other religious traditions in China have chosen a similar form of organization. These include house assemblies of Han Chinese following Tibetan Buddhism, led by lamas and tulkus,[21] Buddhist and Bahá’í study groups, unregistered Zhengyi and vernacular forms of Taoism, and various folk religious groupings such as Yiguandao.[22]


  1. ^ Wickeri, Philip L. (2007). Reconstructing Christianity in China: K. H. Ting and the Chinese Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis. p. 237. ISBN 978-1570757518.
  2. ^ a b Bays, Daniel (2012). A New History of Christianity in China. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 182, 190–195.
  3. ^ Wielander, Gerda (2013). Christian Values in Communist China. London: Routledge. pp. 15–18.
  4. ^ McLeister, Mark (June 24, 2013). "'House Church' and 'Three-Self': Cooperation Across the Christian Community". ChinaSource.
  5. ^ Chow, Alexander (2014). "Calvinist Public Theology in Urban China Today" (PDF). International Journal of Public Theology. 8 (2): 163. doi:10.1163/15697320-12341340.
  6. ^ Aikman, David (2003). Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing. pp. 73–96. ISBN 978-0-89526-128-1.
  7. ^ Fulton, Brent (2015). China's Urban Christians: A Light That Cannot Be Hidden. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications. pp. 6–21.
  8. ^ "Sons of heaven". The Economist. October 2, 2008. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved May 7, 2016.
  9. ^ Gauthier, Ursula (2 June 2011). "Why Do Christian Groups in China Put Authorities on Red Alert?". Time Magazine. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
  10. ^ a b Voice of the Marytrs (June 12, 2003). "Chinese Police Proudly Record Their Torture of Christians - Resources - Eternal Perspective Ministries". Retrieved May 7, 2016.
  11. ^ Vala, Carsten T. (2017). The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China: God Above Party?. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-1138036901.
  12. ^ "Is There a Selective Persecution of House Churches in China?". Bitter Winter. January 31, 2019. Retrieved February 1, 2019.
  13. ^ Bays, Daniel H.; Johnson, Todd M. (2002). "China". In Burgess, Stanley M. (ed.). The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. pp. 58–64. ISBN 978-0310224815.
  14. ^ Koesel, Karrie J. (2014-01-14). "China's Patriotic Pentecostals". Review of Religion and Chinese Society. 1 (2): 131–155. doi:10.1163/22143955-04102002b.
  15. ^ a b c Tang, Edmond (2005). "'Yellers' and Healers: Pentecostalism and the Study of Grassroots Christianity in China". In Anderson, Allan; Tang, Edmond (eds.). Asian and Pentecostal: The Charismatic Face of Christianity in Asia. Oxford: Regnum. pp. 481–485. ISBN 978-1870345439.
  16. ^ Oblau, Gotthard (2005). "Pentecostal by Default? Contemporary Christianity in China". In Anderson, Allan; Tang, Edmond (eds.). Asian and Pentecostal: The Charismatic Face of Christianity in Asia. Oxford: Regnum. pp. 411–436. ISBN 978-1870345439.
  17. ^ Chan, Simon (2005). "Wither Pentecostalism?". In Anderson, Allan; Tang, Edmond (eds.). Asian and Pentecostal: The Charismatic Face of Christianity in Asia. Oxford: Regnum. p. 578. ISBN 978-1870345439.
  18. ^ a b Gao, Shining (Dec 2000). "Twenty-first Century Chinese Christianity and the Chinese Social Process". China Study Journal. 15 (2–3): 14–18.
  19. ^ Menzies, Robert (January 21, 2015). "Pentecostal Theology and the Chinese Church". ChinaSource. Retrieved 2016-04-21.
  20. ^ Starr, Chloë (2016). Chinese Theology: Text and Context. Yale University Press. p. 356. ISBN 978-0-300-22493-1.
  21. ^ Yu, Dan Smyer (2013). The Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in China: Charisma, Money, Enlightenment. New York: Routledge. pp. 22, 88. ISBN 978-0415575324.
  22. ^ Palmer, David A. (1 December 2012). "From "Congregations" to "Small Group Community Building"" (PDF). Chinese Sociological Review. 45 (2): 78–98. doi:10.2753/CSA2162-0555450205.

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