In late December 2019, the pastor of one of China’s largest unregistered churches was sentenced to nine years in prison. Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu was arrested in December 2018 in a police raid on the church that saw more than 100 members detained for questioning or arrest.
By Lindy Lowry
Under China’s President Xi Jinping, persecution has reverted back to conditions not seen in decades. Pastor Jin*, a house church leader in China, tells an Open Doors’ field crew, “The political climate has become so oppressive that the difference between dark and light has become glaringly obvious.”
The threats and pressure to Christians in China are real – and they’re happening now.
When [the jailer] received these orders, he put [Paul and Silas] in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. … Suddenly, there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose.
– Acts 16: 24-26
Christians in China not only believe biblical accounts like this one to be true – they believe they are relevant for today and apply the same principles when they are persecuted. After Pastor Wang Yi’s prison sentence was announced, Early Rain members shared a message from him on the church’s Facebook page.
“I hope God uses me, by means of first losing my personal freedom, to tell those who have deprived me of my personal freedom that there is an authority higher than their authority, and that there is a freedom that they cannot restrain, a freedom that fills the church of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.”
Pastor Timothy* is a Chinese church leader in his 70s. He has a kind, sun-tanned and slightly wrinkled face that hints at his years of itinerant ministry. Similar to the imprisonment of Early Rain’s leaders and community, he also finds himself living out stories that could come from the book of Acts.
“I was called to the police station for a ‘chat,’ but they locked me up and threatened me and interrogated me,” he says. “When they locked me up, I just knelt in the cell and prayed. They told me I was not allowed to pray, so I told them I was a church leader and a Christian for many years, so all I can do is pray. During all their questioning and threats, I was never afraid. God gave me inner peace and confidence in Him. In the end, they were intimidated by my confidence and joy and let me go.”
Pastor Timothy’s experience shows the reality of what the last five years have been like for believers in the most populous country on earth.
In 2015, China was No. 29 on the World Watch List with a persecution score of 51 out of a possible 100. It’s now risen several spots, but more alarmingly, its persecution score continues to rise. This is likely because the openness of China over the last 20 years – allowing unregistered churches like Early Rain to operate openly and meet publicly, for instance – seems to be coming to an end.
“Anti-China forces in the West are trying to continue to influence China’s social stability and even subvert our country’s political power through Christianity, and it is doomed to fail,” said Xu Xiaohong, head of the officially registered Protestant churches in China, earlier this year in a speech. Religion has become a common target for Chinese authorities. If any religion, including Christianity, is deemed a threat to the power of the Chinese communist government, then it must be dealt with.
How that’s played out in reality has been devastating. A 1,500-member unregistered church in Beijing was shut down in late 2018 because it refused to allow surveillance cameras into the church to monitor congregants. Several other large churches around the country were also closed. In mid-2018, China made the online sale of Bibles illegal. A regulation forbidding children under 18 from attending church has been enforced more and more. In some cases, steeples with crosses were torn down or demolished even on state-approved churches, and people in some regions were told to replace pictures of Jesus in their homes with pictures of Chinese leader Xi Jingping.
A new religious law that went into effect in 2018 has also had a chilling impact. “On February 1, 2018, the Revised Regulations on Religion were passed by the government,” explains Pastor Jin,* a leader in the area of China where crackdowns are most prevalent, “giving local authorities increased authority to shut down unregistered churches, to forbid landlords from renting their premises to Christians for meetings and to evict Christians who ignored these laws. Children and teenagers were forbidden to go to church.”
With these types of regulations, how can the church in China hope to survive, much less thrive, in their ministry to create disciples of Jesus?
China’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion but leaves a wide margin for interpretation for what religious activities or beliefs are actually protected. In reality, this means no one is quite sure when or where the government will crack down. This means that in some years, some regions of the countries are quiet for Christians, and they can worship freely and with minimal impact; and then the following year, they can see severe restrictions take hold.
Bai Yahui* is a believer from central China. Recently, Chinese police shut down all the house churches in his region and warned pastors not to hold any more meetings. Pastors were placed on probation and told to report to the police station to give an account of their movements and activities whenever they are called by police. They call frequently but at random times, day or night.
“We are constantly on edge,” Bai says, “but our faith has grown and we are more determined than ever to see Christians in the area stand strong and not compromise their faith in Jesus.”
Pastor Jin* leads a church in the region where many of the crackdowns have occurred. He has seen firsthand the results of the pressure on churches from the government.
“[In 2017,] a group of Christians from our church decided to hold an impromptu meeting for some people who wanted to know more,” he says. “The police must have received a tip-off because they arrived soon after to arrest our people. While the brothers and sisters involved were released, I was summoned to the police station and detained. As I was known to the police and responsible for the believers in my church, I was the one they wanted to discipline. I guess they assumed this would send a message to the rest of the church.”
“I was detained for more than 10 days and not allowed to contact family and friends. I was repeatedly questioned about church activities, my leadership team, connections with regional leaders and overseas contacts. While they didn’t treat me too badly, the questioning and political lecturing just never let up.”
These types of stories are common – Pastor Wang Yi and Early Rain’s Pastor Jin and his church, along with groups led by Bai and other leaders like Pastor Timothy are targeted and squeezed.
If that was the whole story, it would feel like a defeat. But what’s remarkable is what God is doing behind the scenes—and how excited his people are to testify to God’s goodness.
“To understand how I got to where I am now, we need to go back to 2017,” Pastor Jin says. “As winter set in at the end of 2017, our church was going well. We were enjoying a season of relative freedom from government interference, save the occasional ‘catch-up’ at the local police station to assure the police we wouldn’t give them any trouble. It was snowing outside, but that didn’t stop the brothers and sisters from our regular outreach, chatting with people on buses, trains and near shopping malls.”
“Things were good, but I wasn’t satisfied,” he continues. “Deep down I knew we had grown comfortable, even complacent, compared to the old days at least. The church was growing slowly, but the longing to meet together to worship, read the Word and pray had been quietly edged out by the attraction of work, money and entertainment. The old passion just wasn’t there anymore. It was as if we’d been lulled into a false sense of security.”
Everything changed in 2017 when Pastor Jin was arrested. He realized his country had changed. “We should have seen it coming,” he says. “Some of the old-style rhetoric about ‘religious superstition,’ ‘fanaticism’ and ‘foreign infiltration masquerading as religion’ crept back into government announcements, newspapers and TV commentaries. More disturbing, though, was when the government announced the need to ‘sinicize [make ‘more Chinese’] the five major religions and actively guide them to adapt to Socialist society.’ There was something about the tone and urgency of the language that suggested a new campaign was coming.”
This was nothing new, of course. Pastor Timothy, for instance, lived through Mao’s decade-long Cultural Revolution, and he remembers the intimidation, imprisonment and even execution of Christians. While the present purge is not like it was in the 1960s and ’70s, he believes lessons learned back then resonate now too – especially the power of prayer.
“Over the last 12 months, we have experienced constant harassment by the police,” he says. “They regularly interrupt our meetings to disrupt our fellowship and destroy our underground churches. They must get very frustrated, though, because we just love them back!”
Pastor Jin, too, has learned through this new program of targeted persecution of Christians by the Chinese government. While he was detained for questioning, he was forced to sit by himself for days at a time. “Solitary confinement was dreadful,” he remembers. “Being alone with your thoughts can be exhausting .… I prayed a lot and sang worship songs, but as the days dragged on, doubts crept in. I began to go over and over the same questions: If I am called of God, am I really willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the gospel? For the Lord Jesus?
“It was like God knew how long I needed in detention to make up my mind. By the last day of confinement, I had made peace with myself and with God. It was settled. I knew without a doubt that no matter what happened, I would serve the Lord. I was certain, beyond doubt, that I was called to be a pastor of God’s people in this region, and nothing would ever change that.
“I slept well that night. And I was released the next day.”
Despite the ever-growing persecution, Pastor Jin felt … hope. “I had a strange inner peace,” he says. “From that last day in detention, I felt God’s peace. He sustained me with his peace throughout my recovery period and beyond. I still have it today. Once I made the decision to believe in his goodness despite the circumstances, his peace came flooding in.”
This is perhaps the miraculous work God is doing in China, even as the government continues its crackdown on churches and pastors.
“I felt truly free, even though my hands were still ‘tied,’” Pastor Jin says. “God’s freedom emanates from the heart. If we allow it to, the truth about God, about who we are in him and his peace, will recalibrate our whole being, and that can’t be taken away. I was free indeed.”
Pastor Timothy sees the rising persecution his church has faced in recent months as a sign that they are doing something right. “Something really wonderful is happening,” he says. “I think the government is actually ‘scared’ of our church because of our determination, our love and our unity .… A few years ago, we started out with a handful of believers – now we are a few thousand. They really are worried!”
The new reality for Chinese Christians is troubling and hard to grasp. Two of the pastors who travelled to do interviews for this article received phone calls from family members within 24 hours after they had left home. They were told the police were looking for them. The police wanted to know the whereabouts of the pastors and why they had not returned their calls.
But the present reality in China also shows a people ready to follow Jesus, having counted the cost and having seen that there is nothing better than the hope of God.
“From our youngest children to our old brothers and sisters, everyone knows the power of prayer,” Pastor Timothy says. “It doesn’t matter what we are facing, or what we have been accused of, we all pray. Everyone knows that as soon as persecution comes, we first drop to the ground and pray. God is so faithful. He always answers us, sometimes in the most wonderful, even bizarre ways!”
“No one here wants darkness; they all want the Light,” Pastor Jin says. “Biblical truth and a relationship with Jesus have become so important that believers now cherish every moment together. Fellowship has become sweet again, like a fountain to thirsty souls.
“The church is growing because of persecution,” he continues. “I have hope again and I am satisfied, not because we have arrived—we haven’t, there’s lots to learn yet – but because we are alive again and growing and equipping the saints for the work of the Kingdom. We still have to be extremely careful every day, and there are dangers, but the sense of peace each day and hope for the future make all the rest seem like stepping stones to glory.”
That’s the sense one gets when speaking with Christians in China. Despite everything against them – new laws, surveillance by the government that means they’re constantly under pressure, a legal climate that could turn against them at any point – Chinese Christians are stepping out in faith.
It’s the reason Pastor Wang Yi and his congregation at Early Rain Covenant Church are able to continue – members of their church celebrated the same Sunday of Advent in December that they did in 2018. They might be in different places – in other churches, other countries or even behind bars – but the faithfulness of God they marked on that fateful day in December 2018 is the same faithfulness that is driving the Chinese church forward in faith, no matter what.
“Christ is so urgent and willing to forgive all who turn from sin,” Pastor Wang Yi wrote. “This is the purpose of all the work of the church in China. It is to witness Christ to the world, to witness the kingdom of heaven to China and to witness the eternal life of heaven to the short life of the earth. This is also my pastoral call.”
This story was first published on Open Doors USA’s website and is run here with permission. Lindy Lowry is Open Doors’ content specialist.