Inside the ‘Three Self’ Church

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Col 1:9-14

On one occasion I was invited by some TSPM church leaders from a rural county to speak to a gathering of women. Over 50 women from churches in remote villages in the county gathered together for a week of fellowship, Bible study and prayer. I gladly accepted the invitation, but knowing that this was a TSPM setting, wondered what I would find. 

I arrived at the host church around 10:00 am and was greeted by several pastors and the local Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) representative. The RAB representative was not a believer. His job was to represent the interests of the Chinese government and ensure that nothing ‘subversive’ would take place. It was an unusual mix of people – pastors, a missionary and a government official. We sat around a table, ate sunflower seeds, drank tea and tried to figure one another out as we engaged in stilted, but friendly conversation. Later I learnt that the father of one of the pastors present, a prominent church leader in that area in the 1960s, had been executed by the ‘Red Guards’ during the Cultural Revolution because he would not renounce Jesus. 

After more than an hour of discussion, we all walked to the large classroom where the training sessions were being held. It was an incredible scene. Over 50 women, obviously key leaders in their respective churches, were seated behind rows of desks. At the front of the room, next to the blackboard, stood a middle-aged man. In monosyllabic tones he read his notes for the day – a government document filled with platitudes about economic development. Fortunately for the ladies and me, the man was bringing his presentation to a close. I looked around and noticed that most of the women were fighting sleep and boredom. The reader himself appeared as uninterested in the proceedings as the women. I began to wonder if my decision to come had been a mistake. 

Mercifully the meeting came to an end. We all filed down a flight of stairs and into another room for lunch. After lunch I was told that I would be given the afternoon teaching slot. The meeting began with songs of praise. The atmosphere in the classroom changed dramatically as the women began to sing of God and their faith. As I moved forward to the front of the classroom I was filled with a sense of kinship, a sense of communion with these dear ladies. What a joy it was to be able to share from the word of God to this remarkable group of Christian women! I spoke from John’s Gospel, a simple message about faith and discipleship. The contrast with what had preceded was striking. As I spoke, I noticed that the RAB man was sitting in the back, listening to every word. At one stage I was quite animated, and in the middle of my point the RAB man stood up and walked out of the room. I must confess that my first thought was, ‘Oh no, I’m in big trouble now.’ But later he returned and remained very cordial. A few days later the local pastor called and expressed his appreciation for my willingness to share with the ladies. 

Shortly after this experience I travelled to a remote village for a Sunday morning church service. The village was not very large and I anticipated a small group that morning, perhaps 40 or 50 at most. When I entered the church building I was startled to see that it was absolutely packed. From the outside the building had looked rather small, but once inside, I found that the sanctuary was quite long and that it contained a balcony. Altogether there were well over 200 believers present. I was amazed because this was clearly more than the population of the village. Later I learnt that this church was the center of Christian life in the area and that many believers from nearby villages also worshipped there. I was asked to preach and spoke from Revelation 5 about the power and love of Christ. 

After the service I shared a meal with a group of elders from the various village churches represented. They indicated that their greatest need was for biblical teaching. I told them about my experience at the women’s conference and asked them if they could hold a similar training session in their church. After all, they were also a recognized TSPM church. They indicated that they were unwilling to ask the TSPM leadership for help with training because they said ‘the TSPM teaches things that are contrary to the Bible’. I knew they were referring to the kind of thing I had recently witnessed: a govern­ment official offering, at best, irrelevant platitudes from Beijing to the saints. 

Lord, when I think of the TSPM churches in China, I rejoice because I know that you are working in and through the lives of many believers there. I ask that you guide them and grant them courage, for they walk a difficult path. Help them take advantage of the many opportunities they have to openly worship your name. Grant them wisdom so that they may distinguish between essential matters and those that are relatively unimportant. Strengthen those who face difficulties because they are unwilling to conform to government restrictions. Enable them to be fruitful and fill them with your joy. And Lord, I ask that you would strengthen me. Help me bear fruit and joyfully give thanks to you.