Church of the Illicit

“I am fully prepared to go to jail for my church,” said Mr. Jin. ” I belong to the Lord, and if this is what God intended, so be it.”

Christians all over the world are ramping up for Holy Week.

Easter, better known in America as Obligation Sunday, is the one day a year when even people, who don’t particularly like God, drop by his house for a brief visit.

For many people, God’s house has all the allure of a nursing home. It’s a place where a person can visit their mama, spend a couple of hours swapping niceties and a story or two with a bunch of strangers.

According to all the educated people who get paid to track these things, church is dying business here in America. Twentysomethings are don’t attend church with any regularity. People who had been active as teens, bottom out in their late 20s. They just don’t see the relevancy of church in their lives. They whine about how lame church is, how bad the music is, how the pastor is pathetic. Yada. Yada. Yada. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Two-thirds of China’s estimated 60 million Protestants worship at unregistered churches. Just as noteworthy, at least from the government’s viewpoint, is that a growing number are young, educated urbanites

Well, not to be a crank, but do you suppose that Americans in general, of any age, whine way too much about everything and nothing?

Because that’s what I was thinking when I read this story about the illicit church that’s bucking the trend in Beijing.

You gotta hand it to those Chinese, just calling a church illicit is a great marketing tool.

Who doesn’t want to go to the Church of the Illicit?

In a country where churches have to be government sanctioned, Bejing’s Shouwang (Lighthouse) has managed to buck the system. At least until the guys toting firearms show up.

Shouwang’s 1,000 members raised $4 million. They raised the money in order to buy a house of worship. Yeah, one of those churches we have such apathy towards here in the Land of the free and Home of the why bother?

On Sunday, for the second week in a row, the police rounded up scores of parishioners who tried to pray outdoors at a public plaza. Most of the church’s leadership is now in custody or under house arrest. Its Web site has been blocked.

They take everything seriously in China, especially their faith.

Seems the Communist Party isn’t keen on Shouwang. They feel threatened by the church. Imagine that. Big ole Pinko Commies “running skeered” by a handful of praying people.

Heck, we can’t even get people out to Wednesday night prayer meeting here in this country. America had to cancel church on Sunday and Wednesday nights because everybody was too busy watching Sixty Minutes and Survivor.

Talk about your Survivors. Those people at Shouwang, they sure enuff know a thing or two about the challenges of living faith isolated.

Evicted yet again from its meeting place by the authorities, Shouwang announced this month that its congregants would worship outside rather than disband or go back underground.

No matter where they decide to meet for worship, it seems those Guvernment men keep showing up and ruining things.

In recent weeks the pastors of two large unofficial churches in the southern city of Guangzhou have been detained and their congregations rendered homeless. In Shanxi Province, a house church organizer said the police attacked him with electric batons..

You got to be one hard-core bible-thumper to put up with being beaten with an electric baton.

For what?

So you can gather together for worship?

Good grief. Buy yourself an iPhone, Mister, and download sermons. Ask anybody here in America, they’ll tell you — you don’t need church to worship God. You can be spiritual any place, any time. You ever try one of them Pole Dancing Classes for Jesus?

Going to church ain’t worth getting thrown in the pokey over.

Not here in America, at any rate.

I don’t know about China.

Is it?

Beyond the appeal of spirituality and the promise of redemption, many converts say they are drawn by the intimacy and sense of community fostered by unofficial churches. Others, in turn, say they are repelled by certain aspects of government-run congregations: the overcrowded services, the rules against evangelizing and the sermons salted with political propaganda.

“Sunday worship is the most basic necessity for Christians in their life of faith,” Shouwang’s leaders said.

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  • It has been said that Constantine move to empower Christianity through government has had long term effects for the Body of Christ, both good and bad. It is also said that anything worth having is worth fighting for. Maybe that’s our problem. We don’t have to fight. Not yet, anyway.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Yep. I thought about that fight thing this morning. I thought how we don’t appreciate life until we battle cancer or the disease-of-the-month.
      We take it all for granted.

    • Gloria

      I completely agree with you. Heck in the town I live in there is even a “drive up” church. Yep, don’t even have to go inside the church building. You drive into the parking lot and tune your radio to a certain AM station and listen to the preacher who stands in a covered area and preaches.

  • This quote from the article sticks with me: “There is something so cold and empty about life outside the church,” said Mr. Huang, an intense, bookish man who converted three years ago. Seems we have the flip-side of this going on here…

    Perhaps Americans have too many options and churches are too easily accessed. If it it took some grit and work and desire to attend services, other than Easter and Christmas, then perhaps we would see an illicit movement here as well.


    And the whining? You betcha there’s way too much of that going on. Here at the ole ranchola we tend to follow Chris LeDoux’s advice…

    “Now there’s too many fools makin’ too many rules,
    that’s one thing you can’t say about us.
    Cause we all get along when we sing the same song
    there’s just one thing that causes a fuss.

    We got a five-dollar fine for whining”

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I like that. $5 that’s steep. I used to combat it by making the kids tell me 3 good things for every one bad thing they told me. We were too poor to implement the $5 rule. 🙂

  • America’s pastors could challenge their people a bit more. I know, some folks would leave the church over it, but the ones who remain would be worth their space on the pew. And who knows – maybe a lot more people looking for purpose would start showing up.

  • Karen Spears Zacharias

    I have felt that way too much of the time myself.

  • Sue

    Persecution has always increased the numbers of God’s people. I heard something on Christian news recently where a persecuted church, not sure what country, was having “problems” with “too many” folks showing up for the staggering services they were having because all of the people kept coming back for all of the services! Amazing. Puts my sorry self to great shame and conviction.

  • My home church has painted itself into a corner where it’s a 50-50 chance on whether it will survive for another 10 years. Unless the median age of the worshipers drops by about 20 years over the next five years, the actuarial data indicate strongly for demise. The past two decades have involved too much struggle over how to be an “attractional” church (consumer model) vs. a faithful church (discipleship model).

    My favorite place to worship, however, is a 10-year-old congregation now in its fourth home in the city. Median age is around 32, and financial contributions for the month of December exceeded my home church’s entire 2010 budget. They are all about discipleship and serving the community, and they have demographics all going their way. “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes,” we might say.

    And this oddity: Down on SE 182nd and Division is a Dollar Tree store where everything is 99 cents, and everything (except for the breath mints and gum) is made in China. You can buy Bibles, in either black or white, for 99 cents. All printed in China. If actually read, they might last 3 days before the pages would start falling out. But they are Bibles. Not so long ago, people here were smuggling Bibles INTO China. Now, if I wanted to do so, I could order 5-10 ocean shipping containers per week of Bibles from China. I could flood the globe with Bibles coming OUT of China if I could borrow enough money to get the process rolling. Seems like we both worship false gods. In China, it’s the DOLLAR. Here, it’s CHEAP. Two faces, same false god.

    Q: What’s the difference between “cheap” and “heap”?
    A1: Wait a week and you’ll see.
    A2: One creates the other.
    A3: The Arlington landfill (or the one nearest each of us)

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Yes, well, we did a great job of taking capitalism into the Asian market — which, after all, explains in a large part what the war in Vietnam was all about.
      Good for us. Looks like it caught on like wildfire. You can have capitalism without having a democracy.

  • Caravelle

    Going to church ain’t worth getting thrown in the pokey over.

    Not here in America, at any rate.

    Unless your church is a mosque, of course.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Good point.

  • RDH

    According to Rob Bell, everybody is going to heaven; the guys toting firearms and the “illicit church” members. So why bother? Die for your church and your faith. Nah. Skip church, you’re going to heaven anyway. You’ll get a second chance after death, accoding to the emerging church leaders.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I haven’t read Bell’s book so cannot speak to it but I think lumping all emergents into one general statement about hell is wrong. Aren’t we all, after all, emerging in one fashion or another?

  • Dave Swartz

    Having given it sad and serious thought, I think the cutting edge of what the Holy Spirit is doing in the world left the U.S. about twenty -five years ago. Note I didn’t say that the Spirit left. He just has hungrier people to work with in Asia, Africa and South America. These people will be leading world Christianity by the end of the century and things are well under way to that end.

    I came to Christ in the Jesus Movement where we learned to do the faith without buildings and alot of modern trappings. Years passed but the fire in the belly gained in those days still burns. As the belly is somewhat bigger, I believe the fire is too. Back then it was a real shock to run into the deadness of the regular church. It was like kissing your girlfriend in the dark and turning on the light to find a hippopotamous. And I had my ranting moments (still do). In the middle of one, the Lord said,”I know what a mess the church is but she’s my bride and I don’t like how you speak about her. Especially since your garbage is part of the pile. But since you know so much, you can help me clean her up.”

    It will take a lot of guts for some people to walk into a church this Easter. We’ve messed so many people up so badly. Our failures have been so public. We’re an easy target but we painted the bulls eye ourselves. Eugene Peterson,who did The Message, says that the church is a dangerous place because North American Christianity is very sick. But come they will. Yes, the habitual attenders who never hear because they’ve heard it for years will be there. But so will church abused people who will risk maybe one more sticking their toe in to see if the fragrance of Jesus can be found. Backslidden prodigals will tag along with their Moms and Grandmothers secretly glad to have an excuse to come back even though they’d never let it show.

    We, not the Chinese, live in the most spiritually dangerous culture the world has ever known. The acute narcissism, love of money, shallow absorption with entertainment and celebrity culture and addiction to comfort and convenience erodes and destroys everything beautiful about Jesus. What we are calling persecution here is nothing more than contempt.

    But this is the darkness in which Jesus means us to be light. Let’s show up this Easter ready to kiss a hippopotamous or two. It took a lot of guts to show up and they will be waiting to be kissed.

    Karen, I love your writing. Stay with it.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      “What we are calling persecution here is nothing more than contempt”

      Whoa. What a powerful statement. And, gosh, such truth in it.

      And quite possibly, as you have noted, a well-earned contempt, heh?

      Yes, there are broken people in church… and in every corporate structure and every small business…and every school and home across this nation.

      Which is what Easter is all about, after all… a hope for becoming someone better than what we are left to our own devices.

      Reading The Narcissism Epidemic. I recommend it.


  • Gatormaid

    I raised my children in Church. I’m a firm believer in God and Jesus is the Son of God. Sad to say, people in church , That is another thing…My daughter was all involved in church. Sang in the choir, ran the camera, helped in AWANAS, coached upward basketball, etc… back in 06 there was a female mother in the choir that was jealous of my daughter. My daughter decided to cut her hair short in a cute style. The mother started a rumor that my daughter was Gay.(All because of a hair cut) The choir director was married and having an affair w/ another member of the choir and took that rumor and ran w/ it. While people were looking @ my daughter and talking about her they were not paying attention to him and his affair. My daughter had to move out of the state to have a life and needless to say I will not go back to the church.I’m still a Christian, but I know 1st hand that the Devil is working fast and hard @ tearing up churches.I miss going to church but have not been able to find another one I like. My daughter is just getting her life back together after this horrible, horrible thing happened to her. She will spend the rest of her life w/ this scar, and I will not have a daughter living here w/ me. We have had many talks about what happened to her and the trama she has gone thru. I know her faith in God is still strong and I’m so thankful for that. God is good and I know as I continue to pray for my child he will heal her in time.

  • Amen, Karen! Richard Wurmbrand came into my community years back, actually stayed in my Aunt Ruth’s place with his wife, Sabrina. I remember that he remarked that it was easier for him in communist prison than in the United States. That evidently there was such a stifling in the air in regard to faith. Whereas where he had been before, it was life and death. Here, we don’t really need it. Maybe we need to pitch out what we don’t really need, so we can learn what our true need really is. And needs. And learn to walk and live by faith. I’m talking to myself. Thanks again.