What Can the Missional Mainline Learn from the Underground Church in China?

Alan HirschHere’s a fascinating new interview with Alan Hirsch, of the Forge Network, conducted by Sean Gladding for Asbury Seminary, a United Methodist seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. In this first part of the interview, Gladding asks Hirsch if he has any hope for the mainline (specifically the United Methodist Church) in making the missional shift, and Hirsch responds by referring to the example of the explosive growth of the underground church in China:

“The forms of the church, and that’s the key, the forms are taken out. Properties were confiscated. Seminaries were closed. Foreign missionaries were sent out. Leaders were killed or sent to work in Mongolia in mines or whatever else they did. So now all you have is peasants, largely, an uneducated group of people, and they discover these resources in themselves. And they end up actually looking very much like the early church in its phenomenology. …

“That, for me, fundamentally changes me. This sounds heretical, but for me, this is big. Because what I actually discovered is that every ecclesia has within it the potentials for what the New Testament envisages and promises. I’ll say it another way: Every church has everything it needs to get its job done. Because, by the power of the Gospel, by the power of the Holy Spirit, by the kingdom or the reign of God, it doesn’t need much more than that really. We think we need more than that. We think we need all the paraphernalia, we need the buildings. We don’t really. China says you don’t. …

“They grow from 2 million to 120 million in less than 80 years — go figure that one out! — without all the resources we think you need, hey, to get the job done. No Bibles, no seminaries, no formal leaders [who are] ordained.

“Actually, one of the most disturbing things about that is God has to take all the leaders out in order for the church to get it again, which actually makes me worry a bit.”

What do you think? Do you agree with Hirsch? Does every church have everything it needs? What about the notion of removing “formal leaders” from the equation?

  • http://emergingumc.blogspot.com Taylor Burton-Edwards (@twbe)

    Does the church have everything it needs? In its particular setting, yes. Always. We need to grab onto that and believe it far more than we do.

    The question is HOW the church has what it needs. It’s rarely only in the personal resources of its participants and the Holy Spirit. It’s also through the networks they have with others– other Christians with whom they may be connected, and other people more generally. And those networks even in the case of China had, in fact, included all kinds of institutions and leaders. How were any scriptures made available to be remembered in the first place? Because they had been published by the institutions that were later destroyed or exiled. How did those institutions gain the funds to do the publishing? Because they raised them from Christians in other institutions, often across the globe. How did the translation into the various Chinese languages happen? Because scholars were raised up there and elsewhere– scholars who became expert at this work of translation.

    So yes, the case of China is an important one. It demonstrates the point that the Holy Spirit is more than capable of raising up a church out of ruins.

    But I’m not sure this case actually makes any sort of point about “if you get rid of leaders, then amazing growth will happen.” Or even, “If you get rid of institutions, the church will flourish.”

    Indeed, to suggest that the case of Chinese Christianity points to these kinds of conclusions is to make the classic “correlation equals causation” mistake.

    One might similarly suggest that this story proves that if you try to drive the church underground and persecute it that will cause it to flourish (at least by some metrics). But that’s just another instance of the same logical error. We know from history multiple cases of the church being persecuted, or losing leaders, or having its institutions collapse and… that was the end, at least there, among those people at that time. I am confident that if we had access to the fuller story of the recent growth of Chinese Christianity, it, too, would be pockmarked with many cases where Christianity in a given place did simply end and has not been revived to this day.

    But the core idea– that the church has or has access to what it needs in its context– is bedrock for us. Or should be.

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      Great thoughts, Taylor, thank you for sharing them!

  • Billy Watson


    Thanks for raising this conversation up for a wider audience. Before addressing it, I want to raise one point of clarification: Asbury Theological Seminary is not a United Methodist institution. It is a non-denominational, private school dedicated to a Wesleyan-Armininian theological perspective. There are thirteen United Methodist seminaries across the United States, but Asbury is not one of them and has no “official” ties to the denomination. That being said, United Methodists constitute the largest segment of the student population, and Asbury produces more candidates for ordination in the United Methodist Church than any of the thirteen denominational seminaries. This naturally means that Asbury wields significant influence in the denomination, but it does so in an unofficial capacity. As a United Methodist clergyperson who graduated from ATS, this is an important distinction to me. It is also important to my brothers and sisters from other Wesleyan-Arminian traditions (Welseyan, Free-Methodist, Church of the Nazarene, Christian Missionary Alliance, Salvation Army, non-denominational, and more) who have found a spiritual home at Asbury.

    Now, for Alan Hirsch’s comments: There are few ecclesial thinkers and practitioners for whom I have greater respect than Alan Hirsch. I believe his is a prophetic voice to the Church, culture, and what God is doing in our day. That said, I have to second Taylor’s caution when it comes to the relationship between correlation and causation. Clearly, the Holy Spirit has done a great thing among the followers of Jesus in China. This happened apart from (though not without beneifit of the fruits of, as Taylor also points out) the formal institution, structures, or sanctioned leaders often associated with modern notions of “church.” But it does not follow that the former was the result of the latter. I’m not completely sure Alan is making a causal argument regarding the Church in China. It seem’s Alan’s primary argument is that China demonstrates the Holy Spirit can and does work apart from the formal structures often associated with “church,” which I agree with.

    Alan flirts most closely with the causal argument when he speaks of God moving structure out of the way in order for the Church to flourish in China. I find this to be a problematic assessment of the situation. First, one can (and many seem to) derive from such an assessment the idea that the Holy Spirit cannot work within the confines of structure. This seems to give too much credit to structure and too little credit to the Spirit. Certainly, structures can quench the Spirit, at least for a season. Likely all of us have experienced this. But at the same time we must allow that lack of structure can do the same (Taylor alludes to the fact that this, too, has been observed at different times and places in the Church’s history, as well as in pockets of China today). In either case, it seems a theological falacy to assert that either structure of lack of structure can ultimately prevent the work of the Holy Spirit (not that Alan is necesarily making this argument, but it is at least implicit in his assessment).

    How one assesses God’s role in the removal of formal Church structures in China is tied closely with how one interprets passages such as Romans 8:28. Does God cause apparently bad things to happen to us in order to bring about a greater good, a good which only he, with his perfect perspective at times can see? Or does God possess the power and authority to redeem the terrible things life throws at us when we lean on him in the midst of these difficulties (or even when we don’t, for that matter)? To say that God had to clear structure out of the way in order to accomplish what he had in mind for China implies the former understanding, which is an inherently Reformed reading of the situation. If, however, we believe God did an amazing redemptive work in China in spite of the decimation of the structures of Church there, an inherently Arminian reading, then we are saying something altogether different.

    Of course, the rub is that it makes no sense to ask questions about what form the Church should take, to wonder if the church has what it needs, to discuss the role we play in the work of the Holy Spirit, or to debate missional vs. attractional (or whatever else) or structured vs. organic within a Reformed framework. We only can ask these questions if we view ourselves as agents of free will, and God as one who has (for a time, at least) laid aside his sovereignty to allow us the freedom to either facilitate or debilitate his work in the world. It is only when our choices make a difference that we can speak of what our choices should be.

    Does the Church (all of it) have what she needs? Of course. She has the gift of the Holy Spirit. Those parts of the Body of Christ that are more structured should be so in ways that facilitate the work of the Holy Spirit. Those parts that are called to be more organic should be so in ways that facilitate the work of the Holy Spirit. Beyond this, we’re a bunch of fingers and toes arguing over who is more important.

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      Thanks for these great thoughts, Billy, and especially for clarifying the relationship of Asbury to the UMC (or, rather, the lack of formal relationship).

      On the last point you made, I just want to reiterate that what Hirsch said was “Every church has everything it needs to get its job done,” which is a very different (more individual) proposition, I think, from saying “the Church (universal) has all that she needs.” Does that stir up any additional thoughts for you? Thanks again for commenting!

      • Billy Watson


        I also understood Hirsch’s comment to be about individual churches and simply meant to expand it to the Church universal. I agree that every localized community of Christ followers (be they a “traditional” congregation or otherwise) is gifted with what is needed to be and do what God is calling them to. Through the Holy Spirit we are all gifted – individually, as local communities, and as the Church universal for the work of the Kingdom. Such is the nature of the ongoing incarnation of Christ through his body. Either God’s call and gifting is irresistible, or it is an invitation we must choose to accept or reject. If the former, this conversation is a moot point.

  • http://emergingumc.blogspot.com Taylor Burton-Edwards (@twbe)


    It does stir up additional thoughts for me.

    Namely, what is the church? And more specifically, what is the local church?

    If we identify local church with what we have known through most of post-5th century Christian history as “local congregations,” and now since the Reformation in the West, more specifically “local congregations of a specific ‘brand’” (brand includes both denominations and the non-denominational types) then I have to say I don’t think the local church, so tightly defined, is promised to have everything it needs for its own particular survival and mission. I see no warrant for that anywhere in scripture. And there is certainly plenty of evidence to the contrary as so many of these local congregations spring up and are swept away not by things like natural or human opposition, but, truth be told, by demographics and market forces.

    But if we go with something a bit more ecumenical, a bit more “Newbigineque,” and speak rather than of “the local church” of “the church local”– then I think we do have this promise.

    The distinction is not simply one of word order, but truly a distinction of kind. The church local means all of the forms in which the church is manifested in a given local area. This may include congregations, Emmaus groups, campus ministries, ministries with the poor, religious orders, denominational offices, missionaries or people involved in ongoing mission projects, health care ministries… you name it.

    Whether we conceive of church as local or regional or even global, church itself as a phenomenon is never just a congregation, nor even necessarily centered in or controlled by a congregation. Church is what Paul told us it is– the body of Christ. The body is, in a very real sense, the emergent property of this exquisite network of very different parts performing very different kinds of functions, all for the good of the whole. Likewise, the church is the emergent property of multiple formats of Christian community bearing witness to, joining up and occasionally actually doing some of the heavy lifting of the mission of God.

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      Love it, Taylor, you can comment on here anytime! Seriously, great stuff. The switch from “local congregations” thinking to “the local church” or “the church local” is a very important one. It makes all the difference for me in how to answer that question, just as you explained. We don’t usually think much about “the church local,” do we?