Who Owns the House Church?
By Kelsey McFaul
Pastor Wang Liwei reflects on challenges for stewardship in mainland China
In mainland China, ownership and control take different forms–in the state church, the house church, and the lives of individual pastors. Wang Liwei, experienced in all three, knows this firsthand.
“Chinese house churches are growing very fast. The founder of the church treats the church as their baby, and they make big efforts to grow from maybe 2 members to 100, 200 members. They have a high responsibility, but then sometimes they have a high sense of ownership as well and they want to control.”
Mainland China distinguishes between house churches like the ones Wang describes and state churches led by state-educated and state-appointed pastors. In contrast, the founders of house churches are not educated or monitored by the state, and they have freedom in the content of their preaching.
Wang points out that while all house churches are officially illegal, not all house churches are equally persecuted. A few house churches may take overtly anti-government stances which lead to persecution, but most house churches don’t engage in political activity and are allowed to operate without interference. In both cases, the leaders of house churches bear a deep sense of responsibility for their churches and congregations.
“The founder is somebody who has a calling from the Holy Spirit and wants to start a church. He’s using his own money, or he borrows some money, and he starts from his home. There is no restriction on him. He and his helpers can do anything they want, travel and visit every family. The relationship between the pastors and members is very close; that’s why the house church grows so fast.”
The intimate relationship between a house church’s founder, his church, and his congregation present a unique testing ground for stewardship.
“If we talk about this stewardship concept, the challenge for the founder of the church is very big. When a member leaves to go to another church, that hurts them. On the one hand I think it’s because they love the member, but on the other hand they think they owned the member.
“If we know that we are stewards, we don’t own the member. If they come to my church, they belong to God. If they go to another church, they also belong to God. So it doesn’t matter between my church or another pastor’s church, as long as the member belongs to God.”
Wang was born in China to Christian parents under the Cultural Revolution and discovered his own faith at university in Beijing in the late 1980s. In addition to a professional career in international trade and consulting, he has spent a lifetime working with churches and pastors. His own learning experiences with ownership and stewardship make him uniquely suited to mentoring others.
“When I graduated in 1990, I helped build a church in Beijing, and then I became their youngest pastor at that time. I wanted to make all the decisions on my own. I thought I was in charge of a big church, so I should be like a boss. I represented God. But then I failed, because I made decisions in the role of a boss.”
Learning about stewardship shifted Wang’s understanding of his role from that of a boss, or owner, to a manager. At the same time, he had the humbling experience of realizing how much he had to learn.
“If you are a boss, you don’t need to learn. But I have weaknesses; I have lots of things to learn. In the past, only myself is very busy and other people just look at me. They are waiting for me to tell them what to do. Now I know I have to delegate, to advocate for others to be leaders.”
Stewardship not only frees a leader to relinquish their ownership and delegate to others, but also brings joy and freedom from worry.
“From the owner to the steward, you know I feel really relaxed. Because in the past I make all the decisions on my own, and that doesn’t make me very happy. But if I encourage and train others, then everyone becomes stewards and we will have freedom. We will have joy. Otherwise, we are so heavy.”
As his career as a pastor progresses, Wang spends more and more time mentoring emerging house church leaders who are experiencing the heaviness of leadership responsibility.
“Nobody wants to talk about ownership. Nobody dares touch this topic. Some pastors know it, because they are so tired. I’ve just had news that a 50-year-old pastor I know has just died. He did everything for himself. He set up several churches; he devoted all his time to the church. But he didn’t have time to look after his family, and so he died in a very poor situation.”
For Wang, a sense of ownership and control are the largest challenges in his own leadership journey and in the lives of the pastors he mentors now. In both, he finds the surrender and freedom of stewardship to be transformative.
“I lived through that heaviness 10 years ago, and now they are living through all my 10-year experience. I lived through it, so I think it’s time to give it to the pastors.
“I believe that we can never control souls. But we can change ourselves from the role of a boss to a steward, which makes us humble, makes us willing to learn, and makes us acceptable to God.”