It is instructive to look at the way the church developed after the triumph of communism in China.
The church was long seen, and derided by secularists, as ‘rice Christians’ those who gave their allegiance because the church was a source of food in a famine racked country. With the forced departure of western missionaries it was widely believed that the Chinese church would collapse. We know now that this is far from the case. The church, especially the unofficial church, has flourished in a remarkable way.
To grasp how this happened it helps to look a few continents and centuries away. In 1519 Hernando Cortez, with a group of 500 men, landed in what is now known as Mexico. He was confronted with an advanced, complex and centralised gold-rich Aztec civilisation of more than 15 million. Two years later Cortez had enslaved a civilisation dating back centuries before Christ.
Not only the Aztecs. Just over ten years later in 1532 Pizarro and his army invaded Inca territory and captured their leader Atahuallpa. A year later with all the Inca gold secured Atahuallpa was executed and replaced with a puppet ruler. Again in two years an entire advanced civilisation was brought low by a small army or ruthless men.
Fast forward 150 years to the 1680’s and the Spaniards, full of confidence, in order to extend their empire headed north into what is now New Mexico in the USA. There they encountered a seemingly primitive people without cities, paved roads, pyramids or vast aqueducts. Some of these people accepted the agrarian and Catholic lifestyle imposed by the Spanish. Most resisted.
For more than two centuries these people, the Apaches, held off the Spanish and beat them. Spain lost control of Sonora and Chihuahua provinces to the Apaches. Although it had never been their intention north Mexico was effectively in the control of the Apaches. This was no fluke, the Apaches continued to hold off the Spaniards as long as they remained in Mexico.
Why the differing fortunes of the Aztecs and Incas compared to the Apaches? The Aztecs and Incas had highly centralised authoritarian leadership and social structures, once the head was cut off the body died. The Apaches survived and persevered because they were decentralised, there was no head to cut off.
Apache leaders, known as Nant’an, led by example. Their most well known and successful leader Geronimo was not appointed by any tribal council he simply started fighting and those around him joined in. If you wanted to follow Geronimo you followed, if you didn’t want to then you didn’t follow. There was no coercive authoritarian structure which could be pinned down and destroyed. The characteristics of flexibility, ambiguity and shared power found in a decentralised system made the Apache immune to the attacks which destroyed the Aztecs and Incas.
We can see the Apache spirit today in the church in China. After the revolution the church in China took on two forms, the official state recognised Protestant and Catholic churches and the unofficial house churches. Despite decades of persecution both groups flourished, but it is the unregistered house churches which have seen amazing growth.
Figures from China are notoriously unreliable but what is undeniable is the astounding growth of the unregistered and thereby unrecognised Church. There is a vitality amongst these Christians which cannot be daunted and crushed by decades of sometimes violent persecution. A church or meeting place is closed down, it springs up elsewhere. A pastor is imprisoned, another steps forward to take his place.
There is no reliance on buildings, although they are useful. There is no dependence on set leaders and authority structures, although they have strengths. There is no submission to centralised authority, just Christians getting on with the business of following Christ where he has placed them.
There are dangers in such freedom from the centre. But there are also vital strengths. As we look at the history of the church we see the same dynamic played out again and again.
The Apaches gave us the Reformation, the Aztecs gave us the ecumenical movement.
The Apaches gave us Operation Mobilisation and Overseas Missionary Fellowship, the Aztecs gave us the World Council of Churches.
The Apaches gave us base Christian communities, the Aztecs gave us the Curia.
Vitality demands freedom and it is when congregations and Christians are allowed to develop their own life and witness within their own communities, or take it from central authority anyway, that we will find the gospel penetrate the dark places in our own society.