“A spectre is haunting Communism. It is the spectre of churches without buildings.”
If there were a Christian Karl Marx today, his Manifesto of Third World Christianity could begin with these words.
In 1973, in his last years, Mao’s persecution had reduced the number of Protestants in China to something in the range of 3 million people. The estimate today is 120 million. No one knows. This is a good thing. If the state cannot count them, it cannot persecute them.
Chinese Protestants have adopted a strategy used in the late Roman Empire. They are worshiping in homes and secret buildings. They stay on the move. In short: the churches do not have 9-digit zip codes.
The same strategy was used under the Soviet Empire before it collapsed in late 1991.
The same strategy has worked in the tribal states of the post-European empire world in sub-Sahara Africa.
The same system is working in Latin America, to the dismay of the bureaucrats.
This has received little attention in the West, because this strategy relies on invisibility. The West’s intellectuals suffer from a myth of modernism: “If bureaucrats cannot count something, it cannot be important. It it cannot be computerized, it cannot be socially relevant.” Call it the NSA’s blind spot. Call it the IRS’s nightmare.
The strategy is simple to describe: no permanent real estate. There are no permanent church buildings.
If you can’t find it, you cannot tax it. If you cannot find it, you cannot regulate it. If you cannot find it, you cannot subsidize it. If you cannot tax it or regulate it or subsidize it, the state cannot suppress it. It’s simple. And it is working, just as it worked from Nero to Diocletian.
There is a book that touches on this peripherally: Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom (Oxford University Press). It has received little attention from the humanists or the Christians in the West. They do not think it is important, because anything that cannot be taxed, regulated, or subsidized is too far outside the comprehension of ether Western bureaucrats or Western Christians.
Chistendom means Christian civilization. The home church movement launches the church in a hostile environment. Eventually, it comes out of the shadows. Eventually, it becomes respectable. Eventually, it can afford church buildings. This is the moment of truth. Can it possess influence without possessing political power? Political power seems to be the nemesis of the church. Yet churches must speak to issues like infanticide, which they did in the Roman Empire. How can any institution speak truth to power, yet not become corrupted by power? This has been the conundrum facing the church for almost two millennia.
UNDER THE STATE’S RADAR
I begin with four principles of institutional survival.
1. Growth is not automatic.
2. Attrition is universal.
3. Growth must be greater than attrition for extension to occur.
4. Growth requires a plan.
These apply to every institution. To understand what is happening today in Black Africa, China, Latin America, and certain parts of India, consider the task facing a church planter.
This problem faced church leaders in Communist China in 1973. But, less well known, it also faced an obscure fundamentalist foreign missionary in India in 1991. He had just been thrown out of India by the government. Why? Because it was a way for the Indian government to quietly protest George H. W. Bush’s Gulf War. The decision had nothing to do with religious persecution. It was politically motivated. Anyway, this is the explanation given by the victim, David Watson.
I had not heard of him until about three years ago, when I stumbled across the video of the speech that he gave to a hard-core group in a Texas church. His presentation begins at 13 minutes. You have never heard anything like this: Watson Video.
Watson enjoys flying below the radar. He is a hard man to find.
He has revolutionized Protestant foreign missions. Protestant foreign missions began in the 1740s. The Mennonites were the pioneers. John Wesley imitated them. So, the field is fairly new. Only in the late 1700s did a Baptist missionary travel to India. Only in the late 1860s did Protestant missionaries reach China.
Watson in 1989 went to northeast India, known as the graveyard of missionaries. His family was expelled in 1991. He left, beaten. He did not want to go back. But he went back in 1992. Over the next 15 years, his six-person team started home churches that in turn multiplied. When he left India in 2007, the total number was 80,000 churches. Not converts — churches.
Those who have adopted his strategy have started 200,000 churches, as of 2009. The number is larger today. On average, each church had about 60 people. This was 12 million people in 2009. I know of no system of evangelism for any idea in history that spread this fast.
Why was this relevant? Because it costs virtually nothing to launch one of these ministries, apart from financing one missionary. This program then becomes self-funded in the recipient country.
There are no subsidies, either from Western churches or Third World governments. With no subsidies, the churches cannot easily be traced.
No matter what you believe about God, man, law, sanctions, and the future, this video is astounding. Here was a self-admitted failure who went back into the field. It is the story of a beaten man who achieved an historic breakthrough. These stories are always worth considering.
Only one thing can stop the process in its tracks, once it gets started: a church building. As soon as a building goes up, the multiplication stops.
His system is not imitated by denominational foreign missions organizations. Instead, they send out American missionaries at $60,000 a year, who in an entire career start maybe two congregations. It costs about two million dollars to achieve this. It also costs the salaries of the missions bureaucrats in the United States.
The foreign missions organizations will therefore not adopt Watson’s system. Why not? Because it does not preach the defining, narrowly focused theological point of the missions bureaucracy. So, this defining denominational-theological point remains right where it is: locked up in the denomination. The entire denomination’s membership is maybe 3% of the people Watson and his imitators have persuaded since 1992. Maybe less.
Here is the key: the process is reproducible. They have the statistics for Africa and Latin America.
This is a distinctively non-Western program. It self-consciously resists spreading the message in terms of Western categories. It is generic Christianity.
This is like a wedge. It is not the end of the process. It is only the beginning. This is lowest-common-denominator Christianity. In Pareto’s terminology, this is the bottom 80%. It is the starting point.
TO START A CHURCH IN ASIA
Consider the challenge of India. There are about 1.2 billion people in India. There is no way to generate capital sufficient to build enough churches to evangelize India in a generation. The same holds true for China. It has to be done with a house church system. There is no other way.
The tremendous advantage that the Communists gave to Protestants in China is that there was either persecution of the church under Mao or the Three-Self movement, which is a government-approved church, whose members meet in buildings that can be monitored by the Communist hierarchy.
This led to the creation of house churches. All over China, Protestants create house churches. Sometimes the government arrests the pastor, but he is replaced immediately from inside the congregation. We don’t know how many Protestants there are in China today, but a common estimate is 120 million. In 1973, there were probably fewer than 3 million. We know now what happened. All of this came as a result of the fact that the Communists either tried to stamp out Protestantism, or else they tried to control it by confining it in buildings, where the government could monitor what was going on. This has led to the largest, fastest evangelism explosion in the history of the church.
In terms of percentages, 120 million is 10% of the Chinese population. But Protestant evangelists were in China from the 1860s, and there was not much growth until the serious persecutions began in the aftermath of the cultural revolution of the mid-1960s.
Mao drove all the Western missionaries and pastors out of China in the early 1950s. That was the making of the Protestant church in China. That exodus freed the Chinese church from the legacy of seminary-trained pastors, church buildings, and large congregations.
We’re seeing the greatest evangelism movement in the history of the world, yet we’re not seeing it. We’re not seeing it, because it has no buildings, no seminary-trained pastors, and no hierarchical organizations . . . yet. There are only local organizations, and they multiply under persecution. They don’t have any money, but they don’t need any money, so they multiply.
A variant of this system of evangelism among the outcasts began in Los Angeles in 1906, about two weeks before the San Francisco earthquake. It is known as Pentecostalism. It was a movement of the lower classes initially. It got little publicity in a religious world run by mainline denominations, which were moving rapidly to the social gospel and modernism. These people were off the American Establishment’s radar. They had no seminaries. They did not even have tiny denominational colleges.
Today, the estimates of the number of Pentecostals worldwide is in the range of 250 million. It could be 500 million. This has taken place in one century.
In America, they have church buildings. They have a more visible structure. But in sub-Sahara Africa and Latin America, they have little social standing. They have minimal support from North America. Their churches begin in homes and storefronts, just as they did in the United States a century ago. They are dominant in zip codes that Charles Murray has described as “Fishtown” in his 2012 book, Coming Apart. They are a force of healing where the social fabric is coming apart.
They used techniques developed by John Wesley in the 1750s. They targeted people at the bottom. Like the Methodists in the eighteenth-century England, they do not stay on the bottom for long. The change in their behavior lets them move up: sobriety, hard work, and thrift have very definite personal and social effects.
Pentecostals had no theological seminaries. So, they could not be easily captured. Besides, no one in the Establishment wanted to capture them. Wesley understood this in 1750.
Yet by 1900, the Methodist Church was the most theologically liberal trinitarian denomination in the United States. They had colleges. Their leaders were trained in seminaries. They were respectable. There is something about respectability that undercuts Christian evangelism. It lures power-seekers to infiltrate the seats of influence within the organization. Money, respectability, and influence are like a flame to moths. The moths just cannot seem to stay away.
The process of infiltration begins with church buildings and zip codes. It ends up with seminaries. Then growth ceases.
ACCREDITED THEOLOGICAL SEMINARIES
Seminary education was cheap fifty years ago, when I attended one. Today, Protestant seminary students can get federally insured loans. The seminaries have gotten onto the state’s gravy train. The price of seminary education is now sometimes comparable to a private graduate school. YThe graduates must enter the job market fast. They have debts to pay. The job market must be conventional. It must pay good salaries.
To make the home church model work, a church has to abandon the concept of the theological seminary. In order to multiply fast enough to make a difference, a denomination cannot possibly require ministers to attend a seminary. This model was invented in 1808, after Harvard started moving openly to Unitarianism. It tacked three more years on top of four years at Harvard. The Congregationalists invented it. It seemed like such a great way to restrict the supply of pastors that the Presbyterians copied it three years later.
Think “guild.” Think: “limiting supply.” Think: “higher salaries.”
What was the result? The Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, and the Congregationalists were never able to plant many churches West of the Allegheny Mountains. That was because they required college degrees and seminary degrees, which are limited to an elite. The graduates wanted high salaries for all their academic work. This led to standard churches east of the Alleghenies: buildings and congregations large enough to pay the pastors.
Meanwhile, west of the Alleghenies, the Baptists and Methodists used a completely different model. Laymen did the preaching. They adopted what became known as circuit riding. John Wesley had created this model in the 1740s. One missionary could be a pastor to half a dozen congregations, once every six weeks. Laymen ran then in between. Between 1801, when the Second Great Awakening began in Kentucky, until about 1820, the Baptists and Methodists started so many churches, that by the time the Presbyterians and Congregationalists crossed the Alleghenies, everybody had heard the message. West of the Alleghenies, the Methodists and the Baptists prevailed. This was an ecclesiastical manifestation of fundamental economic law:the lower the price, the greater the quantity demanded.
The East Coast denominations moved west decades later. Their harvest fields were in Baptist and Methodist fields. They grew when discontented Baptists and Methodists went looking for more rigorous theology and people with higher incomes and better educations.
These days, the Pentecostals do the preliminary harvesting work. The Methodists went liberal a century ago, and the Baptists no longer emphasize evangelism to the degree that they once did. German sociologist and religion expert Max Weber had a phrase for this a century ago: “The routinization of charisma.” It seems to be a law of ecclesiology.
Pentecostalism outside the United States is the least routinized movement of all. It has cut to almost nothing the two largest expenses of starting a church: real estate costs and pastoral salaries. Pentecostalism in the Third World can start a church with practically no money. There is no way on the face of the earth that Western Christianity that is not Pentecostal, or that refuses to adopt a Pentecostal model, can compete with Pentecostals. It costs too much.
A theological seminary for the 21st century has an available model: the Khan Academy. There is a core curriculum. There is a core assumption about the way the world works. But the delivery system is completely decentralized. There is no system of enforcement. There are only online tests. The tests are administered locally, probably by parents. Authority lies with the parents, not with Khan Academy.
All of the professors at theological seminaries today should make videos, PDFs, tests, and reading lists of everything they teach. They should post it all online for free. Then they should either resign or else persuade their denominations to pay them to devote their time only to a graduate program in theology. But the denominations will not do this, as the professors know. The donors donate for only one reason: to produce men eligible academically to become pastors. Protestant denominations really don’t care about advancing their theology, which they view as divisive, not to mention expensive.
The professors are not going to quit. They want lifetime employment. But the brick-and-mortar seminaries are no longer needed. The world is going to ignore them. (It already does.) The world will pass them by. (It already has.) They will train a handful of evangelists annually, and meanwhile a guy like David Watson went out and designed a system that produced 80,000 congregations in a little over a decade. Then, his work finished, he resigned.
There is no way that 7 billion people (soon to be 9 billion) can be evangelized in one generation by means of at least one seminary-trained pastor per congregation, seminary education, church buildings, and one acre of parking for every 300 people. It cannot happen. It is statistically impossible.
This is why Pentecostal Christianity has converted something in the range of 250 million people in about a century. World Christian evangelism today is mostly Pentecostalism, because Pentecostalism outside the United States does not care about the following: seminary education, church buildings, large congregations, and pastors who do nothing except get paid to pastor. Their only demographically serious rivals are those non-Charismatics who have adopted Watson’s model.
This model began in the homes and catacombs of the Roman Empire. Slowly, the churches gained influence. They began taking responsibility for the poor and the outcasts. This gained them respectability. The Roman state fought this. It made it illegal for anyone to pick up abandoned babies and rear them. Abandoning babies was a common practice in ancient Rome. The Christians broke this law.
The Roman empire eventually collapsed. The church became the leader of what came to be called Christendom: Christian civilization. But power tends to corrupt, and absolute power — asserted by the state — corrupts absolutely.