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What does a church look like?


Yanting, Sichuan church lacks the steeple it needs to convince local authorities it is a church.

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May 31, 2005
-by Jeanette Hanson

Nanchong, China — Churches in China, as around the world, come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

In most large cities in China, churches are surprisingly European in design, some built more than a hundred years ago by foreign missionaries resembling the cathedrals “back home”. In many smaller cities and county towns, no church building existed before 1949. Now, growing congregations need a building of their own.

This has brought a new challenge. What does a church look like? Some congregations want a building that sticks out from the rest. They chose designs that look like the older European churches. Some congregations have simple cement structures that look much like the shops around them.

When local architects are asked to draw up blueprints they are confused about the purpose of the building. One architect even argued with a pastor saying, “This large room in the middle is not practical. It adds so much to the cost to have such a large room. The beams and rafters need to be built differently with such a large room. Why can’t you divide it into smaller rooms?”

Renovation of other buildings has also become a popular way for congregations to obtain their own worship area without huge expense. One congregation in rural Sichuan found a perfect use for an abandoned factory. They were able to buy the property and run-down buildings for a good price. They excitedly began renovation on the large work room, turning it into a very comfortable sanctuary. They replaced the roof tiles, poured a cement floor, fixed windows and repainted inside and out.

The local government authorities supported them by allowing them to register as a church. So, for the first time in that county, there was a church building. The congregation proudly hung the sign outside the gate only to be told by the government that they had to take the sign down again because their building didn’t look like a church. After trying many ways to get around the problem, they came to an agreement that if the building had a steeple, the government would allow them to re-open as a church. This is financially difficult for the congregation. Their resources are scarce and they had used up what they had to buy the property and renovate the sanctuary. They had hoped to also begin renovations on other parts of the building so that they could have an education wing for training classes.

Mennonite Church Canada’s mission partner, China Educational Exchange, helped to support a lay leadership training class in this county and found out about their building difficulties. The congregation has been given about $4400 CDN to pay for blueprints to be drawn up and for a small renovation to make the factory “look like a church” in the eyes of the government and the community around it. For the Christians already using this facility it has already become a house of God and a place of worship. To help more Chinese Christians with church buildings, visit

Jeanette Hanson is a Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker in Nanchong, China, where she works with local churches and government agencies in cooperative social welfare projects. She is married to Todd Hanson. They have two daughters, age 7 and 3.