CPMs Up Close
A Region in China
China in the early 1990s was reeling from enormous social upheaval. Economic boom had left gross disparities between the haves and have-nots. Rapid urbanization was dismantling ancient family and communal alliances. The entire country anxiously awaited a successor to the Maoist doctrines which had held the
collective mind for almost four decades.
New ideas were sweeping through the country and were
viewed with a mixture of enthusiasm and rejection. The suppressed student
democracy movement, culminating in the clash with government forces in
Tiananmen Square in 1989, had left many youth despairing of political
reform, yet still searching for some new hope for a better future.
Into this setting the International Mission Board
assigned a strategy coordinator in 1991 to a region we’ll call Yanyin.
During a year of language and culture study, the missionary conducted a
thorough analysis of Yanyin. It consisted of about 7 million people
clustered in five different people groups living in a variety of rural and
urban settings. He mapped their population centers and began several
evangelistic probes. After a few false starts, the strategy coordinator
developed a reproducing model of indigenous church planting that he
implemented to great effect.
In his initial survey, the strategy coordinator
found three local house churches made up of about 85 Han Chinese
Christians. The membership was primarily elderly and had been slowly
declining for years with no vision or prospects for growth. Over the next
four years, by God’s grace, the strategy coordinator helped the gospel
take fresh root among this people group and sweep rapidly across the
Aware of the enormous cultural and linguistic
barriers that separated him from the people of Yanyin, the missionary
began by mobilizing Chinese Christian co-laborers from across Asia. Then,
partnering these ethnic Chinese church planters with a small team of local
believers, the group planted six new churches in 1994. The following year,
17 more were begun. The next year, 50 more were started. By 1997, just
three years after starting, the number of churches had risen to 195 and
had spread throughout the region, taking root in each of the five people
At this point the movement was spreading so rapidly
that the strategy coordinator felt he could safely exit the work without
diminishing its momentum. The next year, in his absence, the movement
nearly tripled as the total number of churches grew to 550 with more than
Since his departure from the Yanyin assignment in
1997, the strategy coordinator has given considerable attention to
examining the factors that enabled this Church Planting Movement to
develop so rapidly. We are all the beneficiaries of this analysis, which I
will relate in abbreviated form here.
As with so many assignments, the Yanyin ministry was
bathed in prayer even before its inception. What began as a personal
belief in the efficacy of prayer became a part of the DNA of the new
Church Planting Movement as the early believers emulated the model of the
Training and structure were key elements in the
initiation and rapid rise of this movement, as was the practice of “response
filtering.” Response filtering is the practice of using some large-scale
evangelism tool, such as video, radio or other mass outreach tools,
coupled with a “feedback loop” or filtering mechanism that allows the
evangelist to glean from the proclamation those who are interested in
receiving further contact. In this manner, seed-sowing is almost always
linked to some attempt to “draw the net” and gather inquirers into a
Bible study aimed at a new church start.
Let’s take a closer look at the training and
structure employed by the missionary. The strategy coordinator began with
a small core of believers whom he discipled and then trained in basic
church planting methods. The missionary calls his church planting method a
POUCH approach. POUCH is an acronym. P stands for participative Bible
study/worship groups, describing the type of cell group meetings through
which seekers are led to faith and new believers continue as church
afterwards. O refers to obedience to God’s Word as the sole measure of
an individual’s or church’s success. U refers to unpaid and multiple
lay or bi-vocational church leaders. C stands for cell churches rarely
exceeding 15 members before reproducing into new groups. H indicates
or storefronts as the primary meeting places for these cell churches. Each
of these five characteristics contributed to the reproducibility of the
churches in a manner that did not rely upon outside funding, technology or
The strategy coordinator instilled in these initial
converts a vision for reaching all of Yanyin with the gospel. He shared
with them his research on where the various unreached people groups of the
region lived and assured them that Christ had equipped them with all they
needed to reach the entire region with the gospel.
The pattern he taught for starting churches was
built around four steps: 1) Model, 2) Assist, 3) Watch and 4) Leave.
Modeling referred to the act of doing church with the new (or soon to be)
believers using the POUCH approach described above. Assisting referred to
the act of helping the newly formed church to plant a daughter church.
Watching was an important and conscious effort to see to it that a
third-generation church was started without the assistance or direct
involvement of the missionary. Leaving was the final crucial step of
ensuring that the movement was truly indigenous and self-propagating.
In a very short time, the new Yanyin believers had
started multiple POUCH churches across the region, each of which was
modeling, assisting new church starts, watching to see that the
reproduction was continuing and then leaving to go and begin a new church
plant elsewhere. Undoubtedly the chain of reproduction was broken from
time to time, but due to the many, many new churches that were being
started, the breaks did not significantly slow the spread of the movement.
The remote region of Yanyin was far-removed from
seminaries or Bible institutes. Government restrictions prohibited the
building of any local seminaries. Instead, the missionary strategist
looked to New Testament models of mentoring. As the missionary trained the
first generation of church leaders, he insisted that they train someone
else. Thus, training was done through one-on-one mentoring relationships.
Each aspiring church leader was required to be both a disciple and a
discipler in an ongoing chain of teaching and being taught “whatsoever
things I have commanded
you” (Matt. 28:20). Whatever a lay pastor learned one day, he would
teach to another lay leader the next day. This provided the ultimate
example of on-the-job training that was always vital, fresh and “just in
time” to be used.
Even though persecution and death accompanied the
spread of the gospel across Yanyin, there was not a systematic effort on
the part of the government to stop the movement. This may have been
partially due to the low profile of cell churches and the absence of new
New believers were immediately baptized and taught
that it was normal for them to win others to Christ and lead them to form
new churches. This “high demand/high risk” reliance on new converts as
evangelists and church planters contributed greatly to the rapid expansion
of the movement.
The nondenominational context of churches in China
meant that there was no denominational tradition that the churches
adopted. It remains to be seen whether heretical expressions will emerge
within the movement. However, the highly decentralized nature of the
Yanyin Church Planting Movement is not conducive to a single individual
gaining control over the whole. At the doctrinal heart of each cell church
is a commitment to obey the Bible. Since church worship consists of
participative Bible study with multiple leaders,
there is a natural corrective from within the group itself to
misinterpretation or extremes of interpretation.
When asked about the movement’s lack of
denominational identity, the strategy coordinator commented that, even
though the government forbids denominational expressions in China, the
Yanyin churches are more Baptist than most Baptist churches he has known.
He further predicts that their pattern of allegiance to the Bible and
commitment to the priesthood of the laity will keep the movement on track.
1. From the beginning, evangelism was lay-led and
centered among the lost rather than inside church buildings.
2. Multiple, unpaid church leaders ensured the
availability of the growing number of leaders needed to continually begin
3. The house-church pattern of the Yanyin movement
is well-adapted to growth and to a persecution environment.
4. By leaving the assignment before it grew large
enough to attract government scrutiny, the missionary helped the Yanyin
movement avoid the appearance of foreignness in a country known for its
nationalism and xenophobia.