Chinese believers who accept Christ while living in the U.S. might not be able to find an American-style church if they return to China. That’s part of the reason why Eugene Zhang is leading a house church movement in the Dallas-Fort Worth area as a model for what to expect if such a transition occurs.
Most Chinese believers who return to China never join a church there, Zhang said, because they cannot find one like they’ve known in America. “If you start a Chinese house church and they worship just like a house church in China, when they go back, it’s easier for them to fit in the culture there,” he said.
Zhang grew up in a house church in China and briefly served as a missionary in Russia before immigrating to the United States, where his primary employment has been as a truck driver. He and his wife, Lily, attended Hillcrest Baptist Church in Cedar Hill, and along the way they began ministering to Chinese students at Dallas Baptist University (DBU).
The couple learned the students often were uncertain about the future and were looking for purpose in life, so as an outreach, they started providing opportunities to engage with American culture in activities such as horseback riding, target shooting, and fishing.
“Food always makes good friends, especially in Chinese culture,” Zhang said, noting that providing homemade Chinese food reminded the students of home. “We started to talk about Jesus. Some believed, and we had a Bible study. Later on, we bought a home not far from DBU because we want to continually share the gospel with Chinese students.”
The first week of 2020, Zhang’s group formed a house church in Grand Prairie, hosting not only a Bible study but worship services and weekly evangelism training. During the pandemic, two more house churches started, and now the number is up to six throughout the Metroplex.
Using the name Hillcrest Chinese Church Network, Zhang partners with Hillcrest Baptist Church, the North American Mission Board, and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention to reach not only Chinese students, but Chinese of any age or station in life. “God has really blessed the ministry, and I am very happy with that,” he said.
Zhang explained that some house churches in China can accommodate a thousand people if the home has a large yard or appropriate facility, but generally house churches have 50 to 100 people. In the Hillcrest network, each church has around 20 people—although the original Grand Prairie location has grown to 40.
“Every meeting we have a meal, just like the early church did,” Zhang said.
One of his main challenges now is training leaders to care for each of the house churches, he said. He has handed four of them over to others, and he is leading two of them.
Church planting is important, Zhang said, because he sees Chinese unbelievers but doesn’t see people sharing Jesus with them. “God loves everyone and wants them to be saved … [This is] about eternal death or eternal life. It’s very serious,” he said.
The house churches in the Hillcrest network allocate at least 5% of tithes and offerings to the Cooperative Program, and Zhang emphasizes that all future churches he hopes to plant—even throughout the U.S.—will be encouraged to participate in CP.
Zhang envisions that many of the Chinese in the house church network in Texas will return to China well-equipped to start or serve similar churches there.
Research shows 80% of Chinese students will return to China, Zhang said, and a student trained and experienced in house church ministry is equipped to replicate the ministry in China, perhaps impacting generations.
“This ministry could potentially reach into the hardest-to-reach places on earth,” Zhang said.