Our Fellowship continues a long tradition of foreign Christians in Tianjin meeting for Sunday worship. Way back in the nineteenth century, to be a Western foreigner was to subscribe to some form of Christian faith, hence the mistaken belief that Christianity is a foreign faith. It was part of many Westerners’ tradition to attend a church service on a Sunday and so, from the early days, services were held for and by Western Christians. Rasmussen (1925: 40) records the Reverent John Innocent (possible founder of the Astor House Hotel) as writing of the 1860s-70s:“The places for holding church parade and Christian worship had to be changed several times, until, partly for convenience, a large upper room of the Temple called Niang Niang Kung, was fitted up at the joint expense of the military officers and resident merchants for a place of worship.”
Most of the foreigners in Tianjin at this time were soldiers. As the troops were reduced and the British concession was opened up, the congregation divided. Some met in homes built nearer the concession, including Rev. Lees of the London Missionary Society. Later, this society gave some of the land they had acquired on Daku Lu (vicinity of current Kou Chang Yi Yuan), and raised funds by subscription to build a Gothic-style church with porch, bell tower and bell. The Union Church, as it was called due to its being non-denominational, was opened in August 1864. It was said to be the “first foreign building that meets the gaze of those who come up the river on board the ships and steamers from the sea” (Candlin 1909: 120).
Volunteers served in the Church and preachers delivered half hour sermons. McLeish, considered an ‘old China hand’, remembered how the irascible British Consul, Mr Davenport, used to sit in the front pew noting the sermon’s length. Should the man exceed his time, “he would whip out his watch and hold it up significantly under the eyes of the erring preacher” (in Rasmussen 1925: 61). As is Tianjin International Christian Fellowship (TJIF) today, the congregation was very mixed and transient.
As the concession spread, a new church site was found near the intersection of what is known today as Hubei Lu and Baoding Lu. In 1896 a larger Gothic church was built with a tall spire. It became known as the New Union Church but was destroyed in the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. From 1904, it had its own pastor and was entirely self-supporting, contributing in many ways to the lives of the foreign community through its Sunday school, choir, charitable works, and meetings.
In 1890, an Anglican Church was started in a church room on Victoria Road (today called Jie Fang Lu) with a Pastor by the name of Reverend Brereton caring for the congregation of about forty. Later a site was obtained from the British Municipal Council, and funds were raised to build a church called “All Saints.” The foundation stone for this early English-style building was laid in June 1900 and it was finally consecrated in 1903, becoming central to many ceremonies as well as marking the births, weddings and deaths of many in Tientsin. It served the British and wider community into the 1930s, and remains today, a restored shell on Tai An Dao.
Later, a period followed when foreigners no longer lived in Tianjin. But with the opening up of China in the 1980’s, foreigners returned once again with Christians naturally among them. A fairly sizable group, all a part of a foreign training company remembered by many in our fellowship still today, began to arrive. They gathered to meet in a conference room of the Tianjin Bin Guan from September 1986 until April 1987 when they moved to the Intertech Building (now the “Intero Hotel”) on You Yi Lu. Other foreigners from Nankai University, the Foreign Languages Institute, and the growing business community also began to attend. They moved from a small conference room to a spacious auditorium, although by 1996 people were spreading into the balcony at the rear. The warmth of the fellowship made up for the lack of heating in winter when people used to bring their own blankets so they could wrap up. Particularly memorable was a sermon by Dr. West who illustrated it with a fresh pig’s heart he’d bought in the local street market! Another series featured two medical doctors taking turns presenting their differing positions on the Scriptural proof for Calvinism and Armenianism together with what this means for believers in life and practice. All was done with good will for the edification of the group. Singing was usually done without accompaniment until a small keyboard was obtained, and later an acoustic guitar and single microphone were added. Sunday School was limited, in the beginning, to a small table in the storage room where younger elementary school children gathered for a story and crafts. Services were often followed by lunch in local restaurants. Driven by love, the Fellowship offered funds in some relief projects with flooding in Hebei in late 1996 and drought in 1997.
Around this same time, a Mandarin-speaking Christian Fellowship composed of overseas Chinese began and met within the same building, starting a relationship between the two that has continued to today.
In 1998, redecoration of the Intertech resulted in TICF moving temporarily to a meeting place on Hong Qi Dao and shortly after to the Travel College on Zi Jin Shan Lu. This was to be ‘home’ for both the English and Mandarin-speaking fellowships for the next fourteen years! Many of the families who had been here in the early days moved on but there were always new families arriving.
During this time a full fledged Sunday School program was started with parents comprising the core organizational effort. As the program enlarged kids presented Easter and Christmas performances. Also the Fellowship began its ongoing practice of an annual early Easter Baptismal Service at the Sheraton Hotel, prior to the main Celebration at our regular location. The music program also developed both in size and variety of instruments and a new sound board was commissioned complete with dual tape deck for message reproduction. As at the beginning, men were selected by the Elder board to share in the ministry of the word and from time to time an occasional visitor was also asked.
Beginning around year 2000 the Fellowship realized a growing influx of international students, a trend that has contributed to more than fifty nationalities being represented today. Since then the our International Students have participated in festivals and gatherings with other students from around China as well as having a variety of local nurturing activities including many small groups and training sessions. In 2006-08 discussion initiated between the Elders and local student leadership about improving the interactive flow of ministry and participation in both direction. And from the first Fall Family Fellowship Conference in 2009, where the students did most of the organizing, they have played an increasing role in all areas including the Fellowship’s leadership team and its Sunday Worship.
In addition to the regular Sunday Services of the Fellowship, in recent years, an ever growing number weekend events have continued to emerge- for example the Fall Family Conferences, two Marriage Enrichment Weekends, a Walk Through the Bible Training Course, a Course on Biblical Forgiveness, and a Seminar on Biblical Boundaries.
Prior to year 2006 the Elders often discussed whether the Fellowship was a Church or just a Sunday gathering. Many things began to happen that solidified the answer. One was that in 2006, in response to the local government’s request, the Fellowship formed a daughter congregation in TEDA near the Port of Tianjin about 40 km from Tianjin’s main city center. The nucleus of the young congregation was a core of believers working in TEDA who only months before decided to car pool to TICF each Sunday because of the Sunday School. But when confronted with support from the Fellowship to send a bus with around fifteen committed individuals and one of the elders for a minimum of one year, as well as with the opportunity, the nucleus unanimously agreed, stating on numerous occasions God’s direction. TICF continues to support the group in TEDA with weekly volunteers who go to be a part of the TEDA congregation, with occasional speakers and musicians and with an Elder. These days the bus is supplied by the TEDA congregation.
In 2009 a second service was started in Tianjin. Also, concluding two consecutive years of annual vision meetings, the Elders adopted both a “Vision” statement and a conviction the Fellowship was indeed a church. A big reason was the stated Vision, but it was so much more including discipleship; sacraments; accountability; sending; and a sense of love.
Through all of these events and in many others, it has been clear that God’s hand has been on Tianjin International Christian Fellowship. As a new chapter at the King Hotel began in the Fall of 2012, the fellowship understood and knew that Church is not about a building but rather about God and His work among His people. Time and time again we have seen His story retold. The last service at King Hall Hotel was a Christmas Cantata and Children’s Christmas performance on December 17, 2017.
Today, The Tianjin International Christian Fellowship continues in its vision, “Christ, by His power, radiated in Tianjin and beyond by Serving and equipping a diverse expat community.” This is seen not only through the influence of the many people who participate in Tianjin and TEDA today, but also through those who have moved beyond to new adventures and other realms of service.
-TICF is indebted to Mrs. Andrea Klopper for much of the content in this article
Candlin G.T. (1909) John Innocent: A History of Mission Work in North China.
Rasmussen, O.D. ( 1925) Tientsin: An Illustrated Outline History.
Unpublished accounts of former TICF members