Extensive studies have shown that social services of Christian churches in mainland China today are still charity-focused, and feature temporary, sporadic and unsystematic efforts. Social services of a local Christian church in city S have risen above the conventional charities through various endeavours, a success attributed mainly to a set of self-developed and effective strategies, namely centralised control to boost organisational efficacy, collective identity cultivation to build a shared frame of reference and capitalising on favourable political circumstances to tap external resources. Specifically, improved organisational efficacy offers stable institutional support; a shared frame of reference ignites internal driving power; and external support catalyses greater public engagement. A closer examination of these strategies reveals the modes of church–government interactions that vary from one context to another. On the one hand, China's religious affairs authorities remain sceptical towards churches, while local governments, on the other hand, have taken initiatives to explore collaborations with churches to address their needs for effective governance. Manoeuvring between religious affairs authorities and local governments, local Christian churches have managed to blaze a trail of social engagement to demonstrate their social and public orientations without going against the national discourse.