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Christianity’s sleeping giant

Churches — both legal and illegal — are booming in China. Some view them as a welcome counterpoint to rampant materialism. Others see ghosts of a colonial past.

By Alex Jürgen Thumm

It was my last Sunday morning in China, my last chance to experience church in a Communist country where, as far as I could tell, Christianity was basically forbidden. It was 2011, and I had been in Beijing for five weeks to study Mandarin. In that time, I hadn’t seen a single cross, church or Bible. In fact, I read at customs that you couldn’t bring in more than four Bibles from abroad. I had no idea that I was in the third-largest Christian country in the world.

In Liangmaqiao, a Beijing neighbourhood that’s home to the foreign and the wealthy, I arrived at the 21st Century Hotel, where the Beijing International Christian Fellowship (BICF) holds services. The parking lot was full of Rolls-Royces and BMWs bearing Jesus-fish decals. At the building entrance, two parishioners acting as doorkeepers asked me for ID — by government order, only foreigners may attend church. I had forgotten my passport, so the doorkeepers made me sign a slip of paper attesting to my alien status.

Inside, 3,000 people packed into various auditoriums, each offering worship in a different language. I opted for the Mandarin service. Imagine an evangelical megachurch of hundreds of Chinese people with American passports. There was an excited but orderly choir, rock music and long, passionate praying. The Chinese-Californian minister preached about outreach and marriage. I recognized most of the songs from my Canadian Baptist upbringing; they had just been translated into Mandarin.

After I’d spent a couple of hours watching the service on jumbo-sized screens (which provided the clearest view), my first megachurch experience came to an end. Just before I managed to escape, someone wanted to talk. This was to be expected — I was one of three white people in the congregation. She was a teacher, she said, from the Philippines. But once we left the hotel and had walked a few blocks, she confessed she was actually a missionary. It was too risky to say so in the church auditorium, which was likely bugged, she said. She asked me directly whether I could secure a church sponsorship for her in Canada. We exchanged e-mail addresses, but I never heard from her again.

'Misconceptions abound about China, and that’s no less the case when it comes to the country’s Christian population.'

Misconceptions abound about China, and that’s no less the case when it comes to the country’s Christian population. Many assume a Communist country that is officially atheist would allow no religion. (Mao Zedong once said “religion is poison.”) But religious freedom is guaranteed in the 1978 constitution — or at least what the government considers “normal religious activity,” occurring in government-sanctioned places of worship serving one of the five official faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. Religion is on the rise in China, with one-third of people claiming an affiliation. To all my Chinese friends’ surprise, there are as many as 130 million Christians in China; the only countries with more are the United States and Brazil. Churchgoers in China outnumber those in all of Europe.

Given figures like these, understanding China’s relationship with Christians is essential to predicting the future of Christianity globally. Whether Chinese Christians refuse or accept state-sanctioned religion, or whether the state itself loosens or tightens its restrictions on the faithful will in turn shape the international body of Christ. In other words, what happens in China won’t simply stay in China. David Wang, co-founder of the Hong Kong-based mission agency Asian Outreach, says Chinese people are busy planting churches abroad; Metro Vancouver alone is home to over 100,000 Chinese Christians. “It’s now the era of ministry from China,” he told Christianity Today magazine.

Christianity and missionaries have been present in China — on and off, officially and covertly — since the eighth-century Tang dynasty. A further wave of tolerance for missionary work washed in during the 13th-century Mongolian Yuan dynasty. This was a time when the Chinese referred to Muslims, Jews and Christians all by the same name, hui hui — a stark contrast in a country that now considers Catholicism and Protestantism as two separate religions.

During a walking tour of Shanghai’s French Concession, I learned about the Taiping Rebellion, which took place between 1850 and 1864. It led to 20 million deaths and, interestingly enough, the foundations for Chinese communism. The cause for all the bloodshed? A certain Hong Xiuquan announced he’d had a vision that revealed he was Jesus’ brother. Over time, he gathered tens of thousands of armed followers seeking to establish the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

Contemporary Chinese Christianity can probably be traced to 1951, with the founding of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, one of two state-sanctioned Protestant organizations. Its three “selves” are self-governance, self-support (financial independence from foreigners) and self-propagation (homegrown missionary work). The principles were meant to assure the government that the church would be loyal to the People’s Republic of China.

Perhaps ironically, today’s Christianity was also shaped by the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, when religion was banned, faith leaders persecuted and places of worship destroyed or converted for secular use. Amid this upheaval, secret house churches sprang up, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement went underground (and was officially restored in 1979) and today’s church elders came of age.

More recently, in 2007, 70 leaders of illegal house churches convened in Wenzhou to develop seven core values. Several of them are distinctly Chinese. For example, intentional non-denominationalism reflects the Chinese value of wholeness and oneness.

The United Church of Canada has a long history with China, beginning in the mid-19th century with three missions led by the Presbyterian Church, one of the United Church’s founding denominations. Missionaries such as Very Rev. James Endicott, the United Church’s second moderator, carried this work into the 20th century. Endicott’s missionary son, Rev. James G. Endicott, later drew controversy for his support of the Chinese Communist Party.

'Perhaps ironically, today’s Christianity was also shaped by the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, when religion was banned . . . '

Gary MacDonald told me about his 19 years of Christian life in China, beginning in 1992. As a United Church global mission worker, he lived in three different rural areas educating teachers with the Amity Foundation, one of China’s largest relief and development agencies and a United Church partner. In these partially illiterate rural communities, being known as a Christian was both a title and a standard. Sermons were over an hour long, and church meant giving, singing, praying spontaneously and forgiving neighbours’ Cultural Revolution betrayals, some of which involved torture. “To have an elderly person — blind and physically challenged because of having been tortured for his or her belief — lead in prayer during a church service is something I shall never forget,” he says.

Today, Chinese Christians can choose between two official Protestant church movements and Catholicism. I’m told these services are much the same as evangelical Chinese churches in the West, with one major difference: the church leaders are required to maintain a relationship with the government.

A separate category of legal worship in contemporary China is exclusive to foreign passport-holders: the international churches. “The Chinese government respects the freedom of religious belief of foreigners in China and they may attend religious activities in temples, mosques, churches and other religious places,” claims the tourism website beijingchina.net.cn. As long as foreigners do not try to establish or change Chinese religious organizations and practices, they are free to participate in worship.

Evangelism, sharing religion with minors and worshipping in public space are prohibited. The government fears that a congregation outside state control could grow too large and too influential.

Shan O-Yuan moved to Beijing from his native California a decade ago for a job in the construction industry and has been active with the BICF from the start. Sure, he says, you have to learn “how to work within regulations,” but for him, the Chinese Christian life is a happy and exciting one. As he sees it, people who live abroad have left familiar cultural constraints behind, so they’re more open to asking spiritual questions. Many rediscover their Christian faith while in China.

O-Yuan, who is in his 30s, has warmed up to his status as a religious minority. Being a Christian in China is a distinction. Unlike in the West, where what O-Yuan describes as a “so-called enlightened, post-Christian” view puts people off organized religion, in China they’re curious, “and it creates conversation.”

Despite evangelism being officially off-limits, O-Yuan claims you can evangelize in China in a way that you simply can’t in the United States. For example, because the Beijing expat community is a transitory one, when you “invest” in people who then return home, your actions ultimately have a global impact.

O-Yuan realizes there are difficulties, however, having faced some himself. “They want you to stay in your own little western enclave,” he says, “and keep your religious life to yourself.” It took a BICF project that he was involved with three tries to get a church planted in Beijing’s central business district. The 2008 Olympics, in particular, put the authorities on edge.

But in China, O-Yuan has found a place where he says God’s will is active and present. He’s witnessed successful church projects, including the establishment of orphanages. Gary MacDonald also told me about a church in Gansu province that refused to obey an order a few years ago to move to the edge of town and hand over its land. It stood up for its property rights, something MacDonald says wouldn’t have happened a decade earlier.

One aspect of the international church that excites O-Yuan is the absence of denominations. People find their common ground in Jesus and in being an expat. Though O-Yuan admits worship is strongly influenced by American evangelism, he insists it would be easier for a non-evangelical to find a spiritual home in China than in the United States: “The evangelical church in China is a lot more open.”

The third category of churches in China is illegal house churches, which operate underground and beyond the state’s control. (In order to keep a low profile, they typically split up once they reach about 100 members.) Those who join are keen to be part of a Christian community — for both its social and religious benefits — and are not intimidated by state threats. Though it’s impossible to know how many people attend house churches, some sources estimate between 45 million and 60 million Protestants, and their numbers are growing — a fact that even the government can’t ignore. In 2012, the State Administration for Religious Affairs created a plan to “guide” illegal house churches into becoming state churches.

Last summer, I returned to Beijing for three months to work as an English-teaching au pair for a wealthy, two-child Chinese family. One Sunday afternoon, after attending a small international church service in a business district, I was invited to a “gathering.” We got in a taxi and arrived at an apartment tower. My new acquaintance forgot which floor to go to. We tried cold-knocking a few doors and asked the doorkeeper if he had seen a large group of foreigners around. Finally, we tried one last floor, and it was the one. It was only when we walked in — late — that I realized it was a house church. I found myself in an apartment larger and more sophisticated than I’ve ever stayed in. It was packed with over 50 Chinese citizens, foreigners and Asian Americans, most of them working professionals and students. The service was long, passionate, hopeful and heavily influenced by American evangelism. It was also surprisingly loud, for an illegal gathering. I now know it was a typical Beijing house service. I wanted to return, but I knew the church would relocate before I’d have the chance.

The most famous illegal house church is Beijing’s Shouwang Church. Founded in 1993, it has grown to include over a thousand members, some of whom reportedly hold memberships in the Communist party. In 2011, having been evicted for the 20th-plus time (the landlords were under pressure from the state), Shouwang started to meet outdoors in the Zhongguancun area of Beijing, sometimes referred to as China’s Silicon Valley. A few dozen worshippers are arrested at every outdoor Shouwang service and usually held for a few hours. Despite the notoriety of the church, its name cannot be found on Chinese websites.

Many other Chinese Christians don’t let themselves be intimidated by the government, often drawing courage from Bible stories such as Daniel in the lion’s den. The Texas-based organization China Aid reports that from 2005 to 2006, 1,958 Christians were arrested in China. Wiretapping is not unheard of. China Aid also reports that house church leaders were arrested at a Christian leadership conference in Shandong province in 2007 and subsequently sentenced to multiple years in a labour camp.

These days, there are hints the Communist party may be more favourably disposed toward faith than in previous generations. China is experiencing a 1960s-style sexual revolution and 21st-century materialism all at once. With a frighteningly large share of the population concerned with little but socio-economic success, values such as politeness, honesty, sexual fidelity and community are taking a direct hit — especially in the cities.

Is Christianity a solution? China’s former premier Wen Jiabao regularly invoked the importance of spiritual growth. The Communist party has also expressed interest in American evangelical-style marriage courses to combat the explosive divorce rate.

Before becoming a Christian himself, the well-known Chinese economist Zhao Xiao pointed to Christianity and its positive impact on the historic economic success of the West. In his 2002 article, “Market Economies With Churches and Market Economies Without Churches,” he argued that China needs a moral foundation and therefore needs Christianity. After his field study in the United States, Zhao concluded that a strong economy requires a moral force to transcend the drive for profit and to infuse the business community with respect for people, contracts and the planet.

Is the Chinese state correct in its judgment that Christianity is a foreign-controlled import? Or can Christianity become indigenous to China? And what does Chinese Christianity look like: Bible-reading followers of Jesus who submit to state control? Would they quote Confucius, venerate ancestors and enjoy traditional Chinese festivals, rooted in Buddhism and luck? After all, many Chinese mix faiths, calling themselves Taoist and Buddhist, for example.

At the same time, one also has to wonder whether Christianity ought to be indigenized — would Chinese Christianity ultimately have a positive impact on China and the rest of the world? Would it even be Christianity?

Many more questions remain. In China, there are no guarantees; the uncrossable line is always fluctuating. Trust can be precarious. Are Christians still persecuted? None of the six pastors I contacted would give me an interview, saying it’s just not the right time. What move will the government make next? When will Christian members of the Communist party take a stand, and when will the party’s treatment of religion estrange a critical mass? What role can western Christians ethically play without compromising the Chinese church’s independence?

For now, O-Yuan believes that the best Chinese Christians can do is tell their story.

Currently on exchange in Germany, Alex Jürgen Thumm studies political science at the University of Ottawa.

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