Churches in China have recently been under government pressure unlike anything they’ve seen in two decades. Last year was marked by the destruction of 10 church buildings and the removal of an estimated 400 crosses from the tops of churches in Zhejiang Province, which includes the city of Wenzhou—nicknamed the Jerusalem of China because of its large Christian population. Deeming the religious structures too offensive or ostentatious, government officials simply tore them down while church members protested in the streets.
By October, according to China Aid, there was only one cross left standing in Wenzhou. The U.S.-based organization reported that, as was the case in similar instances, roughly 300 security agents surrounded Kaiyang Church between 2 and 3 a.m. They opened the gate leading to the church, removed a woman who was guarding the facility, and brought in a crane. After removing the cross and laying it on the ground, the security agents were gone by 3:30 a.m.
“We feel rather grieved,” says David Wang, speaking of the year-long campaign to remove crosses and demolish churches. Wang is the founder and general director of the Hosanna Foundation, which ministers to Chinese church leaders. Based for decades in Hong Kong, he has spent a lifetime assisting churches in China. Wang says, “The cross on the outside can be removed but the cross in our hearts is even more strengthened.”
What is unclear is whether the campaign will be limited to Zhejiang Province. Some China observers surmise it is merely a trial run to judge the reaction before expanding the program countrywide. Wang suggests otherwise. “This is not a central policy from Beijing, but rather it is a provincial decision made by the party secretary of Zhejiang Province.” Wang says the new secretary could be trying to reinforce his political position but also believes it could be simply a reaction to churches that he says are becoming bolder.
“The cross on the outside can be removed but the cross in our hearts is even more strengthened.”
Wang says that some churches have even been competing to build the largest building. One of his students—the pastor at a church that was demolished—says his congregation had roughly 250 members, yet they built a church that could accommodate 1,700 people. These church destructions, while opposed by the local Christians, have also caused some—perhaps overdue—soul searching. At least two house church groups have declared that instead of erecting buildings, they will plant churches. One Shanghai congregation of 2,000 has split up into 19 different groups that are all seeking to plant new congregations.
On the one hand, the campaign seems to be another instance in a long history of the government repressing Christians. China has known its share of martyrs, whose numbers increased sharply during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s. And while tensions have eased, Christian worship is still officially limited to the state-controlled Three-Self Churches. Many more believers, however, worship in illegal house churches.
But a second look at the church demolition campaign reveals something astonishing. Churches from both sides were destroyed. The crosses were removed from supposedly illegal house churches. So, how did the brutally repressed underground house churches start putting up large buildings and adorning them with ostentatious crosses?
Clearly, these house churches are no longer “underground.” In fact, they have been operating publicly, advertising services, and even cooperating with government officials on service projects. So, why was the government content to remove crosses from the tops of church buildings that shouldn’t even exist? Why didn’t it tear down all 400 buildings?
That story suggests that the church in China is nothing like the assumption many of us have about Chinese Christians hiding from authorities and meeting secretly in small groups.
From Rural to Urban
In 1976 the Cultural Revolution ended, and believers gained a measure of freedom. House churches began spreading again after a quarter century of often violent suppression. Outside the southern coastal city of Wenzhou, a young pastor named Daniel became a church leader in a rural community. He regularly visited churches, instructing believers and assisting leaders. They preached the gospel, using any means that the government had not forbidden. Frequently that meant prayers for healing and deliverance from demons. Harassment from local government officials was common but also fairly easy to sidestep.
The church in China is nothing like the assumption many of us have about Chinese Christians hiding from authorities and meeting secretly in small groups.
In 2007, the summer before the Beijing Olympics, I visited Chinese church leaders in Hong Kong and Beijing, and I heard Daniel tell his story. After China opened up, the economy grew rapidly—and in few places did it grow faster than in Wenzhou. The areas around Daniel’s house churches were quickly developing: rural countryside filled with farms and lowing cows turned into suburbs with houses and paved roads, and then into cities with skyscrapers and factories.
Daniel realized he needed to reshape his ministry and prepare churches to adapt to their changing surroundings. Instead of a focus on rural house churches among the poor, Daniel transitioned his ministry to the urban church with its growing wealth. His members were getting jobs and earning a middle class living. Their children were going to college.
So Daniel learned business skills and started to run a company. When we met, he dressed simply and modestly. Nothing about him indicated he was a man who owned two homes and drove an Audi. “We are becoming both spiritual and sophisticated,” he told me.
The rural house churches reflect poor China. In contrast, the urban house churches reflect the country’s new middle class— educated, comparatively wealthy, and unwilling to hide from the government. They often demand their rights under the Chinese constitution, which include religious freedom. Christians have been among China’s leading civil rights lawyers. That’s what makes this third church different from both the rural house church and the government’s Three-Self Church. The urban house churches are not controlled by the state, and they want to be open and public. They are willing to cooperate with the government; they simply don’t want heavy oversight.
When I visited in 2007, it was the peak of the third church’s public growth. A megachurch in Shanghai with more than 2,000 attendees and its own building was spending money on sound systems. I visited a church in Beijing that rented a floor of an office building. It is hard to call churches like these “underground.” Congregations in Wenzhou were organizing social services for the city’s poor. I walked into a privately run Christian bookstore selling Chinese editions of bestselling American Christian authors. I talked to pastors who shared the gospel with Beijing’s business leaders and planted churches that met in corporate boardrooms.
Gone are the days when it was necessary to smuggle Bibles into China. According to Financial Times, last year the world’s biggest Bible printing factory, located in Nanjing, printed its 125 millionth Bible for distribution in China and around the world. The Times indicated that the press is fully registered with the government through the Amity Foundation, China’s first state-sanctioned, faith-based NGO (non-governmental organization). Reportedly, the nation’s leaders realized their inability to stop the spread of Christianity and preferred that the country’s illegal Christians hold orthodox views based on the Bible rather than develop cultic ideas because they lacked access to God’s Word. Evangelism is outstripping discipleship, so one of Christianity’s major challenges in China is to provide quality theological training to church leaders.
After the Beijing Olympics, however, the government began cracking down on the third church, especially the more public congregations. The Shanghai megachurch lost its building. Beijing’s 1,000-member Shouwang church, which included even Communist Party members, lost the lease on their facility; Easter services were held in a nearby park while snow fell, and during the service, police harassed and even arrested some attendees. Between the crack-down following the Olympics and the demolishing of churches this year, it is clear that though tolerated, China’s third church remains under suspicion.
Just as in the rural house church era, however, religious leaders are responding. They are rethinking their adoption of Western models, where one senior pastor organizes a large congregation centered in a building. Instead, leaders are teaching other leaders who in turn disciple small groups of Christians. Congregations divide before they get too large. And the church as a whole is seeking prayer and faithfulness more than outward measures of growth and success.
Whatever the methods, the expansion of the church seems uncontainable. That’s the way it has been for most of the last century. Christianity has a long history in China. It first arrived sometime in the seventh century with the Nestorians, an early Persian branch of Christianity. In the Middle Ages, Catholic missionaries made inroads among the Chinese elite. Both efforts were successful until, in each case, persecution ended the church’s existence.
Then came the modern era of missions, which included Hudson Taylor and thousands of others, especially the medical missionaries who set up hospitals far from Western outposts in China. The typical perception of the 19th-century Protestant missions is that, allied to British power, they failed to adapt to Chinese ways and made few converts. Those early missionaries were often believed to be as hostile as the British warships. According to the common interpretation, it wasn’t until the Communists expelled the missionaries in 1953 that the Chinese church took on a life of its own and began to grow.
The accusations thrown at the missionary movement may have some truth to them, but many of those men and women were simply figuring out cross-cultural missions for the first time. They dressed in local costume, learned the language, and worked closely with the locals. They translated Scripture. They set up mission hospitals, ran social programs, took care of orphans, and demonstrated God’s love in all kinds of tangible ways.
We now know that the church was growing long before the missionaries left. The Chinese dissident poet Liao Yiwu tells a number of stories about Chinese who became Christians because of the Western missionaries—and as a result faced brutal persecution after the Communist takeover. Liao Yiwu is not a Christian, but in his book God Is Red, Liao seems to see Christians as fellow opponents of Communist rule.
Liao’s interviews with Christians from Beijing to the rural hinterlands suggest it was during the missionary era that the faith took deep root in China. God Is Red tells the story of denunciations and public beatings of rural village pastors and lay Christians. By accusing believers of affiliating with foreigners, being landowners, or anything else, Communist leaders used violence to stamp out Christianity. This forced the church deep underground and put its survival into question. But unlike previous efforts to eliminate Christianity from China, all attempts by the Communists failed. As the persecution let up after the end of the Cultural Revolution and then further diminished in the ’80s following Communist reforms, the church was able to grow once again.
Today, it is estimated that Christianity in China is growing at a 10 percent annual rate. There could be as many as 100 million Christians in China now, though it is impossible to determine accurately. Certainly the number is much higher than the official government figure of 23 million. However, if Christians actually do number 100 million and the 10 percent growth rate is on target, then by 2030, it is likely that there will be more Christians in China than in any other country on earth.
By 2030, it is likely that there will be more Christians in China than in any other country on earth.
In a nation that is poised to have the highest population of Christians on the planet as well as one of the world’s largest economies, believers in China are taking responsibility for their faith. Since the first century, Christianity has traveled from the Middle East to Europe to the Americas and on to Asia. Now, Chinese Christians want to take the faith back to its homeland and evangelize unreached peoples in eastern Chinese provinces on the way.
During my visit in 2007, I spoke to a woman named Ruth. A former Buddhist, this successful businesswoman began opening factories in cities farther and farther west of her eastern home city of Wuhan until she had one near the China-Pakistan border. Since her factories are also used for Sunday worship, Ruth now has a base from which to send missionaries into the Middle East. When we spoke, she was planning a car caravan through Pakistan to Jerusalem to explore the idea of sending missionaries along the route. She also hoped to inspire a number of her fellow pilgrims to support her effort or join it.
As a new Christian, Ruth’s life changed so dramatically that many people asked her what had happened. Through those conversations, a number of other people became Christians, and pretty soon she had a small following. Even though she hadn’t been a believer for long, she found herself in charge of a little flock. But her church grew, attracting people outside of her business, and she decided to pursue theological training.
Now, Ruth says even government officials come to her for advice. “If those officials’ kids are naughty or have any problem, they will come and ask us,” she told me. If they don’t receive a promotion or are having marriage problems, they come to Ruth and ask for prayer. While they appreciate Ruth’s intercession and advice, they tell her they might become Christians only after they retire from government service.
This is how Christianity still spreads in China, from individual to individual. As much as churches have been able to come out of the underground, evangelization and mission still require person-to-person contact. “I see more and more churches in China re-emphasizing to their congregations that a church blessed by the Holy Spirit must carry the gospel,” David Wang said, “and become a witness of Christ in our city, in our province, in our country, and even in our world.”
You can say almost anything about Christianity in China, and it would probably be true. Corrupt and lax? Some of the state churches are or have been. Some of the modern “boss Christians” (urban church leaders who are also business leaders) may be, too. Vibrant and growing? Undoubtedly. Persecuted and harried by Communist officials? Certainly. Enjoying religious freedom? In some places, yes. Hiding? Yes. Operating publicly? Yes, that too.
Perhaps the only thing that cannot be said about Christianity in China is that it needs much more than our prayer. The challenges Chinese Christians face are immense. They need to evangelize and disciple the world’s largest country, with 1.4 billion people. Churches may be new and immature, yet Christianity in China has fully transitioned from an overseas missionary enterprise to a thriving, indigenous church.
As the church in China is on the verge of becoming the world’s largest national group of believers, it may be that they will soon be able to offer help to the Western churches that once sent missionaries east. Flourishing as a religious minority amid great persecution and harrassment could be a skill China’s Christians have mastered—and one we have yet to learn.
Illustrations by Victo Ngai
Editor’s Note: The Chinese church is more robust than ever before and can rightfully be called indigenous. And while foreign missionaries are no longer essential, the need for quality discipleship materials is. In Touch Ministries is helping to meet that need by providing Messengers in Mandarin.