Harbin, China — ''We have more people in our congregation today than we had before the Cultural Revolution,'' said Yang Sungshan.
Mr. Yang is an elder of the Protestant church here and was speaking to journalists who had dropped in on his church just before services were to begin Sunday morning.
It is not a large church -- just a simple pinkish stone structure with steeple, standing on a quiet street where many Russians used to live in the years before the advent of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
To say it was filled to the rafters would be no exaggeration. Young and old, men and women in padded blue cotton jackets or bulky overcoats with fur collars were crowded into the hallway and up the narrow stairs leading to the second floor gallery.
The service had not begun, but the choirmaster was leading the congregation in an ecstatic singing of hymns.
''It's like this every Sunday,'' says Mr.Yang.
Going to church in Harbin and in many other cities of China today is a moving experience. Every service this correspondent has attended has been a standing-room-only affair. From shy girls in pigtails to white-haired elders, each member of the congregation follows the service with rapt attention. There is an almost unbearable intensity, as if every moment of the service were savored.
Protestant and Roman Catholic churches throughout China were closed for more than a decade following the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Harbin's Protestant and Catholic churches were not reopened until Christmas Day 1980. Mr. Yang says he and other senior members of the congregation were put in a labor reform camp, making nails, for most of this period.
Harbin's Protestant church was built in the 1930s. In the days before the communist victory of 1949, people became Christians for various reasons, Mr. Yang recalls. Some sincerely sought religion. Others were mainly interested in learning English, or getting a job, or deriving some other material benefit.
But today, under communist rule, there are no material incentives to become Christian. Religion is tolerated but not encouraged.
''Those who do come to our services,'' says Mr. Yang, ''do so from entirely pure motives.'' And the church, in turn, has nothing to give them but the Gospel of Christ, the glad tidings that Jesus came to save men from their sins, and to teach them to love.
Many young people who come have been thoroughly disillusioned by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), by the constant slogans, the fierce factional disputes, the gap between fine words and foul deeds.
''They come to us to learn how to behave as Jesus taught,'' says Mr. Yang. ''They see how believers live and would like to live as they do. Our words cannot convince them. Only our lives can.''