HONG KONG — Che Fu Baptist Church, on the northern coast of Hong Kong, is divided into 19 "cells" that meet during the week in apartments and spare rooms. Lay people who act as "head shepherds" pass along information about Bible lessons and activities, and on Sunday the congregation comes together in a community center otherwise dedicated to ballet and martial arts.
Six years ago, in establishing Chi Fu, Pastor John Ho and Donna Kirby, a missionary, thought of the "small-group" system as a means of coping with Hong Kong's high real estate prices. Now, with the end of British rule on July 1, 1997, they see cell churches as one possible future in Hong Kong - a throwback to the fugitive beginnings of Christianity or, for that matter, communism.
"Most think we'll be all right, but some people think it may go the other way. If it does, this may become a better way to keep growing and sharing the Gospel," says Ms. Kirby, a Southern Baptist who still uses the drawl she packed with her 30 years ago when she left Fayetteville, Ga.
In nearly seven months time, a borrowed piece of rock and 6.3 million people will be handed over to officially atheist China, a land where evangelism by foreigners and unregistered churches is forbidden. For 153 years, Hong Kong has served as an Asian foothold for Western missionaries. The island is now home to half a million Christians.
Both groups - missionaries and indigenous Christians - are trying to look at the handover to China with some optimism. From the stroke of midnight on June 30, when the People's Liberation Army reclaims the enclave, religious and other freedoms will be enshrined in the Basic Law. In it, China promises not to interfere in Hong Kong affairs for 50 years.
Yet preparations haven't been limited to expressions of blind faith in Beijing. Christian organizations in Hong Kong have adopted strategies that can be alternately described as accommodating and Machiavellian - with a touch of Armageddon thrown in:
*More than 100 congregations, representing 1/10th of Hong Kong's Protestant population, have decentralized into cells.
The cells - groups of five to 15 members - are linked by group leaders in what looks like a pyramid on an organizational chart. Many cells have established alternative ways of communicating - through Web sites on the Internet and e-mail. Two are sponsored by the Southern Baptist mission and classified as "experimental." But most are independent evangelical churches and expect the toughest going when British rule ends.
*Groups that nurture underground (and illegal) churches in mainland China have left Hong Kong for more secure places.
*Leaders of Hong Kong's larger Christian institutions have been picked to help set up the next government.
While their objectives are the same - the preservation of Christianity - Hong Kong churches could become split by a growing difference in attitudes toward the new rulers.
One question is whether Christian leaders will side with political activists in the coming fight to maintain freedom of speech, press, and assembly.
But a more divisive issue may be theological. The Basic Law offers this trade-off: Churches will remain free of government control and maintain their international links - with the Vatican, the Church of England, or any other parent authority. But in exchange, they must drop their support for underground churches in China.
"It's better for [churches] not to interfere in religious affairs in China. Because if they do so, it will be a good excuse for [Beijing] to do the same thing in Hong Kong," says Tso Man-king, the general secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council (HKCC).
Missionaries are adapting to the new reality, but the problem may not lie with them. With 61 staffers, Southern Baptists run the biggest mission office in the colony. As mission administrator, the Rev. Larry Ingram has sat in on many of the meetings between Christian leaders and representatives of Beijing.
"They always end by saying, 'We expect that churches and missionaries in Hong Kong are not going to interfere with the churches in China,' " he says. "But the churches in Hong Kong are not hearing that."
Southern Baptists now keep their contacts with mainland Chinese at an official level. And yet - as in the United States - the mission can't order member congregations to do the same.
"It's dangerous, but there's no way of controlling it. Christians in Hong Kong ... are very concerned about China," Mr. Ingram says. "There are partnerships between churches here and in China ... How long that will continue without causing a problem is hard to know."
Carrying some clout
By and large, Christians in Hong Kong anticipate that their strategic position in society will offer some protection. Theirs is a middle-class movement, divided evenly between Protestants and Roman Catholics. While they only make up roughly 8 percent of the population, Christians are a much larger portion of Hong Kong's educated and technologically adept work force.
Christian institutions in Hong Kong carry clout. In return for government land and subsidies, churches operate 60 percent of all social services - including 45 percent of schools and colleges.
"We run the best schools in Hong Kong," Dr. Tso says. And as far as religious freedom is concerned, he points out that Christian schools now have prayer in the classroom and will still have it after China takes over.
In its building on Granville Road in Kowloon, the HKCC has a full-time staff of 600 and part-time staff of 800 to run operations such as clinics, senior-citizen centers, and day-care centers. It has an annual budget of about $20 million. The government contributes about 50 percent. Most leaders here anticipate that a cash-strapped China would rather not shoulder that burden.
"There are some pastors of larger churches who have told me they believe that the larger churches will survive better. Normally, the Communist Chinese would be more suspicious of the smaller groups," says Chin-huat Kang, chaplain at Hong Kong Baptist University.
The problem lies in the fact that, as in the US, the churches that are growing most rapidly in Hong Kong are small and independent - sometimes charismatic, sometimes fundamentalist, but always evangelistic. It is these churches that many say may be headed for a crisis because they lack social position and because of their religious fervor.
The 'three-self' movement
From the early 19th century through the first half of the 20th, missionaries in China were associated with the "gun-boat diplomacy" that carved up China and robbed the nation of its self-esteem. When Communists seized power in 1949, missionaries were expelled in huge numbers.
In their place, the new government established the "Three-Self Patriotic Movement." The name was a reflection of what China wanted - a religion friendly to the Communist Party with no ties to foreign powers: "self-propagating, self-supporting, and self-governing." A similar organization was set up for Catholic churches.
But when the Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966, the doors of all churches were shut - and Christianity in China went completely underground.
Government-sponsored churches reemerged in the 1980s to meet a Western missionary force that had been chastened by the hubris of its predecessors. Yet China continues to keep a suspicious eye on proselytizing, especially among ethnic minorities.
Official conservative estimates put China's Christian population at about 16 million. But its underground church continues to thrive - by some estimates pushing China's Christian population beyond 25 million.
China's "house" or unregistered churches have prospered in large part because of support from Hong Kong.
In the spirit of cooperation, and as a matter of diplomacy, most church organizations here have stepped up their contacts with the "Three-Self" churches. Several of Hong Kong's 14 seminaries now train mainland-sponsored pastors, and Hong Kong theologians often are posted in mainland seminaries.
The Vatican recently named the Rev. Joseph Zen, a Silesian priest, to be the next bishop of Hong Kong. For the past eight years, Mr. Zen has spent half his time teaching theology and philosophy in Beijing-sponsored seminaries. Yet he is also said to have excellent contacts among Roman Catholic churches that have remained underground.
Like many Protestants, Catholics are seeing a blurring of the line between official and underground churches. For instance, Beijing still appoints bishops, but many quietly seek Vatican approval before putting themselves up for advancement.
Some missions move out
Some missions have ceased activities that might be judged to violate Chinese sensitivities, while others have abandoned Hong Kong rather than give them up.
Until this summer, the Southern Baptist station included a separate and distinct agency called the Cooperative Services International. It was removed to Singapore. As it provided doctors and teachers to the mainland, the CSI also maintained close contact with the house-church movement there. The agency was moved out of fear of a backlash, says Ingram, the mission administrator.
Another group, China Ministries International, has shipped 300 cartons of library files to Taiwan, its new headquarters. The 18-year-old organization specializes in aiding "house" churches and providing pastoral aid to indigenous evangelists, some of whom are itinerant preachers who have no standing with the Chinese government. "All these activities would be considered illegal interference," says founder Jonathan Chao. "I don't want our research and publishing work to be subject to that pressure."
Not all the pressure would come from Beijing. Simon P.K. Sit is chairman of the HKCC and would like the organization to become a liaison between Hong Kong and mainland churches.
The HKCC acknowledges its need to protest government infringements on religious freedom, but Mr. Sit says it will also be necessary to make sure churches don't overstep their bounds. "We have no power to stop [them], but we will try our best to persuade them not to do that," Sit says.
Land is the tool that will be most available to the next government if it wants to restrict church conduct. Hong Kong is a city of high-rises, not steeples. Space is so dear that, without government connections to acquire land or office space, the best that most churches can only hope for is two or three adjoining apartments.
Often, in the search for a church home, rules are bent. Some areas of Hong Kong are off-limits to churches. "After '97, if any of those churches haven't applied for a [zoning] exemption, then it's possible they could be closed down," says King-Tak Ip, an assistant professor of religion at Hong Kong Baptist University. "It really depends on how strictly the government will enforce those regulations."
And that, Dr. Ip and others say, could depend in large part on whether these churches provoke the government with unauthorized proselytizing.