In China, pews are packed

Beijing is wary as Christianity counts up to 90 million adherents.

China's first Protestant church is still located on a winding back alley of fish markets and fruit stalls in this old port city. A crest atop the brick colonial structure reads "1848."

Yet the Xinjie Church here is hardly a museum piece. Every Sunday it literally overflows with more than 2,000 attendees during its two regular services, with more people coming during the Christmas season. This church - with an altar flanked by blinking conifers - and the four other government-sanctioned churches nearby, are home to rising numbers of worshipers.

Christianity - in both the official and unofficial churches - is again gaining momentum in China, and is a source of some consternation for the party leadership. "Being Christian" is fashionable, with young people sporting crosses as a mild form of dissent, and others feeling the faith has a certain international cachet. But something more is at work. In many interviews, congregants say the deity they worship communicates, and has power in their lives, especially now when China is going through immense, jarring economic changes that upset older social contracts.

"People in China have a spiritual hunger, very much so," says an official church pastor in Xiamen, "and there is a need for that to be filled. I think this is the main reason why we continue to have larger services."

Congregations in China comprise all ages, with younger people popping up during the service to take cellphone calls outside - this being Asia.

Last Sunday, several Xiamen churches held a Christmas party, notable because preaching took place. The gathering at an ocean-side exhibition center was so large that 300 people were turned away. In Quanzhou, north of Xiamen, church members tore down an 800-seat edifice, and have nearly finished a 2,500-seat $1.6 million new church which is 90 percentfinanced by the 3,000 congregants there.

Along the easy-going southeast coast, Protestant worshipers pay little attention to China's Shanghai-based official church hierarchy. They hold Bible study groups, have choir rehearsals, and gather in volunteer groups. "We have to join the [official] church, but then we do and say what we want," says a local pastor. "We preach the living God."

Still, what's happening around Xiamen is a far cry from the way Ji Lu worships in Beijing, the center of political power. Mr. Ji helps lead prayers in an unofficial church - where 20 people gather in a room so small that when they share tea and cakes afterward, all must stand.

Ji is one of an estimated 30 to 60 million "unregistered" Christian believers. His sect is made up of nearly a hundred other small groups around Beijing - part of a range of illegal evangelical sects in China, some extremely devout, who say the church fills a "spiritual void" in their lives.

The rising evangelical movement in China is creating a complex and dynamic set of tensions, as individual longings challenge a state operating for a half century on principles of collective social order. Not only are there renewed government efforts to curb Christian churches, policies to stop Sunday schools, restrictions on the movement of pastors from one city to another, attempts to dilute theological content, and efforts to stymie new church applications with red tape, but tensions and suspicions have also been growing between official and unofficial "home church" Christians as well.

One expert says the home church-official church split is more serious in the long term than Beijing's scattered, stop-and-start efforts to rein in religion. "A lot of Chinese are becoming Christians," argues the US-trained theologian. "But the biggest problem is between unregistered and registered churches. There is a lot of antipathy between the two, a lot of water under the bridge."

Christianity in China began to flourish after the Opium Wars, as European and American missionaries set out for the Orient. "In 1842, the Gospel of God was disseminated in Xiamen," according to the Xinjie Church council here. Xiamen is one of the original five treaty ports negotiated with China's imperial court. Churches grew rapidly throughout China, and have been regarded by officialdom and locals as a mixed blessing ever since.

When the communists consolidated power in 1949 under Chairman Mao Zedong, religion was reorganized. Missionaries were largely driven out. Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, Protestants, and Taoists were brought under government control, and they remain the five officially sanctioned religions in China today. Protestants found themselves gathered under one roof called the "Three Self Patriotic Movement" - whose purpose was to bring the Gospels into the service of the state.

According to the official Xinjie church records, "In 1966, owing to the Great Cultural Revolution, church services came to a halt. This situation lasted 13 years."

Since the 1980s, as China liberalized, churches were again allowed to open. But a burst of religious expression brought a series of tighter controls whose actual enforcement has varies from province to province - with urban areas such as Beijing and Shanghai drawing more oversight and intervention than rural China and the south.

Churches in the city of Wenzhou last year conducted a campaign of civil disobedience in response to official efforts to stop the teaching of Sunday School. Evangelicals in Henan Province have been targeted, as have home-church prayer leaders in Shanghai, who have been sent to labor camps in recent months. Church building is constricted. A government official in Fujian says one reason for so many home churches is that official services are overflowing. "It is very difficult to register any new churches right now," says the official. There has always been a policy not to allow more churches, but now it is being enforced. The government wants to stop the evangelical growth."

Estimates of Chinese Christians vary widely. The official figure is 15-20 million unregistered, 1.8 million registered. Some Christians with access to unpublished figures in Beijing say the number is 85 million unregistered, 5 million registered. A recent graduate of Nanjing Theological Academy, considered the center of official Protestantism, gives a figure of 60 million. Jason Kindopp, a visiting scholar at George Washington University says the figure is "at least" 30 million, and possibly 60 million.

In some ways, the efforts of the government in recent years has been to offer greater support to official churches - while making efforts to undermine the evangelical fervor found in home churches.

For the majority of Christians in home churches, the basic question is how or whether to worship in an official church, which they see as woefully compromised by state rules. Ji, the home-church believer in Beijing, for example, jokes about one leading theological institute as a place where first-year students believe in God. By the second year, they are merely "good men." By the third year "you become a ghost who no longer believes in grace or being saved. But you are a ghost with a car, a salary, and a job."

Typical of what Ji objects to is a 1998 policy (recently given new prominence) known as the "Theological Construction Campaign." It is promulgated in leading Chinese seminaries - and can be summed up by what are known as the "Four Againsts": the Bible is not the revealed Word, Jesus was not born of a virgin, the resurrection is a myth, and there is no "second coming." Along with this view is a strong push among official Protestant church leaders to eradicate the concept of individual "salvation." To the essentially conservative Chinese Protestant mind, such ideas are an effort to "de-Christianize Christianity," says one Guangdong pastor.

Such liberal views do not yet predominate in official churches, especially in rural areas. But what separates Christians in China runs far deeper, and is reflected by fears on both sides. In numerous interviews, official church pastors said they couldn't currently engage home-church brothers and sisters (as they are known to each other) due to legal constraints.

Official clergy say that home-church Christians simply cannot forget the Cultural Revolution period and its attendant horrors. Yet from the home-church view, to blame the Cultural Revolution for all problems, and to assume that all is forgiven, is too easy and too risky. In their memory, Protestants underwent more than a 10-year persecution - but they have been targeted since 1951. Land was taken, purges and "self-correction campaigns" were conducted, patriotic loyalty tests were prescribed, overseas support was cut, churches were closed, and pastors were demonized as imperialists or parasites. Moreover, they point out that evangelical Protestants are still arrested, and that campaigns (like the new liberal theology) are still powerful in official circles.

A Chinese band brings glad tidings

At Christmastime in the remote mountain valleys of Fujian, it is possible to pick up the live sounds of a brassy approximation of "Silent Night" or "Onward Christian Soldiers" or even "Jingle Bells."

Each year at this time, the 15-member brass band of the Hutou Christian Church are on the march. Farmers, construction workers, and small business owners temporarily leave their jobs to assemble the only brass band, amateur or professional, anyone in this region has heard about. They even have a new CD.

China is not known for participatory Christmas celebrations. But in these terraced Fujian mountain villages, where the lines between official and unofficial churches are blurred beyond recognition, well, Christians will be Christians when December rolls by.

The Hutou church was officially founded in 1983, though it started with more than a thousand Chinese unofficial believers. As pastor Li Qing Ling tells it, the band is a gift. The church considered what it could give to their city of 100,000 and decided it should be "something different" that everyone would enjoy.

"We decided to have a brass band because in the countryside, you need a sound that people can hear. This is a very open area," he says.

Music plays a large role in Hutou services; members proudly point to a drum set and electronic keyboard in their 800-seat sanctuary. But to drum up, so to speak, a brass band - took nights of planning, months of fundraising, lining up the proper talent, and sewing uniforms.

After three years of work, the church sent a delegation in 1996 to a music shop in Quanzhou, on the coast. They purchased 12 instruments. Each year for the next five years, they bought another. Progress was slow since band members first needed to learn how to play the instruments they signed up for.

Yet now the Hutou Christian Church Brass Band "tours" with three trombones, two snare drums, a bass drum, two clarinets, three trumpets, a cymbal, and three alto horns. A saxophone was purchased this year, but you can't hear it yet. The sax player is still learning how to blow his jazzy riffs.

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