Mrs. Wang and her son brim with excitement as they enter the home of one of their neighbors in a village deep inside China. About thirty others gather with them on hard benches to listen to a traveling evangelist. With fervent prayers, punctuated by tears, the congregation re-commit themselves to serve Jesus as their Lord and Savior. The group prays for several sick people , in the expectation that they will get well soon. The meeting lasts several hours as the house rings with singing that seems to go on forever. The only distraction: no one knows when the police will come to break up this illegal gathering.
Meanwhile, in one of China’s mega-cities, Mr. Chen walks quickly with his wife and daughter into a large, newly-built church. They need to hurry in order to get a seat, for the sanctuary is packed with well-dressed citizens like themselves. Before the minister delivers his well-prepared sermon, a robed choir presents a lovely anthem in classical style.
Not far away, a much smaller group gathers for a simple Bible study in a fourth-story apartment. Doors are locked and shades pulled down as a half-dozen thoughtful intellectuals in their 20s and 30s pore over the Christian Scriptures. Questions and animated discussion ensue. The leader, a noted professor, is trying to explain to his friends why he has embraced what they once all considered to be superstition. They seek to find answers for themselves because their doubts and difficulties seem unwelcome in a traditional church. Will this foreign religion enable them to live with integrity in an increasingly unraveling society? Can it stand up to rigorous investigation? Will it help to build a new China?
With all its bewildering variety, including proliferating cults, and ‘heresies,’ some of which are quite fantastical, Christianity is probably China’s fastest-growing faith. Though concentrated in coastal and some central provinces, it still reaches across the nation and continues to spread rapidly, despite government controls.
How has this remarkable development taken place?
A Long History
Long ago, in the 7th century A.D., Nestorian missionaries arrived in China, representatives of the Church of the East, originally based in Persia. They were temporarily banned by the Tang emperor in 845, but were still present in China in 1294, when a Franciscan monk arrived in Peking, the capital of the ruling Mongols. This Roman Catholic mission also prospered, until there were several thousand converts in different communities.
When the Ming Dynasty expelled the Mongols in 1368, however, a general anti-foreign movement swept away almost all vestiges of Christianity. Two centuries later, however, a few Jesuits managed to receive permission to live in Peking. The greatest of them, Matteo Ricci, deeply impressed the emperor and the educated elite with his learning and grasp of their own Confucian tradition. Soon a number of leading Chinese had converted to Christianity. Franciscan, Dominican, and Augustinian missionaries followed, and their efforts produced a strong Roman Catholic presence in China.
All forms of Christianity were once again banned in 1724 by an irate emperor when he was told that the Pope had forbidden Chinese Catholics to worship their ancestors. This time it seemed as if the cause of Christ in China had failed irrevocably, primarily because of its association with foreign powers.
A New Beginning
All this changed when the first Protestant missionary, Robert Morrison, arrived in Canton (now called Guangzhou) in 1807. From his laborious years of Bible translation on the fringes of the Empire, he reaped few converts, but prepared the soil for what was to become the largest “harvest” in Christian history. After him came a few, then a few dozen, then hundreds, and finally thousands of missionaries from Great Britain, America, and other Western nations.
For the next two-and-a-half centuries, they traversed the length and breadth of China evangelizing, planting churches, establishing schools and hospitals, and gaining adherents from all levels of society. Despite their connection, usually unwilling, with the gunboats and opium trade so hated by the Chinese, they were able to persuade many that this new faith was superior to their own cherished traditions.
During this same period, Roman Catholic missionaries were able to resume open activity, mostly under the protection of the French government so that the time the Communists seized power in 1949, there were about one million Chinese who professed allegiance to Jesus Christ.
Persecution and Pressure Lead to Growth
Under Communist rule, Christians of all sorts have faced pressure ranging from mild to extreme, depending upon the time and place. Despite such opposition, which so far has included fines, imprisonment, beating, torture, and even death, the number of Christians has continued to grow. In fact, there are more active Christians today in China than in any other country of the world.
While no one can say with precision exactly how many Chinese believe in Christ, there are at least twelve million Catholics (including baptized infants) and thirty-five million (adult) Protestants. Many observers believe that there may be as many as fifty or even sixty million Protestants.
Such expansion has resulted from fervent prayer, Biblical preaching, zealous evangelism, faith in God to work miracles of healing, strong commitment to other believers, and a willingness to suffer. This kind of passionate devotion to a cause contrasts starkly with an overall loss of confidence in Marxism, widespread disillusionment with the Communist Party, and erosion of traditional values in the past several decades.
Quite simply, for multitudes of both uneducated country folk and sophisticated urbanites, faith in Jesus seems to be the best, indeed the only, avenue to personal peace, authentic community, and social salvation.
What do Chinese Christians believe? Protestants accept the Bible as God’s Word; they believe in one God as creator of the universe, existing in three “Persons,” the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Son, who is eternal, became a man, Jesus, who lived in Palestine, taught, healed, was crucified, and rose on the third day. After forty days, he ascended to heaven, whence he promised to return to save his people from the eternal punishment that will fall on all those who do not repent of their sins, believe in Jesus as their savior, and follow in his footsteps. The Holy Spirit lives in those who trust in Christ, empowering them to imitate Jesus, and working miracles of healing in response to prayer.
Roman Catholics hold to the above doctrines, but add several other distinctives. Their Bible contains about a dozen more writings, composed before Christ. They worship Mary as Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, and (often) Co-Redemptrix with Christ, who intercedes with him for her faithful followers. They pray to departed saints, thinking them to possess superior merit. The Pope in Rome is honored as the Head of the Church, the successor to Saint Peter. Catholics observe seven sacraments: baptism, confession and penance, Holy Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, confirmation, marriage, Holy Orders, and Extreme Unction or Last Rites. (The Protestants practice only two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.)The Catholic fiath highly emphasizes the organized church, with its priests, bishops, cardinals, holy buildings, and rituals. They also place more weight on “good works” than on faith for earning merit with God.
Besides the tens of millions of church-going Christians, there are quite a number of intellectuals who have not been baptized but who are strongly attracted to Christianity. Often preserving a kind of academic neutrality, they nevertheless investigate the Bible and Christianity in the West with great earnestness, to see whether it can solve the “crisis of faith” that everyone admits exists in China today.
Overseas Chinese Christians
Not only in China proper, but all over the world, Chinese flock to Christian churches and Bible study groups. Wherever the “sons of Han” have migrated for business, education, or freedom, you can find a Christian community that welcomes them. Particularly since the Tian An Men incident in 1989, scholars and students living overseas have sought to find new hope and meaning in the religion that they associate with the laws, prosperity, and freedom of the West, particularly America.
As we have seen, Christians in China, and most of the Christians among the “Diaspora” (Overseas Chinese), have strong confidence in the Bible as an authoritative revelation. They strive to live good lives, work hard to strengthen their congregational life, and seek to persuade their countrymen to convert to Christ. More and more Chinese theologians are adding depth to the theoretical underpinnings of the faith, while engaging in vigorous dialogue with other Chinese religions. Perhaps most striking of all is the willingness of believers in China to pay the price for following their convictions.
On the other hand, the Chinese churches are beset by a number of serious issues. For most, their faith is a merely private, or at most “religious,” matter. They have not yet learned how to integrate faith with daily life in society, or to engage the wider culture.
Like Chinese throughout the ages, they are fond of, and often restricted by, hierarchical organization, with most authority concentrated at the top. They are also inclined towards the pervasive pragmatism which has always characterized the Chinese, which sometimes leads to moral laxity and doctrinal fuzziness. Like their countrymen, they tend to focus on worldly prosperity. Millions believe in God primarily for the earthly benefits they think will come to them, such as health and prosperity.
Deep divisions also separate Chinese Christians from each other. For both Protestants and Roman Catholics, there is an official, government-sponsored organization (the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement [TSPM] and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association [CCPA]). Each of these comes under the authority of the Religious Affairs Bureau, a part of the United Front Department of the Government, which seeks to mobilize believers to support Chinese communist Party/Government policies. Those who belong to these “official” churches may attend worship services openly and engage in a variety of religious activities, with certain limitations. They may not give instruction to anyone under 18 years of age, they must conduct all activities in designated places, at designate times, under the direction of designated leaders and they must have no unauthorized contact with foreign Christians.
On the other hand, most Protestants, and many Roman Catholics, belong to “unofficial,” congregations that are not registered with the government and are technically illegal. Sometimes these groups cooperate with their legal counterparts. More often, there is mutual suspicion and sometimes animosity.
In addition, the unregistered Protestant “house churches” (so called because they usually began in homes and often continue to meet there) are especially vulnerable to a multitude of splits, heresies, and cults, some with quite bizarre teachings. As we have said, millions of people in these groups are seeking temporal benefits, such as healing or prosperity, rather than the spiritual salvation offered in the Bible.
Women predominate in Christian gatherings, especially in the rural churches. Increasingly, they are prominent in leadership as well. Though this provides avenues for self-expression, it also leaves many of them without husbands of the same faith.
The unregistered Protestant churches are mostly evangelical (even fundamentalist) in their beliefs, and often quite charismatic as well. In contrast, the leaders of the government-sponsored organization have committed themselves to a very “liberal” theology that stresses the love of God for all people, regardless of their faith, and thus the greater importance of good deeds over correct belief. This theological dissonance has deepened the divide between TSPM and “house” churches.
None of these divisions or deviations has prevented Chinese Christianity from multiplying and spreading all over the nation. Indeed, the rapid expansion of the Christian faith even among intellectuals, including members of the Communist Party, has greatly alarmed the government, which continues to suppress unregistered activities.
Indeed, this rapid advance by Christianity has led some observers to predict that the formerly “Western” religion will one day claim the allegiance of a such a large portion of both elite and common folk, that it will become the most potent faith in the “new China” that has risen to such power in the world.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing.
Daniel Bays, Editor, Christianity and China.
Carol Lee Hamrin, God and Caesar in China.
Tony Lambert, China’s Christian Millions & The Resurrection of the Chinese Church.
Uhalley, Editor, China and Christianity.