Faith Blooms in Communist China: Churches Still Draw Crowds

Article excerpt

Beijing

IT IS NOT quite a church yet but this Sunday (as in any given Sunday) a nondescript two-storey building on the outskirts of China's capital is teeming with young and old Chinese sitting quietly in Formica chairs, reverently clutching a Mandarin-language Bible.

By 8:30 a.m. the second-floor hall, where the chapel is located, is already packed and some resort to sitting in front of a television monitor on the ground floor, where they will have access to a virtual service that begins at 9 a.m.

Welcome to Tai Ping Jhuang (peaceful village), a "meeting point" (informal worship space) located about 50 kilometres southwest of the city centre where Christians from Fangshan county come for worship and fellowship. With no full-time pastor, it does not qualify as a church yet. But from an initial 200, the congregation has now swelled to more than 500 and it may only be a matter of time (and an infusion of funds) before it can hire its own pastor and register as a church.

"We share testimonies and encourage each other in the difficulties of daily life," says lay leader Cao Yu Ling when asked why people are attracted to this "meeting point." Ms. Cao occasionally preaches when the Beijing Christian Council, (a state-recognized Protestant church body with which it is affiliated) is unable to send a pastor. She says that most of the members are retirees, teachers, and the unemployed who struggle mostly with family relationship and health issues.

The service at Tai Ping Jhuang is powerful--the singing and responses to the psalm reverberate across the halls of the building located, ironically, just beside a giant billboard bearing the images of former top Communist leaders including the late chairman Mao Zedong who famously declared that, "Religion is an opiate for the masses."

"We have to show society what love is all about. Chinese tradition has not taught us to love unconditionally. It has always been love someone who can offer you something," said Chen Yue Xin, a new graduate and faculty member of Yan Jing Theological Seminary, who has been sent to preach this Sunday. "We have to love Christians and non-Christians alike."

For 40 minutes he expounds on the day's reading of John 13: 34-35: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." Love means not discriminating against the poor, he says, adding, "Material things can't compensate for love." Wealthy people in China, he says, "don't care about the poor." Surfing the Internet, he adds, he has learned that 203,000 out of China's 1.2 billion population own assets of at least $1 million and these people "don't spend to help the poor. …