Magazine article Anglican Journal

The Hard Choices That China's Churches Make

Magazine article Anglican Journal

The Hard Choices That China's Churches Make

Article excerpt


WESTERNERS ARE OFTEN baffled at the rate of Christian conversions in China --where public evangelism is banned, where the state imposes regulations on religion and where Christianity continues to carry the baggage of a colonial past when missionaries were seen as collaborators of the colonizers.

Three stories illustrate the state of Christianity in Communist China today:

Cao Yu Ling's journey into Christianity came by way of a miracle a few years ago. Cao had been seriously ill and a neighbour suggested that she go to a "house church," (a house where people gather to worship) where Christians could pray for her healing. Cao got well. She is now employed as a lay leader at a "meeting point" (an informal worship space attached to an officially-sanctioned church) with about 500 members located in the rural county of Fangshan, about 50 kilometres southwest of the city centre.

Bei Bi Tan (not her real name) says that her mother, struggling with an unhappy marriage, found solace in a Christian church and encouraged her to go with her. Bei, who is in her late 20s, said, however, that her attraction to Christianity came after reading Western novels, which had references to religion. Intrigued by the world outside Nanjing, where she grew up, Bei begged her parents to let her study theology in England. It was the mid-1990s and China's "market socialism" was underway; affluent Chinese families were sending their children overseas to study. In England, Bei recalled standing in awe at Coventry Cathedral and feeling that she had a calling to serve God. She now teaches medieval history at a theological school.

David Shi, who is in his mid-30s, said that his grandparents passed on their Christian faith to him. His father had been raised a Seventh Day Adventist, his mother a Baptist, but religion disappeared from their lives during the Cultural Revolution. Both are now members of the Communist Party. David chose a different path--encouraged by his grandparents, he studied theology at a seminary in the Philippines; he now works at the overseas relations department of the National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches in China/China Christian Council (TSPM/CCC).

Whether by way of miracles, exposure to Western culture and ideals, the influence of grandparents, an aching need to fill a void in one's life, and for some, the notion that religion fosters material prosperity, the reality is that the number of Christians in China--those attending churches officially recognized by government or the so-called "underground churches" that refuse to register with state authorities--is growing. Protestants who numbered 700,000 before the 1949 Communist takeover are now 16 million in officially registered churches.

The explosion of Christianity in China (although still a minority religion in this land of 1.3 billion) is, however, often greeted with mixed reactions--including suspicion--especially in the West.

The suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, Tibetan Buddhism and groups which rebel against state controls on religion, as well as the government's insistence that churches register with its Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), continue to make some churches and human rights groups wary about declaring that religious liberty exists in China.

"Although religious practice is tolerated, official Communist Party doctrine holds that religion, as a belief structure and an organizational arrangement, will eventually wither and die," the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its recent survey on religious freedom. "Until such time, the Chinese government believes religion must be strictly controlled to prevent it from becoming a political force or an institution capable of competing with the state for the loyalty of China's citizens. The state's policy is to avoid alienating believers or driving them underground, but rather to harness their energies towards China's development along the lines envisioned by the Party. …

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