How free are churches in China? Are they subject to rigid government control? While these I questions are much debated, people who have worked or studied in China know that it's difficult to generalize about Christian life in China. In conducting my own research in China, I've encountered a wide range of responses from local officials and have found that Chinese Christians are remarkably effective in dealing with the government's Religious Affairs Bureau. The variety and vibrancy of Christian life, as well as the graciousness of Chinese Christians to an outsider, were abundantly evident to me during a recent study trip.
I went to China because I wanted to hear the songs of China's Christian oral tradition--the songs that one can't find in print because they exist only in the singers' memories. Since major churches now favor a hymnal of music written by international and Chinese composers, visitors seldom encounter the thousands of local songs. In an effort to better understand everyday Chinese spirituality, I had begun to collect and translate some of these songs. But, as ethno-musicologists insist, one must record music when and where it is being used if one wants to learn its meaning. So I returned to China in hopes of hearing this kind of singing in worship.
On the first night of my trip I stayed with a Chinese friend who was pastoring a church in a booming county seat. She was preaching that night at a meeting point outside town and I went along. The lay couple who had recently started this meeting came by for us with two bicycles--one pulling a covered seat. The wife went ahead on her bicycle to get worship started--leaving her husband to pull two adults behind him. He pedaled with difficulty as my friend and I sat tight together. We traveled on a darkening dirt road, passing through village after village, until I thought we would never arrive. Then we began to hear singing.
After climbing up a steep flight of stairs, we walked into a room above a repair shop. Beds and cupboards had been pushed to the wall and about 30 people were sitting wherever they could, and singing loudly with their eyes closed. Between songs there were long prayers. Then my friend opened her Bible and preached for half an hour--shorter than usual, because we had come late. At the end everyone stood and prayed their own prayers aloud at the same time. At last they closed by joining in the Lord's Prayer. Then they greeted us warmly and passed my microphone around and recorded their songs.
The next day we went to meet the pastor in the church office. Two other men arrived: a policeman in uniform to say that I must move to a hotel licensed for foreign guests, and a Religious Affairs Bureau representative to say that foreigners may not visit unregistered churches. They were courteous to me but blunt with the church staff (I don't think they realized that I understood them).
We had not anticipated this problem, but I packed my bag while my friend called a church member at the hotel for foreign guests and got a special rate. Both of us went off to sleep in the hotel room.
By this time the churchpeople had heard that I could not attend services. They rallied to welcome me to their apartments for meals and recorded over a hundred songs on tape. They even found a friend with a car to take me out to the county museum. On the way back we stopped to see an impressive new church building. Caretakers there complained that the town authorities had made them take down the cross from the steeple. But the gate marked the site as a Christian church.
I attended the registered church Sunday morning and again in the afternoon, when a young woman preacher led us alternately in prayer and singing. We stood for nearly an hour, then sat for her lively sermon. When I left town, the people who had helped me cooked a special meal. A church member who works for the railroad got me a rare ticket on a nonstop train. …