Billboard of Mao Zedong hovers over Christian woman with Bible.
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.”
Mr. Chen stops at this point, however. He offers no criticism of government or of institutions that foster such growing imbalance in what is now the world’s sixth largest economy. Still, he has done something that would have been unthinkable decades ago in totalitarian China – use the pulpit for even mild social commentary, never mind that it does not directly skewer the powers-that-be.
In the rural area of Kunming (in the west of China), about 90 students representing 18 indigenous minority groups endure cramped living quarters and inadequate heating at the Yunnan Theological Seminary where they are training to become pastors for this predominantly ethnic province’s growing Christian population. The province has only 80 pastors to minister to 800,000 Protestant Christians in registered churches.
Christianity – whether Protestant or Catholic – has grown by leaps and bounds following the death of Mao in 1976 and the “open door” policy introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, which Party leaders later called “market socialism.” What is remarkable is that growth has not tapered off despite Beijing’s ambivalence towards religion – declaring freedom of religion and on occasion, financially supporting the building of churches officially registered with government, while at the same time smothering others it suspects of plotting to sow instability. Growth has been tremendous despite the fact that public evangelism is not allowed by government.
Leaders of registered churches say they are baptizing a million new adherents every year; the figure, according to some scholars from Hong Kong and the West, is higher in so-called “house or underground churches” which refuse to register with the government.
“They’re opening to the outside world. Many of our young people learn about the Protestant church through (their exposure to) Western culture,” said Rev. Cao Sheng-jie, president of the China Christian Council, explaining Chinese interest in Christianity. “Another element is that despite economic growth people realize that man doesn’t live by bread alone. People have a spiritual need and it’s an everlasting need.”
David Aikman, former Beijing bureau chief of Time magazine, wrote in his book Jesus in Beijing that, “Christianity is emerging in China at a time when there is a massive ideological vacuum left in society by the nationwide collapse of belief in Marxism-Leninism.”
(To be continued. Next issue: China’s registered churches: are they “real Christians?”)
More stories on China in the upcoming issues of the Anglican Journal: