China’s Unregistered Churches Drive Religious Revolution

A Chinese Christian woman sings during a prayer service at an underground Protestant church in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer / Getty)

A Chinese Christian woman sings during a prayer service at an underground Protestant church in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer / Getty)

“The government won’t approve it, but the question is if they’ll shut it down.”

China, the world’s rising superpower, is experiencing an explosion of faith. The decades of anti-religious campaigns that followed the 1949 communist takeover are giving way to a spiritual transformation—and among the fastest-growing drivers of that transformation are unregistered churches.

Once called “house” or “underground” churches because they were small clandestine affairs, these groups have become surprisingly well-organized, meeting very openly and often counting hundreds of congregants. They’ve helped the number of Protestants soar from about 1 million when the communists took power to at least 60 million today. Of these believers, about two-thirds are not affiliated with government churches. In other words, Protestants in non-government churches outnumber worshippers in government churches two to one.

This fascinated me, and I wondered how it happened. Why were these independent churches so effective in appealing to China’s burgeoning middle class? And how do they survive despite government efforts to rein in religious groups not part of government-run places of worship?

To find out, I knew it would be important to report from the ground up. If you rely solely on newspaper headlines and human rights reports, you’ll only understand one aspect of a society: its problems. For instance, after reading the recent Freedom House report about intensifying religious persecution under Chinese President Xi Jinping, you may come away with the impression that in China the main story of religion is repression. But any casual visitor to the country can tell you that the number of churches, mosques, and temples has soared in recent years, and that many of them are full. While problems abound, the space for religious expression has grown rapidly, and Chinese believers eagerly grab it as they search for new ideas and values to underpin a society that long ago discarded traditional morality.

This fascinated me, and I wondered how it happened. Why were these independent churches so effective in appealing to China’s burgeoning middle class? And how do they survive despite government efforts to rein in religious groups not part of government-run places of worship?

To find out, I knew it would be important to report from the ground up. If you rely solely on newspaper headlines and human rights reports, you’ll only understand one aspect of a society: its problems. For instance, after reading the recent Freedom House report about intensifying religious persecution under Chinese President Xi Jinping, you may come away with the impression that in China the main story of religion is repression. But any casual visitor to the country can tell you that the number of churches, mosques, and temples has soared in recent years, and that many of them are full. While problems abound, the space for religious expression has grown rapidly, and Chinese believers eagerly grab it as they search for new ideas and values to underpin a society that long ago discarded traditional morality.

* * *

When Wang Yi addressed his congregation, he looked like an explorer surveying new horizons. He would grasp his pulpit with both hands, leaning forward on the balls of his feet, his eyes squinting through thick glasses as if focusing on a speck in the distance. He had rosy cheeks and a winning smile, and when he spoke, it was in a strong and forceful voice, his words as clear as his arguments.

He had been one of China’s most prominent civil rights lawyers before the government detained or drove most of those people out of their profession. By the time that happened early in the second decade of the 21st century, Wang Yi had already found a new calling. He had converted to Christianity in 2005 and founded Early Rain Reformed Church, quickly establishing himself as one of China’s best-known preachers. His church was independent of government control, but that made it all the more dynamic. Videos of his sermons circulated on social media. His plans, ideas, and ambitions seemed boundless. Protestant Christianity was China’s fastest-growing religion, and Wang Yi was one of its stars.

But at times he had been accused of arrogance and talking over people’s heads, of giving theoretical sermons about theological issues that no one could understand. Like most Chinese pastors, he was mostly self-taught in the Bible and tended to bring his lawyer’s argumentative nature to church matters.

Tonight, though, was a chance to shine. Behind him on a screen was a picture of a dead woman whom people had come to mourn. Wei Suying, a popular member of the church, known to everyone as Auntie Wei, had died of cancer at age 62. Her daughters testified about how she had persuaded them to convert to Christianity. Both said how it had changed their lives, helping them see through the materialism of contemporary society. They had become better people, less obsessed with money, and more concerned about helping others. A few people began sobbing.

Now it was Wang Yi’s turn. A few hours earlier, he had been thinking about how the communists exalt famous people by saying wansui, or long live, like “Long Live Chairman Mao.” Wansui (wan-sway) was a term everyone in China knew. It was almost a prefix before the Communist Party’s name, a formulaic chant meant to guarantee that its rule would never end. Auntie Wei’s death made him realize how much he hated that term. It was an offense to God and to ordinary people like Auntie Wei, whose lives truly deserved exaltation. Talking about this was a bit abstract, but he thought it might work. He stood up to speak, as usual without notes. He started softly, forcing everyone to listen carefully.

“Auntie Wei was someone I think it would be fair to call a simple woman. She was a mother and had a hard life. She raised two daughters mostly on her own. Her husband had died young.” One of the daughters began sobbing. People in the church began nodding but caught themselves as Wang Yi continued.

“She was not someone who heard the word wansui too often. If she heard it, she would have thought it applied to China, or the Communist Party, or Chairman Mao. Wansui: that’s almost always reserved for them. This is wrong. Wansui, this word, if it belongs to anyone, it belongs to Auntie Wei.” A couple of people looked up startled.

“I tell you that she can hear wansui now because she is wansui; she is immortal because of Jesus. It’s not the government that can confer this word. It’s God, and it’s us by how we live our daily lives. It’s the choices we make despite the immoral society we live in. This is what real wansui is. It’s nothing that the Communist Party can provide. It’s something we can make ourselves.”

Suddenly people were smiling; this was why they came to Early Rain Reformed Church. It was different from the anodyne churches sponsored by the state. It was warm and direct, but most of all it was relevant. It was for people who didn’t want the status quo, who were searching for alternatives to the life around them. Wang Yi was dressed in a suit, with short cropped hair and an earnest expression—a nice, modern young man, a perfect son-in-law. And yet here he was standing in front of them, telling them directly how to challenge the official way of looking at their country.

“Auntie Wei was one of our sisters,” Wang Yi said, winding up his eulogy. “We loved her. But it’s she who possesses eternal life, not the government. She created it for herself by living a good life, by being our sister in the church, and resisting the immorality around her.”

Now I could see why Wang Yi had made the choice to become a pastor. When he was a public intellectual, most of his words were censored. But here, speaking to one hundred people in a room, he was contributing to a sense that it was ordinary people who possessed real power in a country where all authority seemed to belong to the state.

After the service, a son-in-law of Auntie Wei’s walked up to Wang Yi and did something Chinese almost never do: he hugged him. And Wang Yi, blinking back his own tears, looked bewildered but then happy. This was truly his flock, and he was their pastor.

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SOURCE: The Atlantic
Ian Johnson

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