China's Crowded Churches Stifle 'Religious Warmth'

By Rebecca Davis

The group of eight assembles every Sunday morning, risking arrest.

On a Sunday morning in June, they filed into a tiny, windowless underground apartment in Beijing to attend a Christian church service in the second little room to the left of the front door. Pastor He Xian spent the next two hours leading his small flock in hymns and delivering a sermon as congregants sat attentively on plastic folding chairs about four feet away.

Most of those present left a large, state-sanctioned church within the last few months, including Pastor He, who founded this new, more spontaneous (and unauthorized) "house church" with three friends from the bigger organization. Some say the 2,000-member congregation overwhelmed their sense of connection to each other and their religion.

"There are more and more people going to house churches," says He, "and in the meantime equally more people go to the official church."

Indeed, Christianity seems to be on a roll these days. On another recent Sunday at Beijing's large, officially-approved Kuan Street Church, the main floor filled up early, forcing the overflow crowd to seek seats among dozens of packed pews in a second-floor room where worshippers watched the pastor give a sermon on big screens.

Since entering China more than 1,000 years ago, Christianity didn't take hold on a broad scale until recently. The opening of China's economy to global markets and the accompanying influx of foreign influences of all types allowed Christianity to flourish. Church leaders contend that Christianity is growing so fast in China today that its numbers are overwhelming government-approved facilities. Christians still occupy only a fraction of the country's total population of 1.3 billion, but official permission to build new churches, church sources say, can’t come fast enough to keep up with demand. 

Meanwhile, the shortage of pew space shows no signs of stopping passionate Chinese Christians, some of whom are taking the risk of defying state authority to start up small, technically outlawed house churches, of which officials take a dim view because of their suspected connections with overseas religious organizations and foreign financing.

China's Communist Party has cast a wary eye on all rival belief systems since it took power in 1949, when the government initiated steps to dismantle organized religions outright. In the case of Christianity, officials confiscated church property, disbanded seminaries and merged denominations to destabilize church leadership. 

The government established eight "patriotic" religious organizations to oversee religious groups and monitor their foreign influences. Of these, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (self-supporting, self-administrating, self-propagating) manages the Protestant Church, and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association manages the Catholic Church.

Until 2001, party leaders maintained the publicly-stated goal of eliminating religion in China, while switching tactics from overt suppression to regulation by law. After the People's Republic joined the World Trade Organization, a harbinger of increased openness and greater international scrutiny, President Jiang Zemin called religion a positive force that could be used to assist national development. It signaled official acceptance of religion's hold on Chinese citizens.

Christianity has spread quickly through the young and the professional class in the cities since 1990, as they turned away from traditional religions such as Buddhism, church leaders say. The Protestant Church had 800,000 followers in 1949 and now has between than 30 million to 50 million members, says Hangzhou-based seminary teacher Pastor Wang, who declined to give his full name. Some pastors refuse to speculate on the exact number. "China is too big," Wang says. "It's too difficult to calculate the exact number."

The fastest-growing demographic Wang sees at his downtown Si Cheng Church is the under-30 age group. When one of China's largest churches, Chong Yi Church, opened three years ago, 80-year-old Si Cheng immediately lost about a third of its young members to the larger 5,000-member congregation. But he says new members have since replenished those lost to the new mega-church, with current membership surpassing the old total.

Young people are turning to Christianity in droves because of the influence of Western education, and because the materialism popular in China isn't providing enough direction, says one priest in Shanghai, Lu Kangqiang, who prefers to call himself Father Joseph. A veteran of the Shanghai Catholic Diocese, he says Buddhism, the main religion of today's parents, isn't as satisfying to a new generation searching for new answers.

"To be Buddhist is very easy," he says. "People are just treated like customers. They go to a temple once a year, give money, that's fine. They like Christianity because they learn things from Western world, its technology, management... culture and religion. They like to read the Bible because the Bible and some religious books give them direction for their life."

A walk through the grounds of Tu Mem Christian Church in Xian shows just how quickly the pews are filling up. 

Down an alley and through the church’s outer gates, a metal-roofed shack sits at the end of a corridor. This is the original church, which opened in 1986 after Shi Sufang and a handful of home-based Christians saved 2,200 yuan to buy a piece of land on what was then a garbage dump. A couple car lengths away sits another building, built a decade ago for 800 members - it has concrete floors and bowed wooden rafters that struggle to hold up the 30,000-yuan facility's roof. A skip to the left lands at the steps of a three-year-old, $4-million facility with three stories of marble, wood and glass. The new church building holds 2,500 worshippers.

Shi, 73, also represents the old-style Christian. She says she turned to the religion in the 1970s after finding no cure for a bone disease. Church leaders say before China's young and college-educated citizens adopted Christianity along with other Western influences, the religion was largely populated by the poor and uneducated. That trend is still evident at China's rural churches.

The new Protestant churches in China's cities hold thousands and open as quickly as their leaders get permission from the government. To some, it seems like a hardly a day passes without a new church opening its doors.

"Maybe two or three per day in China", says Pastor Qi Tieying, after giving a sermon to about 2,000 people at Beijing's two-year-old Chaoyang Church.

Yet, Qi, a 20-year pastor who oversaw construction of Chaoyang Church, says it's impossible to build enough government-authorized churches over the next 50 years to meet the growing demand. The country also faces a shortage of pastors going through seminary, he adds.

Cramming more and more Christians into bigger spaces may serve more worshippers, yet it creates friction among believers who say they lose their identity in the crowds. Chinese Christians practice a type of worship that goes beyond just the Sunday service. Many worshippers take notes during the service, in an effort to bring the sermons home. The personal dynamic also calls for group worship and communication.

"People spend more money to pray, to go to church," Father Joseph in Shanghai says. "In my village, people go to church every day."

Leaders at Tu Mem church in Xian have followed their founders' ways of worship by developing a network of home-based churches for members to study and communicate during the week. A sheet of paper posted in Tu Mem's office lists phone numbers for its extension churches. Other large churches also feature a network of "meeting points," which are especially helpful to elderly and disabled members, or those who live far from the central church.

"Some of the house churches are so full, even the restrooms... [and] the hallways are full of people," says missionary Zhang Yong.

New churches and extension groups are not enough to satisfy some of Christianity's new converts in China. In early 2007, a group attending Gang Wa Shi church in Beijing left their congregation to form their own church. 

They say they had trouble communicating in the big church, and that it seemed like it only provided rote teachings about the Bible.

"I went to this little church because there everyone knew each other," says Wang Yanjun, who says members of Gang Wa Shi would stand in its courtyard during sermons. "If you had troubles in soul or else, you could find someone to help you...But in large church [with its greater number of congregants] there were only four or five pastors. They did not have much time to comprehend every Christian."

The group's new church is a one-bedroom apartment. It offers meetings for its 20 members several times each week, and holds three Sunday services for groups small enough to occupy the dozen chairs in the makeshift chapel. One of the small groups gathers in a main room after the two-hour service to eat lunch at a card table.

The new church's 28-year-old pastor, He Xian, says he felt chafed by the old church's government control, after he says he was reprimanded for preaching in village churches. Church officials reported his activities to the police, who he says took him in for questioning.

He adds that the tight control has kept him out of the seminary, which, despite the shortage of pastors, has turned him away multiple times.

"If you want to get into the official seminary, you have to pass a kind of certification," he says. "You have to demonstrate your political qualifications...Because I have done some bad acts in the government's eyes, I can't pass the political qualifications."

He says the government recently broke up a larger house church run by his friends, some of whom were arrested. 

When asked by a reporter why he does not feel the need to remain anonymous, he says it's because the government tends to target house churches with hundreds of members, not dozens, such as his church.

He says the migration from official church to house church is "a very common situation" because of the religion's growing ranks.

"Every believer needs the religious warmth directly," he says. "But churches that are too huge prevent individuals from receiving that kind of religious warmth from God."