China is well on target to make the 21st century a "China century." Forty percent of the world's construction cranes are now operating there, and 35 percent of the world's ocean freighters are delivering goods and raw materials to feed China's superheated economy.
Meanwhile, under the radar screen of the world's press, the Chinese church has been swelling fast. In 1950, with the outbreak of the Korean War, the government expelled 7,000 foreign missionaries. For a time, it did its best to control Christianity through registered Three Self churches—though even these churches were subject to severe repression during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). For 20 years this strategy appeared to be working. Still, in the 1970s an underground house church movement sprang up as if by spontaneous generation.
Even the Chinese government admits that Protestant Christians have increased from 1 million in 1950 to 16 million today. But these figures do not account for the many millions who meet secretly in home congregations. David Aikman, former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, suggests in his book Jesus in Beijing that Christians may number as many as 80 million—this in an officially atheistic state that has repeatedly persecuted believers.
I interviewed four representatives of the Chinese house church movement (whose names have been changed here) on a recent trip to Beijing. I had scheduled a meeting with pastor Allen Paul, one of the movement's patriarchs, who has courageously defied government attempts to control his activities. He survived 22 years of hard labor in prison, and on his release immediately resumed baptizing new converts. When Billy Graham visited his home in 1994, the meeting attracted world attention, and when President Clinton visited China in 1998 the government forbade any of the 2,000 foreign journalists from seeing him.
Sadly, Pastor Paul canceled our appointment. With the meeting of the Communist Party taking place in Beijing, the authorities had again forbidden him to meet with foreigners.
Lao San, supervisor of some 50 house church leaders, traveled 10 hours on a night train to tell his story. A preacher since the age of 12, he has devoted himself to the rural Christian community, which comprises mostly uneducated farmers. He described the average church service, two to three hours long, which includes much singing and loud praying and a sermon that averages an hour in length. The churches move from home to home and keep to small, discreet groups.
Next came Brother Joshua, a stocky farmer with snow-white hair. A third-generation Christian, he can trace his faith lineage back to some of the old-time missionaries. Joshua lost his job during the Cultural Revolution and is now supported by Japanese Christians for whom he has distributed hundreds of thousands of Bibles.
The most impressive visitor was Brother Shi, a bright and passionate 44-year-old. As a teenager Shi headed up his province's Communist Youth League and later served as a Red Guard. He used to pass by a Three Self church each day en route to party headquarters, and it puzzled him that whereas he had to work hard to attract young people to the party, the Three Self church was always packed.
One day he decided to attend, and the vibrant testimonies of Christians puzzled him further. He bought a Bible and read it through, from Genesis to Revelation. A few months later, he announced to the party chief that he was becoming a Christian. The chief shouted that Shi was making a serious mistake, and as Shi left the room, he called the boy's father to report this treachery. Shi's father met him with oaths. "I fought against the Christian Chiang Kai-shek, and I fought against the Christians in Korea, and now I have Jesus in my own house!" he yelled, and kicked Shi out.
Shi must travel constantly, eluding police through narrow escapes. The house churches, recognizing his leadership skills, have promoted him so that he now supervises 260,000 Christians in his province.
Just as our meetings concluded, someone knocked on the door. It was Pastor Paul, a sprightly senior citizen who had decided to defy the ban and meet with me anyway. "I'm 90 years old, and I've spent 22 years in prison—what are they going to do to me?" he said with a grin. He gave me a dvd that showed a mass baptism of 453 believers in 2003.
Before going to China I met with one of the missionaries who had been expelled in 1950. "We felt so sorry for the church we left behind," he said. "They had no one to teach them, no printing presses, no seminaries, no one to run their clinics and orphanages. No resources, really, except the Holy Spirit." It appears the Holy Spirit is doing just fine.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More on the church in China includes:
China Arrests Dozens of Prominent Christians | At least 50 detained in fresh crackdown on house churches, reportedly promoted by new video and book releases. (Feb. 18, 2004)
The Red Glowing Cross | A veteran journalist makes vivid the hidden and expanding world of Chinese Christianity (Feb. 18, 2004)
House-Church Christian Dies in Custody | Family saw prisoner injured and bound with heavy chains (Jan, 15, 2004)
Crushing House Churches | Chinese intelligence and security forces attack anew. What you can do to help persecuted Christians in China (Jan. 13, 2004)
About-Face on Charities | Communist leaders invite even Christians to help the poor. (Oct. 21, 2003)
'Dangerous' Chinese Bill Is Thwarted | Article 23 would have automatically banned Hong Kong groups now outlawed on the mainland. (Aug. 21, 2003)
Breakthrough Dancing | A look at the one of the most creative youth ministries in Hong Kong—if not the world. (July 23, 2003)
Previous Yancey columns for Christianity Today include:
Cry, The Beloved Continent | Don't let AIDS steal African children's future. (March 04, 2004)
The Colonizers | The best preachers have challenged earth to become more like heaven. (Jan. 16, 2004)
The Leprosy Doctor | Paul Brand showed how to serve others sacrificially and emerge with joy. (Oct. 23, 2003)
Going It Alone | We should take heed when much of the world says it distrusts us. (July 2, 2003)
God of the Maggies | In broken sinners, Jesus saw not their past but their future. (April 25, 2003)
Perestroika of the Spirit | In Russia, the vocabulary of faith needs interpreters. (March 5, 2003)
Jesus' Sword | Longing for peace in tumultuous times. (Jan. 7, 2002)
Guilt Good and Bad | The early warning signs. (Nov. 11, 2002)
God's Funeral | What will keep faith from nearly disappearing in America? (Sept. 3, 2002)
Sheepish | Feeling autonomous and proud? Then ponder the lives of sheep. (July 2, 2002)
Servant in Chief | Jimmy Carter's journey from the White House to building houses.(May 28, 2002)
Why Do They Hate Us? | How to turn the Baywatch syndrome into the Jesus syndrome. (March 27, 2002)
Honest Church Marketing | We enhance our 'image' by offering the world a realistic picture of faith. (October 24, 2001)
Compassion Confusion | We should serve the needy even when it has bad political consequences. (August 28, 2001)
Fixing Our Weakest Link | Evangelicals should be more "needful of the minds of others." (July 13, 2001)
Yancey's Where is God When it Hurts, Special Edition, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, and his latest book, Rumors of Another World, are available on Christianbook.com.
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