BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–To take a single picture of the church in China would be tough — in fact, it would be nearly impossible.
“This place is huge,” says Jamie Tatum, a Southern Baptist representative in the region, and the face of the church is as varied as the nation is big, she explains.
Small urban house churches, rural meetings, large established churches with buildings — you can find congregations in all varieties, much like in the United States.
But the major difference between here and there, Tatum says, is that in China, freedoms for Christians vary as much as the venues in which they meet.
Some churches are registered and public; some meet secretly behind closed doors. Some practice their religion with apparent freedom while others face harsh persecution and imprisonment.
“I try to be careful not to paint any picture as an absolute image of the whole country or the whole reality of what is here,” Tatum said. “There isn’t complete freedom anywhere in China, but some places are more tolerant and open than others.”
Places like Nanjing, where St. Paul’s Church — an imposing stone structure with a prominent cross statue — holds four services each Sunday, according to Lynn Yarbrough, an Alabama native who teaches in China.
“The church (St. Paul’s) overall has more than 4,000 members, with many kinds of weekly activities, including prayer meeting, literacy class, Bible reading, choir practice and a Chinese young adult meeting,” Yarbrough said. “There are two baptismal services every year, baptizing 100 to 200 each time.”
According to Christianity Today, the growth of China’s Christian churches has been a phenomenon of the past 30 years birthed out of the violent decades of the mid-20th century.
In 1950 — shortly after the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic of China — missionaries were forced to leave China. At that time, China was home to about 920,000 Christians. The new government sought to eliminate Christianity by controlling all organized religion. Toward that end, the government established the Three Self Patriotic Movement, which brought all of China’s churches under government control by 1958.
Then came the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, during which up to 7 million people died from violence and famine. During this time, all religious activity was banned. As a result, many Christians began worshipping in secret, illegal house churches.
But since the late 1970s, many congregations like St. Paul’s have been reborn and registered with the state and claim between 13 and 20 million believers. The Chinese government, which is officially atheist, does sanction state-registered churches.
At these churches, Yarbrough says, new converts have been won as choir music drifts out of the open doors and draws in people off the streets.
But though church is back on in parts of China, denominations aren’t. You won’t find a First Baptist Church in Shanghai or a United Methodist Church of Beijing. Denominations don’t exist — the spread of the Gospel is what’s at the forefront among the nation’s believers.
In China, Buddhism is the most widely practiced religion, with around 100 million adherents. Others practice a Chinese religion called Taoism. And while official estimates say that China is home to 20 million Muslims, 5 million Catholics, and around 15 million Protestants, unofficial estimates are much higher.
Why? Because — at least with Protestants — though some believers prefer the legal, registered and open route in practicing their faith, others feel that different situations bring different needs, Tatum said.
Persecution isn’t unknown in some areas, despite the success of churches like St. Paul’s in others. In more hostile environments, around 45 million Christians still feel the need to worship in house churches.
Take Mike White’s group, for instance.
White, an American Christian living in China, recently spent time training a group of 40 Chinese evangelists, ranging from around 19 to 30 years old.
They spent five days together in a small, hot apartment with the doors and windows closed so they wouldn’t be overheard. They ate only two meals a day and rarely flushed the toilet to keep from raising suspicion.
At the end of the training — just before they all dispersed to share the gospel throughout their province — their Chinese leader challenged them, saying: “We don’t want to die. We don’t want to go into prison. But we have to be prepared that, if God puts that before us, we are going to be faithful when the pressures come.”
A couple of months later, White was with the group again. Of the 40 evangelists, five were so weak and ill because of difficult living conditions that they’d been forced to return home. Others had to flee because they learned that government authorities were aware of their evangelism and were pursuing them. Eight had spent time in prison.
“I look at the number that did suffer — not just a physical suffering, but the suffering of the persecution, the resistance — and it’s a tremendous testimony to me of how God is moving on the Chinese people to reach the Chinese people,” White said.
Some names have been changed for security reasons. Manda Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond, Va. Grace Thornton writes for The Alabama Baptist, newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention, online at www.thealabamabaptist.org. This article originally appeared in The Alabama Baptist.