China’s underground church is thriving

Via gazette.com Photo via www.telegraph.co.uk

SHANGHAI

In a trendy coffee shop in this city’s glittering financial district, five people cram into a tiny, dimly lit back room with two tables. By day, these five are white-collar workers, eagerly climbing the corporate ladder as China’s economy booms. By night, once a week, they’re huddled over their Bibles.

„I was disappointed and struggling,” said Elvis Ma, a 29-year-old working in the financial industry. „Before I knew God, I felt trapped.”

Ma and the others opt to worship in what’s widely known as the „underground church,” a place for Chinese Christians to practice in smaller settings and without fear of government influence on what’s being preached.

It comes with a different fear, though: Being an unregistered Christian is illegal.

The underground church, also known as the family church or the home church, has been around for generations. It began as a way for Christians to worship, as practicing Christianity was frowned on in China for most of its communist history under Mao Zedong.

Believers gathered in small groups in homes, hotels and other discreet areas to practice in secrecy, for fear of government retaliation. This tradition of worshipping in humble places continues today.

„Our party is to believe in God. The government doesn’t encourage us to believe in God publicly,” Ma said. „But the government cannot stop it.”

Simply practicing isn’t illegal, but being unregistered is, according to experts. In the past year, more than 1,000 unregistered Protestant Christians were detained and sentenced, according to China Aid, a nonprofit human-rights organization based in the U.S. Some Protestant leaders were placed under house arrest for leading worship in unregistered churches.

A U.S. commission reported that the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress the growth of the underground church remain „systematic and intense.”

The official church is a part of the China Christian Council or the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a concept that preaches self-government, self-support and self-propagation. Most services feature a mixture of Roman Catholic and Protestant components as well as nondenominational elements.

Dong Lee, a 29-year-old newlywed who has been practicing Christianity for about four years, said she’d tried attending several types of official church services but couldn’t agree with the traces of Catholicism in some. She now attends a small underground church, and she said she felt she was surrounded by a family who understood her, who’d support her.

On Sunday afternoons, Dong attends a Protestant church that’s in a different home in Shanghai each week. Hymns are sung and a 90-minute sermon follows that’s usually delivered by the host of that week’s service.

The underground church, though its services often don’t exceed 30 congregants, has a robust presence. Experts estimate that Shanghai is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of such churches. There might be as many as 67 million Protestants in China, many of whom attend the underground church. These estimations place China in the top 10 nations in the world in the number of Christians, and the number keeps growing.

Albert Wu said he attended an underground church because it provided opportunities for small-group discussion.

„The Bible changed the way we look at the world. This fellowship gives you support in everyday life,” Wu said. „I feel warm from the heart.”

Complaints about the official church vary: It’s large, it’s unfocused because it’s virtually nondenominational and it’s connected to the government.

Jing Jianmei, a 34-year-old pastor at a large official church in Shanghai called Hongde Tang, said she understood these complaints but didn’t think they were well-founded.

„The family church has history. Some worry that they risk the relationship with the government that the official church has,” Jing said. „But I think it’s about tradition. If people became Christian at Three-Self, they will attend Three-Self.”

Wearing a red puffy vest, sneakers and a large metal cross on a necklace, Jing emerged on a Thursday from her small apartment inside the church discussing upcoming Bible studies with two colleagues. She said that her church, which sees more than 2,000 people on Sundays, did have opportunities for small-group interaction.

While many underground churchgoers think the official church practices a watered-down version of Christianity, Jing said she has a strong connection with God.

Jing now leads a large church and hopes that through preaching, others might know the same God she does. She hopes and prays that people give the Three-Self church a chance.

„The most important thing about the church is Jesus is our Christ, not emphasizing the Three-Self principles,” she said.

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