The East Is Praying
It’s 11 am on a Sunday morning and the church is rocking.
Built in 2003, the 8,400-square-meter, ark-shaped, four-story house of worship can hold up to 2,000 believers and while about half as many are in the main worship hall, their religious fervor seems about to burst.
A guitar, drum and keyboard trio is playing an upbeat hymn on the enormous stage “The World is Better by Having You” and the choir and the congregation’s voices fill the air. The young bespectacled pastor has just finished his sermon, complete with a Power Point presentation about the gift of eternal life.
One of America’s many mega-churches, perhaps in Dallas or Denver?
These are Chinese worshippers in Shenzhen’s Meilin Christian Church. It is the largest of Shenzhen’s 26 state-sanctioned Chinese-speaking Protestant and Catholic worship places, according to Li Jianping, director-general of the Shenzhen Municipal Bureau of Religious Affairs. They are part of estimated 15 to 20 million believers nationwide, a figure that is said to be growing rapidly.
And after this service the sanctuary will be filled with several hundred expatriate Korean worshippers.
Five hours later about 3 kilometers from the Meilin church in the Futian district, a much different church is in session. A group of 15 Chinese Christians nine women and six men ranging in age from 19 to their early 40s, a mixture of working class and low level professionals are gathered in a three-bedroom apartment for worship. They’ve trudged quietly up five flights of stairs to this humid, non-air conditioned makeshift sanctuary.
A generic picture of Jesus and a cheap reproduction of Albrecht Durer's Praying Hands are on one wall and two small fans are blowing in a feeble attempt to cool the unbearably hot and humid living room. The self-taught lay pastor, a 34-year-old accountant surnamed Wang, leads the group in a short prayer, a sermon and a song, which they sing
passionately, yet quietly as to not attract undue notice from nosy neighbors. The hymn is also “The World is Better by Having You” and though Wang’s simple sermon is not state-sanctioned, it touches on many of the same basic points as the message at Meilin.
“Jesus Christ never sinned. He was the perfect man and died on the cross for us. His blood washed us from sin. Eternal life is God’s gift. Be compassionate to those who need help, particularly your parents and elders,” the pastor says.
So why risk arrest, and hump upstairs to sweat, sing softly and pray when you could worship in relative comfort with hundreds of others?
“I’d rather go to a house church,” says a 26-year-old named Lucy, one of an estimated 45 million Chinese Christians.
Lucy is from the nearby border town of Zhuhai, where she converted five years ago. She was visiting Shenzhen with her sister and had attended two services at Meilin the Chinese and part of the Korean one (though she doesn’t speak Korean, the novelty of a “foreign” service was a draw).
While she enjoyed the spectacle, the Meilin church was her first visit to a state-sanctioned house of worship and she said she was more comfortable with the “family feeling” she has at her underground Zhuhai house church.
“I like it better,” Lucy says, noting that it is worth the hassle for her and her co-religionists. “We have had trouble with the police in Zhuhai. At one service 100 people attended and the police came and said we could only have 12 and that we had to register with the police. The policeman said, ‘You Christians are nice people, you help people but too many of you together will upset the Party leaders.’ “So we divided into smaller groups but we didn’t register.”
Another Chinese Christian who calls himself “Noah” also has worshipped both at the Futian underground church and the Meilin super church. He agreed. “It is maybe not always safe at our small church. But it is more like a small family which I enjoy. Maybe like the early Christians?”
Though guaranteed in the Chinese constitution, religious freedom is not a sure thing and seems to vary according to the whims of local authorities and the extent to which house churches are viewed as potential political threats.
Of course, the woes of the persecuted Falun Gong sect are well known to those transgressing state sanctioned spirituality and back in the United States, where evangelical tub-thumping is a way of life for millions of people, Christian, right-wing, evangelical Bible-smuggling groups such as the Midland, Texas-based Midland Ministerial Alliance dramatize the persecution of Chinese Christians as part of their outreach and fund raising efforts.
In late July the group sponsored a huge outdoor youth-oriented three day affair called Rock the Desert in Midland, which is also the hometown of America’s presiding Bush family. The event featured Christian rock bands and exhibits on China's religious persecution and human rights abuses including, according to a publicist for the organization, “a live reenactment of a church being bulldozed” with “actual video footage of a church demolition in China shown just prior to the reenactment.”
Churches that get involved in politics are being harassed, said a New Zealand missionary who goes by the name “Pastor Steve,” whereas quieter, apolitical or non-political unregistered churches are usually not bothered.
He was interviewed at a small pizza, pasta and wine bar called “Vin’s”, as in vineyard, a reference to the 600-church non-denominational Vineyard movement in the United States.
A small cross standing on one counter and an in-house soundtrack that plays a selection of rock and pop songs such as the Doobie Brothers—“Jesus is Just Alright With Me” and Annie Lennox’s “Missionary Man” are the only signs that spiritual fare may be available off-menu.
Pastor Steve, who speaks fluent Mandarin and has a Christian Chinese wife, says he has worshipped with and aided 400 house churches in nine provinces. He also works with the Midland Ministerial Alliance and though he says he doesn’t “kowtow to the American government” he says his message of Christianity and democracy cannot be easily separated.
”It’s not a matter of if China will have true religious freedom. It’s a matter of when,” he says. “I am not here to advocate democracy specifically, but when I witness here I base my speeches on Biblical principles and fundamental articles of honesty and trust, things that are both the foundation of democracy and Christianity.”
There is a growing need for Christianity here, he insists, echoing the long trail of missionaries dating to the 16th Century who have seen China as a fertile breeding ground of believers. “God is alive and the government can knock down churches and throw people in jail, but it can’t stop the hand of God.”
And several weeks later he and another New Zealand Christian activist named Jack would journey to Yangshou in Guangxi province to help another flock. Their storeroom of Bibles and Christian DVDs were seized and destroyed by “hooligans doing the government’s dirty work,” according to Jack an e-mail he wrote from a Yanghou hotel where he was holed up with his own legal difficulties after his religious cover was blown.
“We have had prayer vigils and other spiritual action to remove the demons from the hotel,” Jack wrote. “The Lord is guiding us and we shall not be moved.”
Lucy, who was also in contact with Jack, says she prayed for a positive outcome (and, indeed, no arrests ultimately were made) but she said her faith has more to do with her personal life rather than grand hopes for a democratic Christian China. She said becoming a Christian has given her life purpose and patience that she lacked previously, but that she had to overcome fears of the Falun Gong.
Finally a friend gave her a Chinese Christian primer called “Knowing the True God” that raised questions Lucy says she had never considered.
“We learned in school that people came from monkeys. But I did not always believe that and the book said that God created us from Adam and Eve. It also told a story about a man finding a clock and realizing how someone greater than he must have made it. You cannot make a clock by chance and a clock cannot make itself,” Lucy says.
Lucy’s reasons for converting hint at another future for Christianity in China should it continue to grow. Her doubts about evolution will no doubt sound familiar to Americans, where a sizeable minority of conservative Christians has forced open a debate over so-called “creation science” and evolution in school districts in a handful of states in recent years.
Just imagine that debate in the world’s most populous country. A billion plus people turned on to Adam and Eve? No wonder the American Christian sects see China as their own next big market.