View From the Wall

Faith Going Public

Urban Christians and Civic Participation in China

Structural Overview

Before 1949, both governmental and social organizations coexisted in Chinese society along with a primitive civil society. For example, in the cities, urban residents enjoyed some political and religious freedom because the Republican government was not very hostile to religion; many of their officials and military officials were baptized Christians. We know this from memoirs and pieces of church history. In the countryside, the rural gentry class historically acted as governing entities in coordinating local affairs, in providing for the public good and governing either through local customs or moral norms within their own religious traditions. Thus there was an active civil society.

The Communist revolution was a period when civil society was compressed to a minimum. After this violent revolution, the Communist leaders wished to construct a new social order which was a completely new polity. This ideologically fueled party was characterized by revolutionary and anti-traditional values. They basically nationalized all key resources such as land, capital and even labor allocation. They established the hukou system in China, and they eradicated the free market and interest-based associations such as commercial guilds and private businesses. In the countryside, the gentry class was completely wiped out. It was a horribly violent period of land reform which led to the Communists’ direct penetration into rural villages, something that had never before been accomplished in history. In the cities, the Party placed a stratum of politically loyal cadres in charge of social control, including food rations. The hukou system was legalized to impose a differential citizenship among all individuals. From then on, self-governance in rural and urban communities was not allowed—from the 1950s to the late 1970s. Most importantly, social trust and interpersonal networks were undermined after a wave of political movements which encouraged mutual denunciation. This led to a detrimental effect upon society as a whole. This also nurtured a political culture which rewarded betrayal and impersonal political loyalty. These events provide the context for understanding why the house churches emerged as they did in terms of organizational form. 

Emergence of House Churches

In the 1950s during the land reform campaign, the state began to clean up many social organizations, including folk religious and Christian groups and label them as targets of imperialist infiltration—a very ideologically fueled term having to do with one’s political loyalty. During this time, the Protestant group Little Flock (Watchman Nee) went through a very difficult time. Starting from then, the Protestant religion became a target of nationalization. We know that Protestant Christianity had entered China during a very inconvenient time of Western invasion. Around 1900 the Boxer Movement and the Anti-Christian Movement of the 1930s were examples of the aggravated hostility against this Western-style religion.

It is key to mention the rising nationalism during wartime, especially after the US/Korean war, as the trigger for what we know today as the Three-Self Movement. In the 1950s, when the state was clearing out Christian groups, they used the Three-Self umbrella to legitimize its takeover of the church. So politically, it was a mass-mobilization movement in line with the state’s wartime policy. Some leaders from the YMCA and YWCA were co-opted by the Communist agenda and acted as middlemen to propagate and mobilize. This was the time when house church leaders emerged and, as nonconformists, defied what became the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. They faced severe persecution, and during this time, the early 1950s, the Protestant churches began to go underground. The famous figure during this time was Wang Mingdao, who wrote his manifesto, “We Act Because of Faith.” He was a pioneering leader in this movement.  

Some Protestant leaders in China point out that it was the non-conformists who kept fundamentalist, theological tenets compared to Catholic leaders who had a much broader perspective. This started the privatization of the Protestant faith that went from the 1950s to the 1980s. The media was mainly controlled by the state, so Christianity rarely appeared in the media; thus, the public rarely heard of Christianity. Family fellowships during this time consisted only of those who could be trusted. Small cell groups were often broken up by police and had to change location frequently. There was no public space in which to gather and worship. Gradually, during the ensuing three decades, people got used to this form of church meeting which they felt was the usual or normative way of church life. This is significant in that it contrasts sharply with how urban Christians today view the church and what constitutes church life. 

Development of the Urban House Churches

Since the late 1980s, there has appeared a “Cultural Christian” phenomenon. Many intellectuals who were not Christians at that time started studying Christianity as a cultural phenomenon. Several books were written by key leaders which are still influential among today’s young people. The role of intellectual converts was very important. It was also an age of moral decay. Beginning in the mid 1990s, things started to change. Many of these cultural Christians became true believers and joined house churches creating a mass conversion among intellectuals in the 1990s. As we interviewed these intellectuals, we discovered common themes: how they were attracted to Christianity as a culture; then they became dissatisfied with being cultural Christians who did not connect with the body of Christ; as a result, they changed their lifestyle and became committed to church life. Many also brought up the Tiananmen incident of 1989; some estimate that one-third of the well-known demonstrators in that movement became Christians. It was an event that proclaimed the death of Communism. The whole ideological belief system had to be replaced by something else.  

The 1990s was also an era of cultural pluralism and the collapse of the danwei (work unit) system. Under the danwei system, civil society was compressed and people were put into small groups and arranged to lead a certain kind of life. The collapse of the danwei system in the early 1990s was a structural change for many people; they had more liberty and started to xia hai (get involved in business). It was also a time of mass migration to the cities. With these cultural phenomena and also the structural systemic change, Christianity also spread to the upwardly mobile urban population.

In the early 1990s, many house church leaders who were imprisoned in the 1950s were released. They continued preaching and teaching in small fellowships; often there was no congregational worship on Sundays. They met during the weekdays in small numbers, and organizational boundaries across these groups were not well-defined. People changed groups frequently, and church commitment to one congregation was not emphasized. Since the late 1990s, the number of educated believers has increased. Campus ministries brought more college graduates and urban professionals into house churches. In varying cities the first urban house church groups, made up of urban professionals and college students, formed about the same time, roughly around 2004 and 2005. Congregational size increased. One church in Shanghai grew from around 10 to over 100 members in three years. This growth led to spatial needs; these congregations could no longer be housed in someone’s house or apartment. The typical house church had traditionally congregated in someone’s home; as it grew, there was a spatial change as they leased a three- or four-bedroom apartment which could hold up to 70 or 80 people. As they grew to 100 or more, this brought about a new spatial change as congregations rented office space or used multi-purpose rooms. It is very interesting to follow the spatial change which tells a lot about the visibility of the church as they went public with their terms of faith.

Another development was church relief in the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. Scholars point to this year as the birth of Chinese civil society. This is not an exaggeration; many faith-based organizations started to pop up as the government relaxed its control on religious groups’ participation. According to one estimate, sixty-three percent of relief volunteers were Christians. Many were with unregistered faith-based organizations. Also in that same year, the political petition movement, “Charter ’08,” emerged. It is estimated that ten percent of signers on the document were Christians, significantly greater than the proportion of Christians across the population. Another group was rights-defending lawyers (weiquan lushi). A significant number of these legal specialists and activists were Christians, and their Christian identity motivated them to do things that other lawyers would not do.

Some unregistered groups also attempted to worship outdoors, including churches in Shanxi, Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. The most well-known of these, Shouwang in Beijing, chose to do so after being denied access to the building they had purchased. Thus, the spatial aspect became a contested area. Gathering in large numbers in an office building was an anomaly in Chinese society.

Civic Engagement

Common knowledge assumes that in the city, where the GDP is higher or the economy is more developed, NGOs or civil society will enjoy a better institutional environment. However, our research shows otherwise. Shanghai is an international metropolis and economically developed area, but its NGO and house church development are still in process compared with Chengdu, which has seen more visibility of faith-based groups and house churches. Our research has found ten churches in Chengdu that have purchased their own premises, compared with only two in Shanghai. Given the differences in population of these two cities, this is a huge contrast. In most churches in Shanghai you have to attend the midweek fellowship for up to three months and have a referral before you can attend the Sunday service. They use this screening strategy as a security precaution and also to protect against cults infiltrating the church. The context in Shanghai is much more complicated compared to that of Chengdu, which, after the Wenchuan earthquake, became a staging area for Christian groups involved in the relief effort.

Another significant phenomenon is the appearance of Christian publications. We know publicity is very important for groups to be known. Some churches that have many intellectuals have started editing groups. These have launched several magazines in China. Christian bookstores have also become locations for public lectures and other public events. One in Chengdu became a hub of activity among Christian intellectuals.


“Faith going public” is a historical phenomenon as Christianity spreads to the more educated middle and upper classes of urban China. Civic engagement is on the rise among Christian scholars, lawyers and other intellectuals; their active presence in the public sphere and their expressions of faith provide a different narrative over against the mainstream. They tend to be keen in observing and responding to social realities, and their faith provides a rich repertoire of values and means for meeting social needs. 

However, there are also many challenges faced by urban house churches. On the organizational level the fast growth of Protestant house churches is a gray sector. Recent events have exposed these religious groups to more publicity. There is still a lack of pastoral resources; especially when churches tend to be semisecretive they refrain from sharing resources, which creates a lot of segmented patterns. It has been surprising to us to see how disconnected churches in Shanghai have been due to the lack of publicity and also the different views about whether the church should be more public or remain in private. For some people it is hard to change the mindset that was developed from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Image Credit:  Church of  TianJin City by 廷 温, on Flickr
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LI Jin

LI Jin

LI Jin is a PhD student at Calvin Theological Seminary. Prior to seminary he was a PhD candidate in economic history at a Shanghai university. He writes on Christian thought for both public and Christian media outlets in mainland China and Hong Kong. LI Jin and  wife Mary Li Ma have coauthored articles, book …View Full Bio

Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma (MA Li) holds a PhD in sociology from Cornell University. Currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life at Calvin University, Dr. Ma and her husband LI Jin have coauthored articles, book chapters, and are the authors of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: …View Full Bio