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Coming to Terms with the Church


An article that appeared last month in China's official press raises interesting questions about how the church in China is viewed by both the Chinese state and society.

Although focused on Chinese Christmas celebrations (see my earlier post about the article, "Why China Celebrates Christmas") the Global Times article, "Christmas Crusade," shines a fascinating light on the larger phenomenon of China's growing urban churches, both official and unregistered. This treatment, particularly of China's unofficial church, is especially intriguing given that it appears in the pages of Global Times, the English-language companion to the official Party mouthpiece, People's Daily.

Here are a few takeaways from the article:

China's Christians are becoming more intentional about engaging with their society.

The article opens in Shanghai with a handful of urban "house church" Christians distributing leaflets advertising a "Christmas good news party," the purpose of which is to introduce the curious to the true meaning of Christmas. In a matter-of-fact way, the author explains that thousands of such gatherings happen every December around China: "A large number of unofficial churches, especially in big cities, are opening their doors to welcome more and more people who are interested in learning about how Christians spend Christmas."

As a result of their popularity many unregistered churches have had to find larger venues for the festivities, even to the point of renting hotel ballrooms to contain the crowds. Meanwhile a Three-Self church with a capacity of 1600 is reported to have run out of tickets to its Christmas musical nearly a month prior to the event.

Christian activity, whether "registered" or "unregistered," is increasingly accepted as mainstream.

Contrary to how China's Christians are often portrayed in the Western press, which generally equates going to church in China with making a political statement, the Christians and the curious onlookers described in the Global Times article are seen as ordinary people with a genuine spiritual interest. Their intentions are not political, and whether the church is "official" or "unofficial" is not a primary issue. For many in China, particularly those with little church background, the important thing is not the church's relationship to the government, but simply what the church does.

Both government and society are ambivalent about the church.

The article describes an individual believer who left his job two years after becoming a Christian in order to pursue full-time ministry. His activities have since included handing out Gospel tracts on the street, which at times has led to his being questioned by police. While acknowledging that such activities are technically outside the scope of the law, the writer portrays a state that is perhaps reluctant, or at least not highly motivated, to take action. A believer interviewed for the article is quoted as saying that the police know about the not-so-clandestine house church activity in his city, but "police are short of hands to close them all down, and to do so would also cause undue public concern."

The article here mentions the official church as well, but not by way of contrasting its work with the "illegal" activity of the house churches. Rather, the writer rather pragmatically states that many choose to attend unofficial churches because there is more room, particularly during the busy Christmas season. The Three-Self churches, "because of space and number constraints are unable to meet demand."

This underlying ambivalence is underscored by the very presence of this article on the front page of the Global Times web site. Rather than painting a picture of a church that is out of step or at odds with the society or with China's ruling party, it instead portrays a church that is finding its way within that society even as the society and state itself are coming to terms with the church's role.

For more on the church's evolving role and the Chinese government's official policy toward the church, see the latest issue of ChinaSource Quarterly.

Photo by Joann Pittman

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio