The destruction of churches and widespread pulling down of crosses in Zhejiang province during the past year have served to highlight the dilemma facing China’s Christians, whose numerical growth has, for the past several decades, outstripped the availability of suitable venues for worship.
While virtually all of China’s religions have experienced significant growth, the requirements of Christians for places in which they can worship publicly may be viewed as a unique feature on the Chinese spiritual landscape. Legal scholar Jennifer E. Walsh points out that, “For Christians, the conflict over religious activities often involves an aspect of land use. This is because the gathering together in one location for corporate worship is an essential component of the faith."
In her chapter, “The Importance of Gathering Together,” in Joel A. Carpenter and Kevin R. den Dulk's Christianity in Chinese Public Life, Walsh notes several components of Christian worship that are standard among believers worldwide. These include public teaching, communal rituals such as the singing of hymns, communion, and public prayers. Much of traditional Chinese religion also takes place in a fixed public location (a temple, for example); however, the actual religious practices, such as making offerings or burning incense, are performed individually. The Christian faith, in contrast, mandates that believers not only meet together regularly in the same place but also, when they meet, that they engage in corporate worship, the very act of which is a testimony to their unity in Christ.
In the words of Walsh, “While Christians also engage in individual activities, such as solitary Bible reading and prayer, these forms of personal devotion are complementary to communal worship services. As a result, group worship — and the corollary requirement of physical space — is vitally important to adherents."
This important difference may shed some light on the unique challenges facing China’s Christians. Government policy aimed at containing religion, along with the advent of personal property rights and the explosive growth of China’s cities, have together created the existing tension over where China’s Christians should worship. The tension pits Christians’ legitimate need for worship venues against the government’s stated need to promote the public welfare (however this is defined at the local level) and the desire for profit — both on the part of local governments seeking to fill their own coffers through land sales and on the part of developers, who often collude with local officials in less-than-transparent land deals.
Although she is writing prior to the latest spate of church demolitions and cross removals in Zhejiang Province, Walsh nonetheless points to other prominent cases involving church properties as evidence of this growing tension, leading her to conclude, “All of these cases suggest that the government needs to offer greater legal land use protection to churches so that they can operate more freely or else risk alienating an increasingly large percentage of its population."
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio
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