Christians in China: Is the country in spiritual crisis?

By Tim Gardam 

Many of China’s churches are overflowing, as the number of Christians in the country multiplies. In the past, repression drove people to convert – is the cause now rampant capitalism?

It is impossible to say how many Christians there are in China today, but no-one denies the numbers are exploding.

The government says 25 million, 18 million Protestants and six million Catholics. Independent estimates all agree this is a vast underestimate. A conservative figure is 60 million. There are already more Chinese at church on a Sunday than in the whole of Europe.

The new converts can be found from peasants in the remote rural villages to the sophisticated young middle class in the booming cities.

Driven underground

There is a complexity in the structures of Chinese Christianity which is little understood in the West. To start with, Catholicism and Protestantism are designated by the state as two separate religions.

The Haidian Christian Church in Beijing was completely re-built to cope with rising numbers

Throughout the 20th Century, Christianity was associated with Western imperialism. After the Communist victory in 1949, the missionaries were expelled, but Christianity was permitted in state-sanctioned churches, so long as they gave their primary allegiance to the Communist Party.

Mao, on the other hand, described religion as “poison”, and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s attempted to eradicate it. Driven underground, Christianity not only survived, but with its own Chinese martyrs, it grew in strength.

Since the 1980s, when religious belief was again permitted, the official Churches have gradually created more space for themselves.

They report to the State Administration for Religious Affairs. They are forbidden to take part in any religious activity outside their places of worship and sign up to the slogan, “Love the country – love your religion.”

In return the Party promotes atheism in schools but undertakes “to protect and respect religion until such time as religion itself will disappear”.

House Churches

Protestants and Catholics are both divided into official and unofficial Churches.

The officially sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association appoints its own bishops and is not allowed to have any dealings with the Vatican, though Catholics are allowed to recognise the spiritual authority of the Pope.

There is a larger Catholic underground church, supported by the Vatican. Inch by inch, the Vatican and the government have been moving towards accommodation. Most bishops are now recognised by both, with neither side admitting the greater sovereignty of the other.

Yet in the past few months, the Chinese government has again turned tough, ordaining its bishops in the teeth of opposition from the Vatican which has in turn excommunicated one of them.

Even so, it would be wrong simply to dismiss the official church as a sham.

In the mountains West of Beijing, I visited the village of Hou Sangyu where a Catholic Church has stood since the 14th Century.

The tough faith of these old people had withstood the Japanese invasion and the Cultural Revolution. The village clinic was run by nuns, one from Inner Mongolia, a Catholic stronghold.

It is from such villages that the Catholic Church recruits its young ordinands, to undertake training for the priesthood.

The official Protestant Church is growing faster than Catholicism.

On Easter morning, in downtown Beijing, I watched five services, each packed with over 1,500 worshippers. Sunday school was spilling on to the street.

However, these numbers are dwarfed by the unofficial “house churches”, spreading across the country, at odds with the official Church which fears the house churches’ fervour may provoke a backlash…

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BBC News – Christians in China: Is the country in spiritual crisis?

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