You can hardly pick up a newsmagazine without reading about the resurgence of China. That Asian nation has surpassed the U.S. for the unenviable title of the world’s largest polluter, and will soon become the world’s largest economy. The Chinese government, however, does not broadcast one fact: China also has the largest population of church-going Christians.
David Aikman’s book Jesus in Beijing chronicles the story. After more than two decades reporting for Time from more than fifty countries, Aikman resigned and moved to Hong Kong, primarily to research and write the story of the church in China. At the time of the communist takeover, China was the pearl of the missionary movement, with 7,000 foreign missionaries overseeing seminaries, publishing houses, hospitals, and schools. Almost overnight Chairman Mao forced them all to leave.
Four hundred years of missionary work had produced a million Protestant and several million Catholic converts, less than 1 percent of the population of half a billion (in 1950). For several decades no one knew how the Chinese church was faring, especially during the chaotic days of the Cultural Revolution. Had Madame Mao succeeded in her vow to destroy Christianity?
When China finally began to crack open its borders, some of these same missionaries returned to visit, astonished to find that the church had exploded in size. China watchers estimate that the number of Chinese Christians now exceeds a hundred million. No one knows for sure because many of them meet in unregistered (and illegal) house churches of twenty or thirty members.
I have visited China three times. On my first trip, in 2004, I met with members of the “underground” or unregistered churches, some of whom traveled on an all-night train for the interview. For five hours I listened to them, sequestered in a dingy hotel room overheated by a loudly hissing radiator and smelling strongly of insecticide. Even so, my hosts kept the windows closed tight for fear of eavesdroppers. They also searched carefully for recording devices and posted a guard in the lobby. I felt like a character in a James Bond movie.
I heard from Pastor Allen Yuan, one of the founders of the house church movement, who spent two decades in a prison northeast of Mongolia after he refused to renounce his faith. “It was a miracle!” he said with great excitement. “I had only a light jacket and in the freezing winter weather I never caught a cold or the flu. Not sick a single day!”
On Billy Graham’s visit to China in 1994, Pastor Yuan had hosted the evangelist in his apartment. When President Bill Clinton visited a few years later, the government forbade any foreign reporters from meeting with Yuan—which of course made all 2,000 reporters want to do just that. Indeed, Pastor Yuan had to sneak past guards surrounding his house just to meet with me. He showed up at the hotel unexpectedly. “I’m 90 years old and I’ve spent twenty-two years in prison—what are they going to do to me!” he said with a grin in perfect mission-school English.
“We live in a time like the apostles,” Pastor Yuan reflected. “Christians here are persecuted, yes. But look at Hong Kong and Taiwan—they have everything, but they don’t seek God. I tell you, I came out of that prison with faith stronger than I went in. Like Joseph, we don’t know why we go through hard times until later, looking back. Think of it: we in China may have the largest Christian community in the world, and in an atheist state that tried to stamp us out!”
I also met with peasants more typical of the house church movement, such as an uneducated farmer named Joshua. He had spent six months in prison for his faith, followed by four years at a re-education camp. For a time he prospered and built large barns housing thousands of chickens, until the bird flu epidemic wiped out the market. Now he uses the barns to store Bibles. (Chicken droppings offer a strong deterrent against searches by local officials.)
My interpreter, from Japan, explained the background. “More than half of all Chinese Christians still lack access to Bibles, so a group of twenty of us will come over with fifty Chinese Bibles in each of our suitcases, and Joshua acts as a distributor. He has distributed hundreds of thousands of these Bibles.”
On my next two trips, in 2010 and 2013, I was a guest of the “official” church in China, known as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. I conducted a writers’ workshop and visited with publishing executives in Shanghai. Religious leaders walk a fine line, their activities closely supervised by atheist government bureaucrats. For years the publisher had been trying to get official approval to translate and print the notes from The Student Bible, a project I worked on with my colleague Tim Stafford some 35 years ago. Finally—just last month, in fact—the New Testament was printed in Chinese.
Over the years, Communist China has shown a schizophrenic attitude toward its Christian population. The early Maoists opposed all religion. In the 1960s, Red Guards destroyed thousands of temples, churches, and mosques. Many Catholic priests and Protestant pastors spent time in re-education camps, often enduring torture unless they signed statements renouncing their beliefs. Children were urged to report any parents who prayed or read the Bible at home. Some Christians were crucified, with nails driven through their palms.
As China opened up to the West, attitudes softened. Deng Xiaoping used to say, “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.” Chinese leaders know that all of the top fifteen countries ranked on a Prosperity Index have a Christian heritage. Indexes that rank nations by freedom, lack of corruption, and gender equality show exactly the same trend. Even die-hard atheists have to recognize that religious faith can have good effects on society.
David Aikman records a statement from a Chinese social scientist indoctrinated in Maoism. “One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”
Several thousand Western Christians have come to China to work as English teachers, and they too have had an effect. Says Aikman, “They behave well, they don’t get drunk, they don’t flirt with the local girls, they don’t have romantic relationships even with other foreigners, they are diligent, and they don’t complain a lot… The steady drip-drip-drip of one-on-one Christian evangelism by these earnest foreign teachers has had a deep impact among young Chinese intellectuals. Almost every urban young Christian I met in China had come to the Christian faith through a foreign, English-speaking teacher.”
On the other hand, provinces periodically crack down on church activities. In the last two years the government has forcibly removed more than 2,000 crosses from church buildings and razed many churches. Those who protest—pastors, lawyers, human rights activists—are sent to prison, including the prominent pastor of a 10,000-member Three-Self church.
On April 14, one couple who stood in front of their church to block a bulldozer were buried alive. Ever Since Xi Jinping took power, the party has tightened restrictions on religious practices, and a U.S. Congressional report judged 2015 the worst year on record for human rights violations in China.
When I asked one of the bishops of the unregistered church why the government perceived Christians as such a threat, he gave a clear answer.
One in five people on this planet lives in China. As the upsurge in religious faith continues to affect this society, what will happen? Could China emerge not just as a global economic leader but as the next major center of Christian faith?
I met few Chinese who still believe the idealistic rhetoric of the early Maoists. But in my meetings with “underground Christians” I sensed some of the same fervor of Mao’s revolutionaries who against all odds conquered this, the most populous nation on earth. With their coercive, top-down approach, the Red Guards inflicted wounds from which their society is still recovering. With a different approach centered on Christian qualities of love, justice, and compassion, these new revolutionaries are seeking to change society from the bottom up.
It is plausible, says Aikman, “that 20-30% of China’s population will be Christians in thirty years’ time.” Inevitably, believers will find their way into key positions of leadership. “China will be Christianized if the current trend continues,” Aikman concludes. More, the church in China has set a goal of sending out 20,000 missionaries to other countries by 2030, to repay the “debt” of the same number of missionaries who served in China before Chairman Mao’s ban.
In my lifetime, the greatest Christian revival in history has taken place with little direction or foreign influence. Before going to China I met with one of the missionaries who had been expelled in 1950. “We felt so sorry for the church we left behind,” he said. “They had no one to teach them, no printing presses, no seminaries, no one to run their clinics and orphanages. No resources, really, except the Holy Spirit.” It appears the Holy Spirit did just fine.
(Adapted in part from What Good Is God?)