I graduated from Harvard five years ago this year, and have been living in China for about a year. I thought it would be interesting to blog about the church in China, at least as far as I have encountered it so far. My observations are largely about Shanghai and Beijing, the two “first-tier” cities I’ve been living in, and of course China is a huge and sprawling country with lots going on in all its provinces in terms of church activity that I can’t speak to, so do take note that my observations aren’t comprehensive in any way.
There are two types of churches in China – official churches and underground churches. The official churches are called the “Three-Self patriotic” churches, short for self-government, self-support (i.e., no foreign financial support), and self-propagating (indigenous missionaries) churches, and generally the church buildings you find in cities belong to the three-self churches. They also self-identify as “patriotic”, i.e., in support of the Chinese Communist Party as the authority in China.
Of these official churches, they are further divided into foreign and local congregations. The government does not encourage mixing between local and foreign Christians, so foreign congregations of official churches require passports or other foreign ID in order to enter. In my experience, this is more strictly enforced in Beijing than in Shanghai. These congregations will announce at the beginning of their services that only foreign passport holders are allowed at the service and will direct local visitors to their local congregation. Foreign congregations are mostly conducted in English; local congregations are mostly conducted in Mandarin, but there are also English-language congregations for locals – I have been to both.
Underground churches, or house churches, largely meet in homes or shifting hotel ballrooms or cinemas because they do not have church buildings to meet in. These are also somewhat segregated by foreign and local congregations, although I have not encountered passport-checking at underground churches before. Local house church congregations may be reluctant to let obviously foreign people join them because they know that they are more likely to get into trouble with the government if such mingling is found out, but some pastors make an explicit effort to mix foreign and local Christians because they oppose the segregation. As an ethnically Chinese woman, I have had no problems going to underground churches.
I asked a couple of pastors of underground churches why they didn’t join the official churches, and they said it was because there were certain topics that the official churches restricted preaching on, notably the book of Revelation. They would also have had to attend certain Party propaganda courses. In the brief time that I spent at official churches listening to sermons preached there, I did not notice any doctrinal issues that would have raised a red flag for me, however. Pastors of underground churches are also wary of joining the official churches because of their experience with persecution during the Cultural Revolution, where the Three-Self churches were outlawed and all churches were essentially driven underground. They feel that exposing their network of Christians to the government may make these networks vulnerable should there ever be another crackdown on official churches.
Anyhow, here are brief descriptions of all the churches I have been to so far, with their identifying details removed to protect their identities:
Church 1: Shanghai. This was an international church with the most diverse congregation I had ever seen anywhere in the world. Pastored by an American, it had a largely transient population of over a hundred nationalities – truly incredible. Sitting in the congregation and seeing all the various nationalities (ironically of course, minus the Chinese, although there were always one or two slipping in) was like a foretaste of heaven.
Church 2: Beijing. The largest international church in Beijing has over ten congregations, all of which have different “flavors.” The largest congregation meets in a huge hall with a stage and feels like a metropolitan evangelical church in America. It has a strict passport checking policy at the door.
Church 3: Beijing. Part of the previous church, this was a more charismatic service, with an emphasis on prophecy and healing. A much more intimate, late afternoon service.
Church 4: Beijing. Also part of the previous church, this was described to me as the “American hipster” congregation of the international church, consisting largely of young people in their 20s and 30s from Western countries. They share duties, including preaching, among the congregation, and it has lots of social activities outside church. What impressed me most about the this group of congregations was the diversity of spiritual practice and flavors among the congregations, ranging from more traditional to more experimental all under the same church umbrella, coexisting quite peacefully.
Church 5: Beijing. A Chinese local congregation conducted in Mandarin. Had a female pastor and was absolutely packed to the gills – you had to be fifteen minutes early to get a seat or would wind up standing in the back. Sermons are followed by small group Bible study, which operates like another mini-sermon because people don’t really discuss in a group but rather listen quietly to the leader.
Church 6: Shanghai. This was actually a women’s small group not affiliated to any church, run by a Chinese American girl for local women, and was one of the most refreshing and intimate, Holy-Spirit-filled Christian groups I have ever experienced. It met in her house and consisted of women who had been converted in the last 1-2 years and have been journeying together in the faith since then. They have dinner, then sing songs and study the Bible together and then pray spontaneously.
Church 7: Shanghai. International church run by Brazilians, with a mixed Chinese and foreign congregation. Has a chilled out vibe and the day I went, the speaker was German.
Church 8: Beijing. The current church I go to. The pastor is Chinese but the congregation is a mixture of local and foreign and it’s conducted in English. It meets in a café and has a free-flowing discussion format rather than a sermon per say, and its official cover story is it’s an art criticism association. We pick a painting to talk about as a jumping-off point for our discussions, and since so many Western paintings have Christian themes this has been really interesting.
Church 9: Beijing. A mixed congregation that meets in a cinema and has a Hong Kong pastor (it’s a church plant). Congregation is largely urban professionals in their 20s and 30s who have been converted in the last 5 years – another church that’s full to bursting, you have to be early to get seats. It recently had some difficulty arranging its retreat between its Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing branches and had to suddenly relocate due to government interference. Sermon is in English with Chinese translation.
Church 10: Shanghai. A church that meets in a rotating list of hotel ballrooms – you have to be on the WeChat list to find out where this week’s location is. Pastor is American and preaches in English but there is simultaneous translation through earpieces for those who need it. A lot of the women from the women’s small group go to this church on Sunday.
Church 11: Henan. A literal “house church” for locals – the church meets in a bedroom with a pop-up church in it. A tiled wall has a red cross on top of it and fold-away chairs are arranged in rows before a partition in front of the bed, and a table serves as a pulpit. Singing is followed by a sermon and open sharing, where members of the congregation stand behind the pulpit to share their thoughts. In Mandarin and Henanese, which I couldn’t understand.
Church 12: Henan. A rural church in a farming village built on private property. The one-room structure has a stage with pink velvet curtains and Christmas decorations and hard bench pews. On the day I was there, the congregation was 70% women because it was harvest time and the men were out. They put on a 2 ½ hour concert for Pentecost featuring song, dance, drama and traditional poetry.
Church 13: Beijing. A church with both Chinese and English congregations. The English congregation is led by a Malaysian-American pastor. An unusual underground church in that it has its own premises and even a small book store, it put on an impressive Christmas concert with lots of musical talent that I attended.
Well, with that list I just barely scratched the surface of churches in China. I did want to add that there was a surprising (to me) amount of traffic between the churches I went to. I would see a friend I met at an official church on Sunday, and then see the same friend at an unofficial one the next Sunday. This is in contrast with the church environment I grew up in where it was a positive scandal if you left the church you were going to. Anyhow, hope to write more about this topic in my next post!
Judith Huang ’10 was an English concentrator in Currier House and now works as an editor at a newspaper in Beijing.