China should embrace house churches
Instead of trying to curtail their growth, the state should encourage these hugely popular supportive organisations
A worshipper at a government-sanctioned Catholic church in Shanghai. Photograph: Claro Cortes/Reuters
Like all Chinese children, I was taught at school the Chinese Communist party’s prediction about religion: as society progresses, religion will slowly fade from people’s lives until it finally disappears. Mao bluntly said that religion was a poison and tried to wipe out religious practices.
But the opposite has happened. In the past three decades, as our economy has flourished and personal freedoms have increased, religions of all forms have started to thrive.
Yet instead of joining officially sanctioned churches, the Chinese have been flocking to unofficial houses of worship – the so-called house churches, with up to 100 million members. While technically illegal, the house churches have been largely tolerated in recent years thanks to relaxed control and the government’s realisation that religion can be a moral force to be reckoned with.
My former maid belongs to this fast-expanding community. After we got to know each other, she opened up and told me about her spiritual journey.
As a child, she was baptised with her sickly mother at a church near her home village outside Luoyang, in central China’s Henan province. It belonged to the government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Church in China. After her mother’s death, she forgot about God until she migrated to Beijing in 2003. She started out by selling clothes, working long hours for meagre pay. Feeling miserable, lonely and empty, she went to an official church a few times. But it made little impact on her life.
"You turn up when you like; if you don’t, no one cares," she recalled.
Then she accidentally overheard a pastor from a house church preaching: "If you are a good Christian, you’ll be transformed into an angel or you’ll fly up to heaven after your body perishes."
She became hooked. Soon she was baptised, again, and joined the house church called "God’s Church", a protestant of some sort. Four times a week, rain or sunshine, she goes to a pastor’s house in our neighbourhood called Wine God Bridge Village on the northeast corner of Beijing, for service and Bible study. There, she found a home she had longed for.
The statistics are hard to come by but Protestantism is generally regarded as the fastest growing. Before China’s reforms and opening up, there were only 2 million Christians but the figure has increased 40- to 50-fold in the past three decades. According to Frank Lee, a Chinese academic who has studied the development of house churches in China, there are currently 20 million registered with the Three-Self Church, whereas the house churches boast 10 million Catholics and up to 70 million Protestants. Others put the figures even higher. Farmers and migrant workers make up the bulk.
In his book The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins finds that countries in the southern hemisphere where Christianity has thrived most successfully are those experiencing the greatest economic and demographic difficulties. China seems to showcase such a pattern. The migrant workers have benefited least from the economic reforms; and being physically and emotionally displaced, and usually fending for themselves, their lives are most unsettled in the cities. They have greater need for a community to anchor their lives and to bring hope and peace.
The house church fits the bill. Each congregation is an independent social organisation, providing a badly needed infrastructure and services for the members. In some poorer areas, the churches even offer basic medical care and education.
In my former maid’s God’s Church, the members refer to each other as brothers and sisters and help each other with jobs and domestic issues, just like siblings. There are about two dozen in the congregation, all migrant workers. One 30-year-old would-be-artist from Guangdong, met her seven years ago when he was struggling to put his feet down in the capital. "People start to look for God when they are not happy," he said.
The members stay clear of the official church, or the "big church" as they call it, because they believe that the true religion should be free from politics.
The Chinese Communist party has been struggling as it tries to balance making use of religion as a moral force with its habitual inclination to control it. Unfortunately, the party’s fear of any independent organisation wins out often. Shouwang, a large house church in Beijing with 1,000 members, attempted to establish its own venue in 2010 but failed. More disturbing was the sentencing of a house church pastor in Shandong province to a labour camp last July for supposedly illegal gatherings.
I am a firm atheist, but I appreciate how my grandmother, a Buddhist, had always drawn strength from her religion as she endured the loss of her parents, famine and war. And the benefits of spiritual belonging are crystal clear every time I see my former maid. "I feel a lot happier now," she claims.
Instead of curtailing the growth of house churches, the Chinese authorities should accept the religious movement as a positive force. There is an ongoing discussion here in China about the decline of morality as our country has become increasingly money-worshipping. So the tugs and pulls of modern life tend to leave any nation’s people searching for a spiritual outlet.
China’s leaders constantly speak of building a "harmonious society" – what better way to do it then to involve churches?
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