From the Bible Belt to Beijing: My Experience with Christianity in China
Updated: Mar 9, 2018
Today, as I sat down to write my blog post at a Costa Coffee, I was surprised to find a small group of young Chinese women sitting down at the table next to me with their Bibles in hand, conducting a Bible study. They were not boisterous about their faith, quietly talking about their ideas and interpretations of what different passages meant. Besides the fact that I was in a mall in Beijing and everyone was speaking Chinese, it could have been a scene directly from where I am from in the United States Bible Belt.
I feel as if there is a lot of misunderstanding in western sources about the place of Christianity in Chinese society. I am no expert in Christianity in China, but I am happy to share my experiences and the stories of people whom I have met. Many sources often focus on the meteoric growth of Christianity in China, with some estimating that there will be more Christians in China than Community Party members in the near future. Others focus on the crackdown of the state on churches. I would venture to say that Christianity exists in China similarly to the way that everything exists in China: in a careful balance.
The government allows both Catholicism and Protestantism to be practiced in China by Chinese. I am not sure about the process of opening up a church; although it is doubtlessly difficult. (The reality is that opening up anything in China is tedious and is always ultimately dependent on a red stamp of approval from an official. An acquaintance of mine just opened up a restaurant in a very famous mall after an eight-month delay – precisely because he kept on having to get more and more “red stamps.”) Subsequently, there are too few churches for too many people. It is not strange to see a church with over five services on Sunday in order to meet demand. Anyone can go to these churches, except for Communist Party members, who are not allowed to be religious (although I have heard that there are exceptions for Chinese Islamic minorities, such as the Hui Muslims.)
As a foreigner, I am technically not allowed to evangelize my faith in China, however, I am allowed to talk about my Christian faith. Also, there are no restrictions put on the faith of foreigners. For example, while Judaism is not recognized as a religion in China, foreigners are allowed to organize themselves and practice their faith as they chose. There are many churches in China that are only for foreigners, and you have to show your foreign passport to attend. I have only seen one woman evangelize in China; she was an older Chinese woman, shouting on the street. She had no papers and pamphlets to hand out and it seemed as if no one had organized her to be there. The people on the street did not treat her as a threat, but rather as an old woman who deserved respect because she was an elder, but also someone who was a little crazy. “Please sit down, grandma, and rest a little,” I heard someone say. I do not know what ever happened to this woman.
I have been invited by many Chinese Christians to attend their home churches (although I have never accepted these invitations.) Home churches are exactly what the government fears, as they have no control over what is said inside of these home churches. These churches are technically illegal. When I asked an acquaintance why she attended a home church, she claimed that she did that because she wanted to study the Bible and have the pastor say whatever God told him to say, without the fear of saying something that would be contradictory to the Party. (The churches that have the state “seal of approval” will naturally not say anything that would jeopardize their status. I am not sure if censorship is indeed a big deal, but the churches I have attended do have many security cameras inside of them. That being said, university classrooms likewise have security cameras inside of them – but that is a post for another day.)
Many of the American missionaries who come to China are engaged in these home churches, which makes their work extremely sensitive. My impression is that many of these missionaries come to China as legitimate workers, in relatively remote locations where there are not strong networks of Christian churches, like in Beijing or Shanghai. Subsequently, home churches are one of the few options available. Their work is technically illegal. I have respect for them – living in a cosmopolitan city like Beijing is difficult enough, let alone to live in a smaller, more remote location. They truly adapt to Chinese life, living and working alongside Chinese – giving up many modern American conveniences. Also, my first exposure to China many years ago was from these missionaries, who had returned home. They attended our Sunday schools and Bible studies, teaching children about Chinese culture and how to play Chinese games. I am not sure what the future for these missionaries looks like in China, given the fact that what they are doing is so politically sensitive.
I am currently attending the Beijing Christian International Fellowship, which is open only to foreigners. I suppose you can call it the “mega church” of Beijing. It takes place in an auditorium close to the embassy district around the Liangmaqiao subway station. (Interestingly, this auditorium will host the Broadway musical Cats later this year.) Because it is a mega church, it has branches throughout the city and a plethora of small groups. I try to attend church every Sunday at the auditorium, but if I miss it, I sometimes attend a Thursday night service which is geared toward young professionals. I have enjoyed being a part of this church community, as it is a very accepting environment full of people who come from all over the world. If a foreigner in Beijing is interested in attending services, I would certainly suggest for them to check it out.
Before I started attending this church regularly, I attended services on-and-off at other churches in Beijing, which were also open to Chinese. As my Chinese was not very good, I always attended services in English or that had translation available. My experience at these churches was mixed. I found that many of the Chinese who attended these English services did so with the intent desire to meet foreigners. (During my first church experience, a 40-something-year-old woman interrupted my listening to the service and gave me a hastily handwritten letter to see if I might be interested in pursuing marriage with her older brother. Needless to say, it was hard to concentrate after that!) I will say one thing, though: these churches often did have an altar call of sorts. “If you are interested in accepting Jesus into your heart or becoming a Christian, please join us in the front after church.” As many Chinese have no experience in Christianity, they subsequently get them into a program that teaches the basic tenants of Christians and the Bible.
I think it is important to realize when we talk about Christianity in China, we must realize that we are talking about China. A church can fall on the bad side of a group of officials, just like a millionaire can find himself accused of corruption and in prison. That being said, as a Christian, I believe that God’s work cannot be stopped and can navigate its way around political sensitives, as it has for the last two thousand years. Thus, I am optimistic about the future of Christianity in China.
My recommendation of where to go to church in Beijing:
Beijing International Christian Fellowship - There are many campuses located throughout Beijing. Services are in English and a foreign passport is needed to enter. The service I mostly attend is 11am at the 21st Century Theater near Liangmaqiao.
Haidian Christian Church - Located in the heart of Zhongguancun, this church caters to young professionals and college students. It is open to both Chinese and foreigners. An English language service is on Sunday from 11:30-12:30.
St. Joseph's Church - This is a Catholic Church near Wangfujing. It was originally founded in the 17th century, but the current structure (which is beautiful) dates to 1904. It is open to both Chinese and foreigners. An English language service is on Sunday from 4:00-5:00.