Made in China: ‘House Churches’ Christian phenomenon

Ellie McCutcheon

“Hallelujah!” she exclaimed in barely recognizable English, before switching to her native Chinese: “Jesus can save you!” As she and her friends preached in the Buddhist gardens, they were breaking the law. Not because of the cross-religious factor — mixing and matching religions is the natural way of life in China. Instead, it is illegal because the government is very wary about Christianity’s rising popularity in China; they don’t want it to spread too fast because they don’t know how to deal with its effects on Chinese culture and politics. 

One reason the Chinese government is so cautious about freedom of religion is that Christianity differs so drastically from Chinese traditions. For several thousand years, religious practice in China has consisted primarily of three separate but intricately intertwined philosophies: Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. The foundation of Chinese culture lies almost entirely in the morals and beliefs of these religions. Additionally, a person can find deities from each of these three faiths in many places of worship — a cultural norm that does not fit in well with Christian beliefs.

Regardless, Christianity is becoming more and more popular as China opens up to the world and to Western values. Some associate Christianity with modernity and Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism with ancient tradition.

 But to practice Christianity, a degree of political awareness is required. A government-issued permit is needed to found and maintain a church, and in order to be baptized, a person must be a registered member of that church. The government also says that foreigners cannot join the church community, and no one is supposed to attempt to spread the religion.

The regulation on various religions (in this case, Christianity) has inspired believers to find a way around the rules. This manifests itself in the form of House Churches, in which private households hold services that end up being more similar to bible studies than to mass. Thousands of these House Churches have sprung up across China, but each is legally limited to only 25 members; anything larger risks being disbanded. 

Even so, House Churches have become a sort of Chinese phenomenon. The exact number of practicing Christians is unknown because these communities are unofficial and somewhat undercover. The government reports 21 million (16 million Protestants, five million Catholics), but the reality is significantly higher. One study estimated a figure as high as 130 million as of early 2008. This could potentially mean that there are more active Christians in China than in any other country in the world. The number also encompasses all denominations of Christianity — from Protestant to Baptist to Catholicism — although Catholic churches are more difficult to start because of China’s shaky relationship with the Pope. In fact, many Chinese don’t know the difference between any of the Christian denominations.

The rise of the religion has accompanied modernization in China. During the Mao era (1949-1976), all religions were eliminated. The religion was, in all seriousness, Maoism — the man had a terrifyingly large and powerful personality cult, and the people were only allowed to read, study, practice, and preach his works. After his death, religious persecution lightened up, but today complete freedom of religion still technically doesn’t exist. The formal law is a seemingly contradictory one: Religious freedom is allowed, but superstitions and evangelicalism are not. When religion is considered superstition (as it often is), this poses problems. Consequently, the law enforcement is often quite lax when it comes to regulating religion. As far as I know, those Christian women preaching in the Buddhist gardens were not arrested because, while technically speaking, the laws regarding religion are strict, there is often a way around them. For this reason, China’s House Churches continue to rise in number, and Christianity is becoming more popular.