Buddhism is the country’s dominant religion with around 100 million adherents. Islam is practiced by approximately 20 million people. The government allows for the practice of Christianity as long as it is done under the auspices of the state controlled churches. The Catholic Patriotic Association, which does not recognize the authority of the Vatican, claims some 5 million adherents while the Three-Self Patriotic Movement claims between 10-15 million Protestant worshippers. Unofficial Catholics (those who are affiliated with the Vatican) number around 10 million while Protestant house churches may have as many as 30 million members. Animism, Confucianism, Taoism, Eastern Lightning, Falun Gong and Traditional Folk religions are also practiced by a larger number of people. Practitioners of eastern religions usually receive less interference from the government than “foreign” religions like Christianity and Islam. Tibetan Buddhism and Falun Gong, however, are not tolerated by the government.
While the constitution states that citizens enjoy total religious freedom, the government has consistently attempted to restrict all religious practice to government-authorized religious organizations and registered places of worship.
All religions are required to register with government Religious Affairs Bureaus (RAB) and accept the supervision of official religious organizations. Many groups have resisted this action on the grounds of opposing state control of religion, being unwilling to limit their activities, or refusing to compromise their positions on issues which don’t agree with that of the government.
The Communist Party officially states that party membership and religious belief are incompatible. This is a considerable concern for believers since Party membership is required for almost all high-level positions. Even so, a 1995 government survey showed that 20 percent of the Communist Party engages in some kind of religious activity.
China does not allow “missionaries” or “missionary” activities. Foreigners are not allowed to openly evangelize, proselytize or engage in discipleship. They are allowed to preach to other foreigners, bring in religious material for their own use, and preach to Chinese at the invitation of a registered religious organization. Bibles and Christian literature in practice are not allowed to be imported for distribution. More than a few expatriate Christians have been expelled for overzealous activities considered to undermine the government by the authorities.
Foreigners cannot establish a religious organization, churches, appoint any pastors/leaders, distribute religious material, train disciples, or conduct any other religious activities. Foreign organizations cannot recruit religious students from overseas to attend religious universities in China without the approval of the Chinese government. All of these crimes are punishable by fines of $2,200 to $11,000 coupled with the risk of a 5 year expulsion from China. Seminaries are largely government controlled. To qualify for the clergy, one must demonstrate “political reliability” and pass an examination of their political knowledge.
On the other hand, hundreds and even thousands of positions are open for expatriate Christians to live in China as teachers of English to meet the insatiable “English language fever” demands, foreign experts, language students, businessmen, etc. opening the doors to many discreet opportunities for personal ministry resulting in influential Chinese coming to Christ. Humanitarian work likewise opens many doors. Tourist visas are readily available to visit China for 30 or even 60 days for short-term trips to connect with Chinese eager to meet foreigners and practice their English.
In some of the Provinces, there are national regulations on religions, along with additional local regulations. Illegal materials (any unapproved foreign religious material) cannot be sold, distributed, copied, or shipped. Chinese residents cannot accept any outside money or assistance from foreigners of foreign organizations. The existence of any unapproved religious organization or personnel is illegal.
Many Provincial governments have taken extreme means to eradicate the underground church in their jurisdiction by registering and setting up a file for each religious believer, and investigating the background of out-of-town people. These practices call for disintegrating the underground religious influences by uniting the majority through education, isolation and attacking the extremists, developing overall education, organizing infiltrating specialists, and using “any other conceivable means” of oppression.
The government run Chinese Christian Council (CCC) and the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM – self-supporting, self-propagating, self-governing) are attempting to unite the 80 million plus members of the underground church by offering reconciliation, the promise of allowed registration for house churches and a halt to make Chinese theology more socialist. Many underground members are concerned the unification will restrict evangelization methods and interfere with their belief position of faith principles.
The last 30 years have seen great progress for the cause of religious liberty in China, resulting in remarkable opportunities for Western Christians to serve and witness in Chinese society. The ideological oppression of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) is long gone, and as China opens up its economy to global forces, it is now possible to work legally within China and partner with local Christians, albeit primarily with the official church as yet.
Chinese often describe their hearts as “empty” and “dark”. Much of the hold of traditional Chinese religions, like Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, was weakened by the anti-supernatural propaganda of Communist education. Despite the widespread pervasiveness of “Communism” hardly anyone in Mainland China believes in it nowadays. The “Hundred Flowers” experience in 1957, the “Great Leap Forward” in 1958-61, the 1966-76 “Cultural Revolution”, the “Tiananmen Massacre” in 1989, and the current corruption, have all thoroughly disillusioned the population.
The net result has been a deep spiritual vacuum. Without a moral foundation, the resulting rise in divorce, crime, dishonesty, prostitution, corruption, etc. is alarming to many Chinese. At the same time, the expulsion of foreign missionaries soon after 1949 and the current fascination with all things Western have together greatly diminished resistance to Christianity as a “foreign” religion. God has sovereignty send a great move of His Spirit at this time of great hunger and openness.
Many forces are competing to fill the vacuum. The tremendous growth of the Chinese economy since Deng Xiao Ping’s policies (“it is glorious to get rich”) were implemented beginning in 1979 has resulted in relative prosperity; many Chinese today are intoxicated with this sudden availability of wealth. Materialism is perhaps the greatest threat to the current revival. At the same time, Buddhism and neo-Confucianism are making a comeback, also vying for the hearts of China. Many minority group peoples remain very resistant to any spiritual change.
Over 46 million Bibles have been legally printed in China since 1988. The number of Bibles that the Chinese government has permitted the Amity Press to print has exceeded five million per year in 2004 and 2005 respectively. Although some of these Bibles are exported, the vast majority of them are distributed domestically, mainly in the urban centers. They are not accessible to most rural believers.
These Bibles are sold cheaply through the official Protestant churches, and have generally met Bible demand in the cities. Some house church Christians have been able to buy these Bibles. In addition, many provincial church types of council are able to print Christian literature. There are also many religious books produced and sold in government bookstores by academic publishing houses. This is a great improvement and is to be applauded.
In the rural areas, where 80 percent of house church Christians lives, there are still considerable shortages of Scriptures. Often village Christians are unable to travel to the cities to buy Bibles, and could not afford to buy them anyway. Other house church believers prefer not to purchase through channels of the registered church out of concern that they may be required to reveal information about their house church memberships. As a result, millions of Christians in China still do not have a personal Bible. Thus it is still important to take Scriptures to them.
Given the growth of the Chinese church at a conservative three to five million new believers per year, it is likely that the Bible need may be internally met in the years to come. However, the Chinese church has grown spiritually and believers are now requesting for Bible versions that comprise more than just Scripture text, such as Study Bibles, concordance Bibles and cross-reference Bibles, which are not yet produced by the Amity Press for mass distribution. Thus, if Western missions intend to help the Chinese church mature in their faith and understanding of God’s Word, the supply of Bibles which supplement the efforts of the Amity Press should continue.
Thousands of Christian teachers have taught English and other subjects in universities. Seminaries and churches have been rebuilt and orphanages and charities have been established, thanks to co-operative projects between Western missions and official, state-approved organizations. These opportunities are likely to increase in the future, and discerning groups should continue to take advantage of this open door as long as they acknowledge the risks and remain aware of the levels of corruption involved. It is not our intent to criticize but to commend those involved in this work, so long as the price of involvement is not to be silent about persecution.
Registered/Unregistered Church Atmosphere
To register or not to register, that is the question and it divides Chinese and expatriate ministries alike.
Registering with the government offers the advantages of working openly, being “legal”, and relative safe from persecution. The spiritual quality of registered churches and pastors varies widely. Some are strongly Biblical, some are more political shams; some are restricted and monitored heavily, some are left more alone. Change can occur suddenly and unpredictably. Unquestionably, there are in fact many godly people in registered churches and the 17 registered seminaries and Bible schools, yet they have serious limitations.
Some areas find registration virtually impossible, due to regulatory obstacles such as having a full-time building or a TSPM/CCC seminary trained pastor, arbitrary disapproval etc. Worse, registered churches face a variety of restrictions, including not teaching people under the age 18; severely limited evangelism; no activities outside designated buildings areas and leadership; prohibition against promulgating healing, the Second Coming, and some other topics, like baptism only once a year and no non-TSPM literature material. Many Chinese consider submitting to political control (especially the officially atheistic Communist Party) over the church to be spiritual compromise; others refuse out of fear of future changes in policy with possible persecution.
Unregistered churches have more spiritual freedom, albeit less political freedom. They have generally more spiritual vitality, and are more evangelistic in their worship and preaching. They also have more heresy. Failing or refusing to register leaves these “house” or “family” underground churches open to the accusation of being unpatriotic, undermining the authorities, disloyal, criminal, or subversive.
The vast majority of Chinese believers choose to remain unregistered. Many thousands of those who have registered later become disillusioned and leave TSPM/CCC churches for unregistered ones. However, under the pressure of an intense government campaign, many unregistered churches are now registering, as well. Partnerships with expatriate believers are especially difficult for unregistered churches, and extremely risky. Such partnerships exacerbate the government’s misconception that Christians are related to foreign powers and thereby disloyal to China. Yet spiritual partnership is needed to provide Bibles, training and vision. Chinese believers are asking for assistance in these areas.
Currently no extremist groups have been cited for incidents of persecution in China. It is not illegal to be a Christian, except for Communist Party members and the military. Simply being a Christian does not usually result in persecution for the average Chinese. The Chinese government, however, continues to engage in severe violations of religious freedom by retaining tight control and restrict the activities of all religious communities. Religious leaders and laypersons continue to be harassed, detained, and in some instances tortured due to their religious belief.
Leaders and influential members of unregistered underground house churches who refuse to register with the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) are known to be harassed, detained, arrested and send to “re-education” labor camps or sentenced to lengthy prisons terms. The government closes places of worship by cracking down hard on house churches in various parts of the country. Especially in the provincial rural areas, they are shutting or demolishing them claiming they were not zoned for religious activities.
Some deny there are significant levels of persecution at all. Yet the majority of Christians currently refuse to worship within the state-approved churches, finding the monitoring by government bodies invasive and controlling. Evangelism outside the registered church walls is illegal. Even though the China government doesn’t have a national law that explicitly prohibits the teaching of religion to anyone under 18 years old, internal provincial regulations exist to forbid baptism of minors and restrict their children’s programs, with Sunday school teachers facing the likelihood of detention, fines, or imprisonment of up to three years if caught. House church leaders are still jailed and beaten for what in Western society would be regarded as the free expression of their faith.
Admittedly, some agencies do exaggerate the levels of persecution faced by the average believer, who faces discrimination and harassment, rather than jailing and beatings. Also, there is great variation of tolerance within the country. In some areas, house-church Christians sing at the top of their voices and even build their own churches in defiance of formal legislation, yet are left alone by police who know of their existence. In other areas, however, house church leaders can be arrested, beaten, jailed and the house church meetings stopped.
Periodically, there are waves of crackdown on unregistered groups which are initiated by authorities in the higher levels, usually prior to major national or international events, seemingly meant to send a message to house churches about who is still in control. The Christian church of China may not have as many martyrs as Colombia, face as many restrictions as their sisters in Saudi Arabia, or fight as many extremist mobs as their brothers in Indonesia, but the millions of Christians in China remain the world’s largest single persecuted community today!
The Chinese church became the world’s largest Christian community due to a massive revival dating from the early 1970s, the size of which is unprecedented in Christendom. Every day, an estimated 20,000 or more Chinese are becoming Christians. We believe the total number of Christians to be between 80-90 million, though it could be higher.
Of this number, over 23 million worship in the two officially organized churches of China, the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM, over 18 million members) and the Chinese Christian Council (CCC, 5 million members). Since members of the official churches are in a minority, government-appointed leaders of the TSPM and CCC cannot claim to speak on behalf of the Chinese underground house church community.
For the first time in China’s 5000-year history, university students, scholars, and intellectuals are truly open to the gospel, and coming to Christ in significant numbers. Healings and other miracles are frequently reported. Many Chinese evangelists, often brave young peasant girls in their teens, are going to unreached rural parts of the country planting churches.
There are, however, many left unreached. It is estimated that at least 500 million Mainland Chinese have never even heard the name of Jesus even one time. Most believers have no trained pastor, and millions lack a Bible. Cults and heresies are rampant, especially within the minority people groups. Many large and small minority groups remain almost completely unreached. For example, the 8.6 million Hui people have about 50 believers, the 7.2 million Uyghur’s have about 100, the 4.6 million Tibetans have about 400, and the 30,000 Pumi have none known.
Consequently, to assist the entire church of China, one is forced to fall foul of government policy, which insists that all help goes only to the official churches. Based on this commitment to assist the whole Chinese church, which is at least three times larger than officials admit, we must continue to find ways to supplement help given to the official churches. For example, since legal Bible production does not meet the spiritual needs and demands of the majority of Chinese Christians, we must supply Bibles and other Bible-related study tools directly to the growing and maturing house-church millions.
It is foolish for missions to criticize each other over what method is most appropriate when the needs of the Chinese church are so large. The Chinese church needs everyone’s help now, and every method is still appropriate … so long as the local Chinese church is respected and served.
The official government-approved church leaders do not speak for the entire Chinese church. At the same time, leaders of house-church networks are denied a platform to state their needs. While there are positive, government-approved opportunities to assist Christians who worship in official churches, those opportunities in no way meet the needs of the entire church. We must not be misled by government propaganda or half-truths that emanate from Western-visitors-turned-China-experts that echo the official line.
The church in China is growing rapidly, but the spiritual depth of the church is comparatively shallow. Only by taking advantage of every avenue to assist the whole church in China through Bible deliveries, leadership training, prayer support and encouragement will we see the continued, solid growth of the world’s largest revival.
Pray for the Christians of China that they may be protected from harm and that the Christian message may be heard and received by all. Pray especially for the security and well being of the underground house church leaders who are currently in prison for their faith.