By Kwok Pui Lan
China has enjoyed phenomenal church growth in the last few decades. For some this is quite unexpected, considering that China is a Communist country. When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, there were about 700,000 Protestant Christians. Today, the number is about 23 million. If we include members of the house churches (or underground churches), the number is somewhere between 50 to 80 million.
Members of our travel seminar to China have had first-hand experiences of this unprecedented growth when we visited three churches in three cities in the last few days. In Shanghai we attended church service in the Shanghai Community Church. The main sanctuary was filled half an hour earlier before the service started at 10 am. There were four additional rooms filled with people watching the service on closed circuit TV. We worshipped with about 2,000 people on Ascension Sunday on May 20.
In Hangzhou, we visited Chong Yi Church, the largest church in China, which can seat 7,000 people. The Church has 5 pastors, several elders, and a large team of lay leaders serving a congregation of 6,000 members and a Sunday school of 1,000 children. The service on Sunday with modern church music is always filled to capacity.
The pastor attributed this enormous growth of the church to the grace and blessings of God, the committed and collaborative leadership of the pastors and lay leaders, and the witness of church members in their families, workplaces, and society.
We had the opportunity to visit a very new church located in the Suzhou Industrial Park. This industrial park was built 18 years ago as a center for higher education and research. Some 20 colleges and universities are located in the vicinity. The Dushu Lake Church, with a magnificent Gothic architectural design featuring pointed arch, ribbed vault, and flying buttress, was completed in 2010. It has three pastors, including a female associate pastor, and a congregation of 700. We were all taken by the scale of the church, and especially by the beauty of stained-glass windows with both European and Chinese designs. It is a 39-million-yuan (US 6.3 million) project.
This new church is the only church in China with bilingual services. In additional to the Chinese congregation, an English-speaking congregation with members from over 20 nationalities shares the space. The English-speaking congregation is served by a priest from the United States, and the two congregations worshipped together last Easter.
I have visited churches on China in a number of occasions. My first visit dated back to the mid-1980s, when the churches had only been re-opened for several years. I can discern several changes in the Chinese churches in last few decades. When I first came to visit the churches, the majority of the Christians were middle-aged and elderly people, since the churches were closed for ten years during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and there were not many new members. The pastors were middle-aged or older in the 1980s as they had been ordained before the Cultural Revolution.
But in the Chinese churches today, there are many young people. In the intervening years, the seminaries in China have trained a new generation of church leaders and faculties of seminaries. There are currently 21 seminaries and Bible schools. We visited the regional East China Theological Seminary, which was established in 1985. The seminary has 17 full-time faculty and 50 part-time teachers, and about 200 students studying for a four-year bachelor diploma, a part-time two-year program, and a sacred music program. The school has graduated over 1,000 graduates serving in the churches.
Another significant development is the provision of social services by some of the churches. Back in the 1980s, the focus was on rebuilding the church. Now the churches are more established and they can provide services to help the poor and can provide relief during a natural disaster, especially during the 2008 earthquake. The Dushu Lake Church organized a church bazaar, and people could bring old and new items to be sold. The money raised went to support poor students. These kinds of activities aim to heighten environmental consciousness of members. Some churches offer evening worship services and other services for the migrant workers, who have come from the rural areas to work in the cities.
Since the three cities we have visited—Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Suzhou—are rich compared to other Chinese cities and have long cultural history, the churches we have seen have a middle-class outlook—classical and modern music, team of seminary-trained pastors, and bookstore selling Christian literature and artifacts in the churches. The churches serve a new generation of people born in the 1980s and 1990s, who have grown up during the rapid economic development of China in the last several decades. The Dushu Lake Church serves an intellectual and multinational community.
I wonder what kind of theological construction is being done to meet the challenges of this new China. A young man we met at Dushu Lake Church was a tourist from Shenzhen, who wore a Celtic T-shirt, and told us he loves Paul Pierce and watches the NBA on Chinese TV. I look forward to the conversation with theological educators to understand how they are preparing young women and men (most seminaries are young people pursuing their bachelor diplomas) to serve this increasingly diverse and globally–conscious Chinese society.
Kwok Pui Lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School and her most recent book is Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue.