Cover Story


"Wildfire" Continued...

Issue: "Wildfire," June 24, 2006

After the sermon came more prayer, a locally written hymn, a congregational reading of the warning about taking communion found in 1 Corinthians 11, and the distribution of a flaky cracker and grape juice. Then all sat, reciting the Lord's Prayer and applauding a young woman who had just joined the church. Finally, members filled out prayer-request slips that were then collected and passed out at random to others, who were charged with praying throughout the week for that individual: "That's how we get to know each other's needs."

Overall, security was low: One church leader said nonchalantly that he assumed a government spy was among the attendees, but the government would have to switch him out quickly or he would convert. Nor were doors locked at a different house-church evening meeting in a large apartment, where 22 adults and 13 children talked, sang hymns, played, and eagerly asked questions about life in America. The only locked inner door witnessed over a week in various Chinese cities was one within a shop where bootleg DVDs were being sold.

This non-defensiveness probably contributes to rapid church growth: No one except God knows how many Christians there are in China, but 100 million (out of the total population of 1.3 billion) is a commonly offered guesstimate. The rapid, recent spread of Christianity among business leaders and other urban professionals poses a difficult problem for a government used to persecuting uneducated rural people.

What keeps discontent from spreading is the economic boom, so if the government moves against business leaders who are creating it, China's economic safety valve might become stuck. Officials have tried to slow down Christianity's growth by limiting the size of house churches-Christians say over 50 participants brings a "you're getting too big" warning-but such restrictions have merely catalyzed church planting and produced even more rapid growth.

Christians, meanwhile, have generally acted like smart baseball players who know that hot-dogging it around the bases after hitting a home run merely prods the pitcher to give them a fastball bruise the next time up. The battle between church and state in China is no game, but Christians lighting up the scoreboard see value in allowing authorities to save face.

For example, Mr. Chang, a leading conductor, said he had sought fame by excelling in music and had achieved his goal-yet "I hated my life." He searched in Taoism and Buddhism but eventually encountered Christians who displayed love and humility: "This touched me. I wanted to be one of them. Reading the Bible, I realized why I was so miserable-because I am a sinner."

Mr. Chang is now running a thriving school that trains music directors for house churches. Contributions have allowed him to move into a new facility with 18 pianos in soundproof practice rooms, a 200-seat concert hall, and a dormitory housing five to eight students per room; Mr. Chang says his school will be at its 100-student capacity next February. The government has canceled all his public concerts, but he fills his hall one Saturday per month with a concert publicized only by word-of-mouth: He says he lives an "illegal but reasonable existence" by not flaunting his independence.

Many Chinese Christians said that instead of criticizing the government they piggyback on what government officials themselves are saying about the need for stronger moral values. For example, a divorce rate estimated at 30 percent to 60 percent (there are no reliable official figures) is creating havoc in Chinese families, so church-sponsored Marriage Encounter weekends and "water buffalo camps"-teaching men not to be so hard on wives-have won favor even from high-ranking officials who themselves have troubled marriages.

China is also facing an enormous migrant problem as the population quickly moves from 80-20 rural to 80-20 urban. Many newcomers to cities live in poverty as grinding as they faced in the countryside, but they have lost the dignity and community that previously sustained them. Marginalized, embittered, and angry, they can't crawl home, but their pent-up grievances could lead to a violent explosion unless Christians, like the British Methodists of the 18th century, pave the way to a peaceful transition to a fully industrialized society.

All Chinese seminaries need government permits to operate, but numerous illegal seminaries dedicated to teaching migrants have sprung up. At one, located in two run-down apartments with old bicycles and part of a kitchen sink outside, Pastor Gao and helpers teach theology, English, computers, and music to 26 students, some of them still teenagers, who squeeze into five small bedrooms. Mr. Gao has not been arrested over the past two years, but before that he was usually jailed once a year for several days each time.


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