Saturday, October 22, 2011

Christianity in China

Chongyi Church in Hangzhou, China
How many people will come to listen to a lecture on “Women and Christianity in Chinain a small liberal arts college in the Midwest in the United States?

More than 500 showed up and some students had to sit on the floor. Was it about China? Was it about Christianity, since St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, is Catholic? Was it about me, the speaker?

It helped that some professors had assigned my articles for their classes and asked the students to attend the lecture. But still it was amazing to see so many faculty and students.

My lecture was part of St. Ambrose’s University’s China: The Awakening Dragon, a year-long exploration of China’s global impact.

Why the interest in China?

The President and some faculty of St. Ambrose will travel to China next year to explore possible partnerships. Next year 15 Chinese students will arrive on campus to begin a pilot project. With the economic boom in China, many parents want to send their children abroad to study and some of American colleges and universities are eager to court these international students.

I have not been invited to speak about China often because I have mainly spoken at seminaries, divinity schools, and departments of religious studies. These institutions have not awakened to the impact of China in the twenty-first century yet. Many are still very Eurocentric in their curriculum and outlook. Some have just caught up with the American century in the 20th century, and it will be some time before they will finally wake up to face the Pacific Century.

So what about Christianity in China?

We have heard about the shift of Christian demographic to the South, because of the growth of Catholicism and the Pentecostal movement in Africa. Yet China is poised to become the country with the largest number of Christians. And this is happening in a Communist country with a staunch atheist stance.

According to the official statistics from China Christian Council in 2010, there were 23 millions Protestant Christians in China, more than 30 times the figure for 1949 (about 700,000); 56,000 churches and meeting points; and 21 seminaries and Bible schools. But there are a few hundred thousand of house churches that are unregistered, with anywhere between 50-55 million adherents.

The Catholics are estimated to be more than 12 million, worshipping in 6,000 churches, and there are well over 3,000 priests and 5,000 religious sisters.

Relation between the Chinese Catholic Church and the Vatican has been strenuous because the Chinese Catholic Church selected their own bishops, who are not recognized by the Vatican. There are many Catholics who belong to the underground church, which remains loyal to the Pope.

I first visited the churches in China in the early 1980s. The churches were reopened after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the turbulent years when the Gang of Four ruled. All religious activities were suspended; pastors were denounced and sent to be reeducated and church properties confiscated.

When the churches reopened, they decided to stay together and form one post-denominational church. Most of the people who came to church in the 1980s were older people, who have been Christians. The pastors were middle-aged or older. I was impressed by their steadfast faith and perseverance during the Cultural Revolution.

In the fall of 2009, I visited the Chinese churches again and I was surprised by the phenomenal church growth. The priest at a church in Suzhou was only about 30 years old and the preacher was a young woman in her twenties! Some 2,000 people attended church that Sunday and the church could not accommodate all. Latecomers had to go to the conference rooms to participate in worship by watching close-circuit TV.

The largest church in China is Chongyi Church in Hangzhou, which can sit 5,000 people. It is located inside the city, surrounded by tall buildings. Dedicated in 2005, the Church has a nice choir and different programs for different age groups. Before the service, I went to the church’s bookstore to buy the Chinese hymnal, religious books, and CDs of sermons and hymns.

Chinese Christians love to sing and many come to church an hour earlier to learn to sing Christian hymns. Since the reopening of the churches, many new hymns have been composed by Chinese musicians. I was delighted to see that a bilingual version (English and Chinese) of the hymnal was published. This was a labor of love of the late Dr. Wong Wing Hei, who supervised the project when he was in his late eighties.

I wish I would be invited to speak about Christianity in China in seminaries and divinity schools to a large audience, even though it may not be 500.