through every land . . . Christianity in China

Christianity in China – Impressions and Hopes

Listen to the Seminary Choir, East China Theological Seminary (Shanghai),
singing the Renaissance double canon “Da pacem Domine”
(“Give peace to us Lord; give peace, O Christ, in our time.”

The headline of a recent article reads: “1,200 Crosses Taken Down From Churches in China; Christian Leaders Denounce Action as ‘Evil’”. Read more at

I am going to wade into some potentially controversial waters with this particular blog. Discussing Christianity in China is, well . . . complicated, VERY complicated. I must acknowledge numerous caveats at the outset. First of all, what does one mean by China – does this include Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China? Christianity is very different in all of these places. Having reflected on various aspects of church music and worship in Taiwan in previous blogs, I am only discussing what I perceive to be some aspects of the Church in Mainland China. Second, the topic is too big to do it justice in this format. (I have provided some additional links at the end for those who want to explore further.) Third, my three visits to China include a total of ten weeks in five provinces, hardly making me an “authority.” Fourth, I rely almost totally on translation in my interactions and my perspective is obviously filtered through the experiences of a few people. With all of those caveats (and a few others), I invite you to wade into the waters of this topic because it is important for all of us to have some basic understanding about Christianity in the world’s largest country.

I recently departed from China after a month on March 15, 2016. During my time there, I experienced extremely rewarding teaching encounters, rich cultural experiences, warm hospitality, abundance of delicious food, and sincere spiritual vitality. At the same time I had a sense of isolation as I did not have access to Google (both the search engine and gmail), FaceBook, YouTube, and many other websites that would either not appear at all or somewhat arbitrarily come up as “access denied”.

Since this is a detailed blog and may be more than some want to pursue, let me start with a list of general observations in the first part. In the second part, I will provide additional background that I hope will bring these observations into focus. Finally, I will provide links for additional reading in the third part:

General and personal observations about Christianity in China
and Protestant Theological Education in the Registered Churches
(Three-Self Patriotic Movement)

I want to try to put a human face on the policies, politics, and persecution of the government that affect the Church in China. Here is what I experienced in my limited time with these wonderful and devoted Christians:

  • First, YES. China has Christian seminaries and millions of Christians attend congregations each Sunday: Registered Churches, Catholic Churches, Unregistered (underground) Churches. I am surprised that so many in the USA and other locations are not aware of this. My experience is primarily with the Registered Churches. Some estimates suggest that more than half of Protestant Christians are served by Unregistered (underground) Churches. My brief and limited experience suggests that there is a friendly interaction between Christians in the Registered and Unregistered Protestant Churches with little or no antipathy between these groups. Indeed, I was also invited to a Catholic seminary at one point.
  • I was not restricted in any way in what I said in the classroom in the East China Theological Seminary (Shanghai).
  • The students were extremely positive, receptive, and eager to learn.
  • The fourth-year Bachelor of Divinity (in some theology schools, Bachelor of Theology) students demonstrated a very good basic grasp of biblical, historical, and theological concepts allowing me to challenge them with other ideas.
  • I was received graciously by the Principal, Vice Principal, and Dean as well as faculty in my areas of teaching.
  • Students spoke freely and openly of persecution in the church, often citing the events mentioned in the article at the beginning of this blog. They are aware that they will minister in a political environment whose actions range from capricious and unpredictable at best to blatant persecution at worst.
  • The church music students, many of whom have no promise of fulltime employment in the near future following graduation, demonstrated openness to a revitalized and theological understanding of their vocation and a solid commitment to music ministry.
  • Church services are very well attended by a wide demographic spectrum that would make many congregations in the USA envious. This is in the face of the limits placed by the government on new church buildings and existing buildings being stretched to capacity in an effort to slow the growth of the churches.
  • Seminary officials, though realistic about government involvement in theological education through the Two Council, dream big and have goals for expanding the quality of programs, excellence of faculty, and number of students in the future. This varies from province to province and institution to institution.
  • Pastors think creatively and courageously about how to extend their ministries into the community even though proselyting is limited at best by the government. One pastor noted the need to work carefully in developing attractive programs for youth, lest the Two Council find him too aggressive in reaching out to this age group. My Perkins colleague Sze-kar Wan notes: “The government-imposed limitation is modest; evangelism happens by word of mouth or by the perception of how powerful Christianity is in guaranteeing wealth and health.”
  • The government has worked with theological institutions to provide land and facilities, many of them first rate, though other controls are also evident, including moving many of the seminaries to the periphery of large urban areas where they are somewhat isolated.
  • Education of faculty is a primary concern for theological administrators. Since the travesty of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when all education stopped, the “New” church (as on seminary principal called it) has few faculty with master’s degrees and only a handful with doctorates. Among the difficulties in upgrading the faculties of the various seminaries is that many who are sent do not return. Like many international situations I have observed in other parts of Asia and in Africa, faculty that do achieve advanced degrees abroad are, upon return, sometimes subject to the envy and jealousy of faculty without international experience.
China and Church
From the top: 1) Beatitudes Prayer Garden, Fujian Theological Seminary (Fuzhou); 2) Youth Choir at Pingnan Gospel (Three-Self) Church (Fujian Province); 3) Holy Trinity Church (Shanghai) – Recently refurbished after serving as a moving theatre during the Cultural Revolution – not being used for worship currently; 4) Students at East China Theological Seminary (Shanghai) with whom I led a Taizé Prayer; 5) East China Seminary campus showing signs of spring; 6) Old Catholic Church (Zhujiajiao District, Shanghai) used for storage during the Cultural Revolution, but now and active parish.

Looking More Closely
at the Context of
Theological Education and
Christianity in China

Ecclesial Structures

My observations above understate and oversimplify a much more complex situation. I invite you to hang in there with me. My work is only with the Three-Self Church (Three-Self Patriotic Movement), the registered (official) Protestant Church in China. Three-Self indicates Self-Sustaining, Self-Organizing, and Self-Propagating. While I have attended Roman Catholic masses in several parishes, the Catholic Church in China does not have official links with Rome and the Pope does not have the authority in China to openly appoint bishops or cardinals because of governmental control. As a result, aspects of the liturgy do not reflect post-Vatican II structures and order.

I have not attended any “house” (underground or unregistered) churches in China for worship. Frankly, I place myself at some peril in doing so, and risk not being able to return to China if detained. Furthermore, my presence as a foreigner might subject the pastor of the underground church to some retribution. The underground church does not meet in visible church buildings unlike the Registered Protestants and the Catholics. The government is aware of and monitors their activities. These congregations are tolerated to a point if they provide some helpful social/community services such as counseling, after-school programs, literacy, services for the poor, etc. One may not be aware that you are entering an underground church as there are not usually signs indicating the name of the church on the structure. They often exist in larger office buildings. The common term is that the government “closes one eye while keeping the other open” much of the time if these unregistered churches are providing helpful social services.

The formational roots of a Union Protestant church run deep in China, preceding Communism and going back to the late 19th century. The numerous denominational divisions and competitiveness that resulted from missionary expansion in China in the 19th century seemed to go against the underlying ethic of harmony of Confusion philosophy. While the “new” Three-Self Church (since 1980) is a product of the post-Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when China chose to open up to the world to some degree, a Union Protestant Church is not a new idea in Mainland China. Indeed, such churches exist in Canada (The United Church) and Australia (The Uniting Church) and many other countries. However, the new Three-Self manifestation of a union church, coerced by the government following the Cultural Revolution, differs in many ways from the earlier attempts. Mainland China (vs. Hong Kong and Taiwan) has long sought to minimize denominational divisions through a union structure.

Growth in the Seminaries following the Cultural Revolution

Valid concerns about the role of the government in Christianity should also be tempered by the amazing growth of theological education and congregations following the ten-year educational hiatus throughout all of China when the historically venerated profession of teaching was denigrated to the lowest level of society and all teachers, professors, and artists were sent to the countryside for “re-education”, a policy that resulted in the loss of vocation, fostered disillusionment, promoted suffering, and even resulted in death for countless educators and artists. While there is a long way to go, the network of twelve Registered Protestant theological institutions since 1980, starting from scratch, is hopeful in many ways, offering between 1500 and 2000 students theological education on some level.

I taught for the second time in East China Theological Seminary, a four-year undergraduate institution and one of the regional seminaries, located west of Shanghai. My teaching included lectures in church music, theology and hymns, as well as conducting rehearsals of the seminary choir. I have also had introductory visits to four of the other seminaries functioning on several levels of education. They are located in Fuzhou (Fujian Theological Seminary – three-year college), Beijing (Yanjing Theological Seminary – four year college), Shenyang (Dongbei Seminary in Liaoning Province – a new institution on the Bible school level), and Nanjing Union Theological Seminary (the only national theological institution with a three-year master’s program). East China Seminary, while not offering graduate work, is distinguished from other institutions in that it is the only seminary to also offer a four-year program in church music. It is natural then that my activities should focus in this school both because of its program and my personal contacts with selected faculty.

My first introductory visit was a brief one in June of 2012. My second visit was to teach at the Shanghai seminary for two weeks in October 2013. Any teaching experiences run a risk without official governmental sanction. During my 2013 visit, I was warmly greeted, given use of a very well appointed apartment for foreigners that must meet governmental standards, and provided a clear teaching schedule in advance that included a two-hour lecture for the entire seminary. This visit followed on the heels of what appeared to be a “thawing” or openness between the church and government institutionalized in the Chinese Christian Council, popularly called the “Two Council”, established in 1980, consisting of representatives from the church and the government. This time, in February of 2016, while I was welcomed by the leadership of the seminary and provided with the same excellent apartment and afforded wonderful fellowship and hospitality, my visit was more low-key as the relationship between the church and the government seemed to be in a time of “winter.” There was some indication of the “winter” earlier in February when I worked with musicians in a large Fujian Province Church, but was apologetically told that I would need to meet in someone’s apartment and not on church property for the music sessions. My presence on the church premises, without official sanction, could possibly get the church and its pastor in trouble. Again, my colleague Sze-kar Wan noted that the People’s Congress met in early March, making all in religious institutions nervous, possibly contributing to a slight downgrading of the visibility of my visit. See


I will neither minimize the oppression of the Church in China nor the struggles that Christians face. However, the notion that China is a “godless” country and that every aspect of public worship is controlled does not describe the situation either, in my opinion, though informants may monitor worship services. Chinese pastors and Christian educators are surprised and justifiably offended by those outside the country (including the USA) that consider the Registered Church to be ONLY a propaganda arm of the Communist/Socialist Government. Rather than being supported by other Christians when abroad, these pastors and educators are often dismissed as political pawns and not afforded the opportunity to speak to congregations in the USA and other places because of a lack of understanding of the complexities of being the Church in China.

While Chinese Christians, including laypersons, pastors, and theological educators, work under difficult circumstances at times, their warm spirit and many engaging and creative efforts still reflect the movement of the Spirit. For me, the spirit of the students said it all. They are delightful, inquisitive, responsive, courageous, and open. Whether in Dallas or Shanghai, it is the students who provide a hopeful vision for the future of the church.

Header Picture: Students in the fourth year Bachelor of Divinity class on Theology and Hymns at East China Theological Seminary (Shanghai) with their teacher Zhou Yong-Ci in front of the Seminary Chapel. They are making a heart with their fingers – sending love to you.

For Further Reading

1) Christian ecclesial structures in China

Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Three-Self Church – Registered Churches)

Catholic Church in China

Chinese “House” Churches – underground or non-registered churches

Christian Council of China

2)  Growth of Christianity in China

3) Oppression of Christianity in China

4 thoughts on “through every land . . . Christianity in China

  1. Michael, this is an amazing report, which I have shared with several Chinese friends here in Zürich. Thank you for continuing to reflect on your experience and to write about it!


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