In a trendy coffee shop in Shanghai’s glittering financial district, five people cram into a tiny, dimly lit back room with two tables. By day, these five are white-collar workers, eagerly climbing the corporate ladder as China’s economy booms. By night, once a week, they’re huddled over their Bibles.
“I was disappointed and struggling,” said Elvis Ma, a 29-year-old working in the financial industry. “Before I knew God, I felt trapped.”
Ma and the other four elect to worship in what’s widely known as the “underground church,” a place for Chinese Christians to practice in smaller settings and without fear of government influence on what’s being preached.
It comes with a different fear, though: Being an unregistered Christian is illegal.
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The underground church, also known as the family church or the home church, has been around for generations. It began as a way for Christians to worship, as practicing Christianity was highly frowned on in China for most of its communist history under Mao Zedong.
Believers gathered in small groups in homes, hotels and other discreet areas to practice in secrecy, for fear of government retaliation. This tradition of worshipping in humble places continues today.
“Our party is to believe in God. The government doesn’t encourage us to believe in God publicly,” Ma said. “But the government cannot stop it.”
Simply practicing isn’t illegal, but being unregistered is, according to experts. In the past year, more than 1,000 unregistered Protestant Christians were detained and sentenced, according to China Aid, a nonprofit human-rights organization based in the United States. Some Protestant leaders were placed under house arrest for leading worship in unregistered churches.
A U.S. commission reported that the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress the growth of the underground church remain “systematic and intense.”
The official church is technically a part of the China Christian Council or the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a concept that preaches self-government, self-support and self-propagation. Most services feature a mixture of Roman Catholic and Protestant components as well as nondenominational elements.
Dong Lee, a 29-year-old newlywed who’s been practicing Christianity for about four years, said she’d tried attending several types of official church services but couldn’t agree with the traces of Catholicism in some. She now attends a small underground church, and she said she felt she was surrounded by a family who understood her, who’d support her.
“The moment I felt my life needed something, I thought I was in the dark, I hoped something could rescue me,” Dong said. “I read the Bible in the (underground) church, and got answers to questions about myself. It made me understand more about myself.”
On Sunday afternoons, Dong attends a Protestant church that’s in a different home in Shanghai each week. Hymns are sung and a 90-minute sermon follows that’s usually delivered by the host of that week’s service.
The underground church, though its services often don’t exceed 30 congregants, has a robust presence. Experts estimate that Shanghai alone is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of such churches. Estimates vary, but there may be as many as 67 million Protestants in China, many of whom attend the underground church. These estimations place China in the top 10 nations in the world in the number of Christians, and the number keeps growing.
Albert Wu said he attended an underground church because it provided opportunities for small-group discussion, something it was hard to find at official churches.
“The Bible changed the way we look at the world. This fellowship gives you support in everyday life,” Wu said. “I feel warm from the heart.”
Complaints about the official church vary: It’s large, it’s unfocused because it’s virtually nondenominational and it’s connected to the government.
Jing Jianmei, a 34-year-old pastor at a large official church in Shanghai called Hongde Tang, said she understood these complaints but didn’t think they were well-founded.
‘The family church has history. Some worry that they risk the relationship with the government that the official church has,” Jing said. “But I think it’s about tradition. If people became Christian at Three-Self, they will attend Three-Self.”
Wearing a red puffy vest, sneakers and a large metal cross on a necklace, Jing emerged on a Thursday from her small apartment inside the church discussing upcoming Bible studies with two colleagues. She said that her church, which sees more than 2,000 people on Sundays, did have opportunities for small-group interaction.
While many underground churchgoers think the official church practices a watered-down version of Christianity, Jing said she herself had a strong connection with God.
She said she’d come to know God while she was attending a university in China where several of her teachers were Christians. During that time, her older brother died of cancer, and three months later her grandfather committed suicide.
“The death was a big struggle in my family,” Jing said. Her mother “became a Christian, and she liked the preaching and thought it was useful to communicate with the preacher. She suggested I become one.”
Jing now leads a large church and hopes that through preaching, others may know the same God she does. She hopes and prays that people give the Three-Self church a chance.
“The most important thing about the church is Jesus is our Christ, not emphasizing the Three-Self principles,” she said.
Though the extent to which the government regulates churches has varied over the years, Jing said that in the six years she’d been preaching, not once had she been told what she could and couldn’t say. She asserted that the government asks about the number of people assembling at certain times but it doesn’t ask who those people are.
However, according to the 2012 annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the government seeks the names and contact information of congregants, reviews church leadership’s major decisions and requires permission for “major religious activities or theological positions.” It’s still unclear whether this registration process for Christians is enforced and whether it applies to every official church in China.
Most official churches have no hint of communism. The Hongde Tang church is reminiscent of Catholic churches in the West, with colorful stained glass and a sanctuary adorned with chandeliers. It’s even equipped with two projection screens and a translation system for English-speaking guests.
Rachel Zhu, an expert in Christianity who teaches religious studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said many underground churches formed after Christians became dissatisfied with the message they were receiving at the large official churches.
University students have limited knowledge of any religion or who major Christian figures are, such as Jesus or the Apostles. Zhu said that at Fudan, a university of more than 20,000, about 10 students specifically studied religion. Even fewer study Christianity.