The choir of Shouwang church sing hymns during a Sunday service on March 14. Shouwang church is a house church in Haidian district, Beijing. Wang Jing / China Daily
There are more than 50,000 Christians in Beijing and many prefer a house church for its smaller congregation size. Wang Jing / China Daily
Churchgoers drawn by smaller congregations and more relaxed approach of authorities
Beijing has a growing number of, and an increasingly open attitude toward, "house churches," according to members of these churches and experts on religion.
"House churches" refers to Christian churches other than those government-sanctioned, officially registered ones, which include the Three Self Patriot Movement, the China Christian Council and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
The increase in house churches is partly due to lack of space at official churches, according to Jacob Sun, a 38-year-old house churchgoer. Sun spoke on condition of being identified only by his surname and English first name, instead of his full Chinese name.
"Many of our practical needs, which are not satisfied at official churches, are well catered to at house churches," said Sun, who is also a philosophy professor at a university in Beijing.
He said he went to Three Self churches for five years after he was baptized in 1999, but then shifted to house churches for several reasons, the main one of which was overcrowding at the Three Self churches.
"Thousands of people gathered in the Three Self churches for Sunday service and sometimes you could barely hear anything," said Sun. "The congregation could hardly be considered intimate at that size."
There are more than 50,000 Christians and 17 Three Self churches in Beijing, roughly one church for every 3,000 Christian, according to a study on Chinese Christianity in 2008 by Duan Qi and Tang Xiaofeng, from the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
When the congregation size is smaller, as it is at most house churches, it is easier to develop a close rapport with fellow churchgoers, said Abel Li, a manager with a technology company in Zhongguancun. Li also spoke on condition of being identified only by his surname and English first name.
"My church's congregation of 300 members is ideal for me," said Li. "In a small congregation like this, I have more opportunities to communicate and build relationships with other churchgoers before and after services. We have also fellowships for people who have things such as occupations in common."
The other reason for the growing number of house churches could be a more tolerant approach by authorities, according to an academic who studies religion.
"The authorities have a much more open attitude toward discussion and debate on house churches," said Cao Zhongjian, an expert on religion in China at the China Academy of Social Sciences, in an annual report on China's religions in 2009.
This more open attitude has allowed some house churches to establish permanent venues. In the past many often had to continually shift location, jumping from office buildings to canteens to small apartments.
Li's house church will soon have a permanent location in a large apartment in an office building in Zhongguancun, Haidian district. The congregation raised 22 million yuan to buy it.
"We don't have to wander from one place to another, or crowd in a small apartment," Li said.
Many house churches do small things to foster a sense of community among congregation members and attract potential new members.
Lily Zhou, a 25-year-old fine arts student in Haidian district, said her house church's publication was a major factor that drew her to the church, which has a congregation of just 50, more than five years ago. Zhou also spoke on condition of being identified only by her surname and English first name.
The 120-page quarterly, which is available online, gives Zhou "a sense of belonging", she said.
"As a fine arts student I have to leave Beijing for painting and miss Sunday services from time to time, but I can always follow what is happening at the church and feel connected to other churchgoers through the publication," said Zhou.
Despite their growth house churches in Beijing continue to operate in a gray area.
"There is currently no law legitimizing house churches in China, but China's constitution and international convention allows freedom of religious belief" said Yang Fenggang, the director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in the US.
And although house churches may continue to increase in number in the capital and establish more permanent venues, they likely have a long way to go before receiving any kind of official approval, according to a worker at a Beijing Three Self church who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Some house churches have already attempted to officially register with the authorities, but their applications were denied because their clergyman had not trained under Three Self system," said the worker.
(China Daily 03/17/2010 page28)