China, the world’s rising superpower, is experiencing an explosion of faith. The decades of anti-religious campaigns that followed the 1949 communist takeover are giving way to a spiritual transformation—and among the fastest-growing drivers of that transformation are unregistered churches.
Once called “house” or “underground” churches because they were small clandestine affairs, these groups have become surprisingly well-organized, meeting very openly and often counting hundreds of congregants. They’ve helped the number of Protestants soar from about 1 million when the communists took power to at least 60 million today. Of these believers, about two-thirds are not affiliated with government churches. In other words, Protestants in non-government churches outnumber worshippers in government churches two to one.
This fascinated me, and I wondered how it happened. Why were these independent churches so effective in appealing to China’s burgeoning middle class? And how do they survive despite government efforts to rein in religious groups not part of government-run places of worship?
To find out, I knew it would be important to report from the ground up. If you rely solely on newspaper headlines and human rights reports, you’ll only understand one aspect of a society: its problems. For instance, after reading the recent Freedom House report about intensifying religious persecution under Chinese President Xi Jinping, you may come away with the impression that in China the main story of religion is repression. But any casual visitor to the country can tell you that the number of churches, mosques, and temples has soared in recent years, and that many of them are full. While problems abound, the space for religious expression has grown rapidly, and Chinese believers eagerly grab it as they search for new ideas and values to underpin a society that long ago discarded traditional morality.
That’s why I made the southwestern city of Chengdu my second home. Living there for weeks at a time, I followed the progress of Early Rain Reformed Church over the course of a year. This unregistered church has had numerous setbacks and always seems on the verge of being closed down. But it keeps bouncing back, thanks in part to one of the most inspiring preachers I’ve met in any country.
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When Wang Yi addressed his congregation, he looked like an explorer surveying new horizons. He would grasp his pulpit with both hands, leaning forward on the balls of his feet, his eyes squinting through thick glasses as if focusing on a speck in the distance. He had rosy cheeks and a winning smile, and when he spoke, it was in a strong and forceful voice, his words as clear as his arguments.
He had been one of China’s most prominent civil rights lawyers before the government detained or drove most of those people out of their profession. By the time that happened early in the second decade of the 21st century, Wang Yi had already found a new calling. He had converted to Christianity in 2005 and founded Early Rain Reformed Church, quickly establishing himself as one of China’s best-known preachers. His church was independent of government control, but that made it all the more dynamic. Videos of his sermons circulated on social media. His plans, ideas, and ambitions seemed boundless. Protestant Christianity was China’s fastest-growing religion, and Wang Yi was one of its stars.
But at times he had been accused of arrogance and talking over people’s heads, of giving theoretical sermons about theological issues that no one could understand. Like most Chinese pastors, he was mostly self-taught in the Bible and tended to bring his lawyer’s argumentative nature to church matters.
Tonight, though, was a chance to shine. Behind him on a screen was a picture of a dead woman whom people had come to mourn. Wei Suying, a popular member of the church, known to everyone as Auntie Wei, had died of cancer at age 62. Her daughters testified about how she had persuaded them to convert to Christianity. Both said how it had changed their lives, helping them see through the materialism of contemporary society. They had become better people, less obsessed with money, and more concerned about helping others. A few people began sobbing.
Now it was Wang Yi’s turn. A few hours earlier, he had been thinking about how the communists exalt famous people by saying wansui, or long live, like “Long Live Chairman Mao.” Wansui (wan-sway) was a term everyone in China knew. It was almost a prefix before the Communist Party’s name, a formulaic chant meant to guarantee that its rule would never end. Auntie Wei’s death made him realize how much he hated that term. It was an offense to God and to ordinary people like Auntie Wei, whose lives truly deserved exaltation. Talking about this was a bit abstract, but he thought it might work. He stood up to speak, as usual without notes. He started softly, forcing everyone to listen carefully.
“Auntie Wei was someone I think it would be fair to call a simple woman. She was a mother and had a hard life. She raised two daughters mostly on her own. Her husband had died young.” One of the daughters began sobbing. People in the church began nodding but caught themselves as Wang Yi continued.
“She was not someone who heard the word wansui too often. If she heard it, she would have thought it applied to China, or the Communist Party, or Chairman Mao. Wansui: that’s almost always reserved for them. This is wrong. Wansui, this word, if it belongs to anyone, it belongs to Auntie Wei.” A couple of people looked up startled.
“I tell you that she can hear wansui now because she is wansui; she is immortal because of Jesus. It’s not the government that can confer this word. It’s God, and it’s us by how we live our daily lives. It’s the choices we make despite the immoral society we live in. This is what real wansui is. It’s nothing that the Communist Party can provide. It’s something we can make ourselves.”
Suddenly people were smiling; this was why they came to Early Rain Reformed Church. It was different from the anodyne churches sponsored by the state. It was warm and direct, but most of all it was relevant. It was for people who didn’t want the status quo, who were searching for alternatives to the life around them. Wang Yi was dressed in a suit, with short cropped hair and an earnest expression—a nice, modern young man, a perfect son-in-law. And yet here he was standing in front of them, telling them directly how to challenge the official way of looking at their country.
“Auntie Wei was one of our sisters,” Wang Yi said, winding up his eulogy. “We loved her. But it’s she who possesses eternal life, not the government. She created it for herself by living a good life, by being our sister in the church, and resisting the immorality around her.”
Now I could see why Wang Yi had made the choice to become a pastor. When he was a public intellectual, most of his words were censored. But here, speaking to one hundred people in a room, he was contributing to a sense that it was ordinary people who possessed real power in a country where all authority seemed to belong to the state.
After the service, a son-in-law of Auntie Wei’s walked up to Wang Yi and did something Chinese almost never do: he hugged him. And Wang Yi, blinking back his own tears, looked bewildered but then happy. This was truly his flock, and he was their pastor.
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On Ash Wednesday—the beginning of Lent, the solemn 40-day period of fasting and prayer marking the lead-up up to Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection during Easter—I visited Wang Yi’s church again. Like many religious groups in China, Early Rain operated in a grey area. The church wasn’t banned but also wasn’t permitted by the government. It operated openly but couldn’t buy a plot of land to build a proper church. That forced Early Rain (like hundreds of other unregistered churches across China) to find space in buildings like the River Trust Mansion, a seedy office tower in which it occupied half of the 19th floor.
I saw that Wang Yi was in his office. He looked up and waved me in. As always, he was disarmingly frank. I asked him about his plans to set up a seminary. The idea made me nervous. Had the government approved it?
“Well, no, they won’t approve it, but the question is if they’ll shut it down. We don’t think so. They asked us if it’s internal, and we said yes, so they seemed okay with that.”
“So the idea is that it’s only to train Early Rain church members,” I said. “But will they go out to preach?”
“Definitely; the idea is people from here will become missionaries. They’ll learn here.”
“But isn’t this a sensitive year? You know…” I trailed off, wondering if his office was bugged.
“You mean the big leadership issue?” Wang asked. “Every year is something special. Last year was some anniversary, and a few years ago were the Olympics. Next year will be something else. Right now the Communist Party is not so stable. We can’t know what is going on inside. They may feel they need quiet at all costs, and we’ll have trouble. Or they could also say that they need quiet so will ignore us; after all, we’re not challenging them. We just trust in God and let Him decide.”
As we were talking, a policeman walked in. I thought at first it was just one of the many workers or deliverymen in China who sometimes wear blue uniforms. Then I noticed the insignia. Wang Yi stood up, greeting the officer warmly by name, and quickly led him out. Ten minutes later, Wang Yi returned.
“The local police officer. He comes every week to get the list of those who attended church. We give them this information; we have nothing to hide, and the congregants are okay with that too. In fact, it’s a precondition for joining our church. You have to give your name, address, and contact information and be willing for us to share it with the authorities. We don’t want to be stuck in the old underground-church mentality. It’s not healthy.”
He pointed to a whiteboard on the wall, which was covered with notes and numbers. “There’s the figure for the Sunday morning service: 222. And the afternoon: 92. So the total was 314. We can only seat around 220, so that’s why we have the second service.”
I asked about Lent.
“It’s hardly celebrated here at all,” he said. “We had this break in our history—you know, the missionaries being expelled in 1949 and then the anti-religious campaigns—so a lot has been lost. A lot of people don’t really know too much about Lent. We had a service trying to reintroduce the idea and explain it.”
Like Early Rain, many Chinese churches are looking abroad for inspiration. They want all the traditions and import them as a package, assembling them like a model airplane.
Wang Yi’s church reminded me of The Missionary’s Curse, a book by the British scholar Henrietta Harrison. She traces the history of Cave Gully, a village in northern China that converted to Catholicism in the late 17th century, when local businesspeople heard of the faith in Beijing and brought it back home. They acquired prayer books and some fragmentary knowledge but no systematic understanding of the faith. The result was something highly indigenized. God was seen as another version of the Chinese concept of heaven, or tian. Worship of Mary was conflated with worship of popular female deities in northern China, such as the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Guanyin. The Ten Commandments were a kind of moral formula, familiar to local people through Confucian texts. Western missionaries who tried to correct these practices were rebuffed.
But by the 19th century, China was opening up. Rail, telegraph, steamships, and other technological innovations created the first era of globalization. Catholics in Cave Gully realized that they were part of something bigger—a global Catholic Church with rules and standard theological interpretations. Soon, people looked to Rome for benchmarks of how to be a good Catholic. In other words, the opposite of indigenization took place. The religion started with the familiar—respect for a supreme deity, a popular female goddess, moral rules—but moved beyond these easily digested universal manifestations of religion to uniquely Catholic ideas, such as the supremacy of the pope.
This history is reflected in Wang Yi and the congregation of Early Rain. They also long to be part of a global movement—something orthodox, standard, and authentic, and not “indigenous.” Harrison sees this as applying not only to Christians but to Chinese society as a whole: As contact increases, international norms and standards seep in. Just as people want to be “real” Christians, they also yearn for a country that is truly committed to human rights, rule of law, and justice. They long for authenticity.
* * *
Early Rain’s annual meeting was held on a Saturday, on the last full moon before the Spring Festival. Over the past year, the congregation had supported the families of political prisoners and Chengdu’s homeless while trying to balance the needs of its own poor members. It had founded a seminary that was helping its own members deepen their understanding of Christianity and also training dozens of pastors from across China. It had held an inspiring Christmas service despite government harassment. And the church had formed an alliance with two other Reformed churches in Chengdu. Quietly, Wang Yi had traveled farther afield, too, making preliminary contacts across China in hopes of forming a loose coalition of like-minded, urban-based churches.
I had been wondering how long he could continue preaching before he would get in trouble. It wasn’t really his sermons that made me wonder. Instead, it was that his church was a parallel realm outside the party’s control. It had its own nursery school, day care, seminary, and elementary school—all located on this floor in the River Trust Mansion that it owned. It handled its own finances, rejecting all foreign money. It held its own elections and annual meetings—just like the government’s, but more transparent.
The meeting was efficient and informative, with half a dozen people giving presentations on different aspects of the church. We heard from subcommittees that handled youth work, education, legal affairs, and finances. All of them had PowerPoint presentations and spoke quickly, confidently, and firmly—not unlike the lists, plans, and goals presented by the government during its springtime meetings of parliament. But what they also wanted was passion, and this could only be offered by Wang Yi. They had heard the nuts and bolts, but they needed a vision.
Wang Yi’s speech ended the meeting. The key for the coming year, he said, was growth. This would only be possible by splitting the church and moving some of the congregants to a new home. Right now, Early Rain had to turn away about 70 for lack of space. Those people would found a new church in the city’s center, near Sichuan University.
This was a classic church-planting technique that was outlined in books that the seminary had studied last summer. The books had been published in the United States and translated into Chinese and were now being used as a template. Wang Yi and his deputies had discussed this for many months and decided it was a way also to protect Early Rain. If the mother church were to be closed, then the southern branch could keep going.
The church, Wang Yi said, had to grow because Chengdu was growing too. Rural China was emptying out. So growth had to take place here, in big cities that were becoming regional and even international hubs.
As always, his lecture had a pedagogical flare: He loved to explain, and the audience loved to learn. Wang Yi described how cities have always played a big role in Christian history—the city on the hill referred to by Jesus and founders of new Christian communities through the ages.
“Ever since I was little, I thought that the city was my dream. But why do we want to live in cities?”
In the Bible, Wang Yi continued, cities are sometimes shown to be bad; Babylon, for example, was the epitome of worldly sin. But cities are also places for people to better themselves and develop their potential.
“I’ll use one word: ‘opportunities.’ What sorts of opportunities? Hope is one. When I was growing up, we used to say, ‘Hong Kong, Hong Kong, why are you so fragrant?’
“It represented capitalism, reform, and opening. It was the goal of every Chinese city to be like Hong Kong. Especially people like me who are from small towns and come to a big city, they want to stay. They also come for culture, for justice, and for generosity. People don’t go to a village to get an education. They go to the city—to the schools or the bookstores. Petitioners don’t go to a village to appeal for help; they go to the city. Beggars come to the city. They don’t go to the countryside.
“Entering the city is what Jesus did in Jerusalem. Entering the city is entering a place of justice, of generosity, and of spreading the Gospel. It’s a place of hope. And it’s why we’re in the city here, and growing here.
“In the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul was in Lystra spreading the Gospel, what happened? Some people wanted to worship him, thinking he was Zeus. But some stoned him almost to death, and when they thought he wasn’t breathing, they threw him out of the city. But he got up and went back into the city. This line really shocked me. It’s from chapter 14, verse 20: ‘He got up and went back into the city.’ He was thrown out of the city, but he reentered it.
“So if we’re thrown out of Chengdu, we’re going to get back on the bus and reenter the city. And the goal isn’t because of opportunities, or culture, but it’s because it is the city that has the chance for peace, for generosity, and for the Gospel. God wants us to be in this city.”
I looked around the room. About half the congregation had closed their eyes but had light smiles on their faces, listening to a vision. It was a prophecy of struggle—of perhaps being closed by the government, but also of determination, hope, and victory. Wang Yi stood before them, looking out on his congregation, confident and firm. Then he made his pitch, his claim for them to think of their hometown as more than just another city, but that it and their lives were the center of a great movement.
“Earlier today, some disciples asked me what was the main theme of today? I said it’s ‘Entering the city.’ And they said, ‘Well, aren’t we already in Chengdu? Why do we need to enter the city?’ The answer is we need to keep entering the city. The city is the history of humanity’s hope for the future. There’s the city of God and the city of man. In the past it was Babylon, or New York, or Hong Kong, or Chengdu.
“When we talk to brothers and sisters, we should ask them, why are you in Chengdu? What sorts of dreams have brought you here? And what are our dreams? We are creating a Jerusalem. This is the city on the hill. For us, Chengdu is this city.”
This article has been adapted from Ian Johnson’s book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.