The Atlantic

In China, Unregistered Churches Are Driving a Religious Revolution

“The government won’t approve it, but the question is if they’ll shut it down.”
Source: Kevin Frayer / Getty

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

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic3 min read
A ‘Ridiculous’ Emmys Night for Fleabag
The acclaimed series created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge swept the comedy category, beating out heavyweights such as Veep and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
The Atlantic4 min readPolitics
The Most Dangerous Moment of the Trump Presidency
Not so long ago, a devastating attack on Saudi oil supplies would almost certainly have elicited an American military response.
The Atlantic7 min read
The Google Feature Magnifying Disinformation
Google’s knowledge panels contain helpful facts and tidbits. But sometimes they surface bad information, too.