As recently as 2004, Christians were being jailed, tortured and even killed for openly practicing their religion. There was, and still is, a state-sanctioned church, but it was more a show than an option for Christians who took their faith seriously.
There also was a much larger underground house-church movement. They met in secret and tried very hard to avoid any public recognition.
Today a third option has been added: the urban house-church, comprised of educated, middle-class and influential members of the community. In a remarkable turnaround, the Christian Church in China today numbers an estimated 70-110 million members, is openly aggressive in evangelism, is in dialogue with the government on sociopolitical issues, and is rapidly becoming a force in the country's major cities, not just the rural towns and villages.
Five percent of the mainland Chinese are affiliated with a Christian church, second only to those who claim Buddhism as their religion. Most of the new Christians are part of what we would call conservative evangelical churches. Surprising numbers of them also are members of the Communist Party and argue that their faith doesn't contradict their involvement in the government.
In a report co-sponsored by PBS Frontline and the Chicago Tribune, one of the major reasons given for this growth is a longing for moral and ethical stability. The Chinese people are experiencing a moral vacuum. The emphasis on materialism is wearing thin, and the knowing production and sale of shoddy goods both at home and overseas is disturbing to people. Many lost their faith in the government as a result of the 1989 suppression of dissidents at Tiananmen Square.
A recent article in Christianity Today magazine cited some additional factors in this sudden religious surge. One is the number of Chinese who have been educated overseas, exposed to and espousing Christianity there, and then returning to their native country with prized degrees and skills badly needed in China. Another is the influence of western Christians who have gone to China to teach English and have shared their Christian faith in the process.
But while Chinese Christians are thankful for the change in atmosphere they are very conscious that conditions could change at any time. Persecution still pops up at unexpected times and in unexpected places. Christian leaders are still occasionally being jailed and church buildings being torn down.
Persecution, however, doesn't work. Christians just go underground, as they did earlier in China and did in first-century Rome. Torture, jailings and beatings have been notoriously unsuccessful tactics in attempting to repress the Christian faith.
The early Church Father Tertullian observed that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." That was true in his day, and it is true today.
Christianity was repressed in the Soviet Union, and one of the first things the Russian people asked for when they got their freedom was Bibles. In East Germany, on the day when the communist government officially ended, Wartburg castle, where Martin Luther sought safety for several years and where he translated the New Testament in German, was so mobbed with people that one could hardly move.
Whether it happens this year or at some time in the future, this same reaction will be true in China. Count on it.