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Growth spurt

Church growing rapidly in Manchuria region of northeast China

April 12, 2010

SHENYANG, China

Three large classrooms at Dongguan Church here are filled on a Friday afternoon with well over 1,000 church members who are studying Psalm 92. A young female pastor leads the Bible study in one room; her image is projected on large screens in the other two rooms by closed circuit television. Students nibble on the remnants of their lunches as they take copious notes.

The class is just part of a seven-day "revival," in which lay leaders of the 40,000-member Dongguan Church — founded more than 100 years ago by Presbyterian missionary John Ross — are being trained to lead Bible studies in their homes.

"These people love Jesus Christ," says the Rev. Ho Ban, a PC(USA) mission worker based here in the Manchuria region of northeast China for the past 14 years.

Shenyang, an industrial city about twice the size of Chicago, is seeing rapid growth of its Christian community. Because it is a major transit point between China and North Korea, churches here hold services in both Chinese and Korean.

At 3,000-member Xi Ta Church, the Rev. Aein Wu says each Sunday includes two services in Korean, one in Chinese and one in English. Total attendance is greater than the church's membership. Still active at 85 years old, she adds that the church is located in a factory district of Shenyang, where workers begin their day at 5 a.m., so the church opens for prayer each morning at 4.

Needless to say, it wasn't always so. During Mao Tse-Tung's Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, all the churches in China were shut down, their pastors sent to forced labor camps and the church buildings used for a variety of purposes by the Communist government.

The Rev. Insik Kim, recently retired Asia coordinator for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the leader of a five-person delegation traveling to China and North and South Korea from April 7-21 — the delegation also includes General Assembly Mission Council Executive Director Linda Valentine, current Asia Coordinator the Rev. David Hudson, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s Luke Asikoye and this reporter — tells of the curious fate of Xi Ta Church during that dark decade.

"Xi Ta was turned into a dance hall for the army and Communist Party officials," he says. "One night, just as a party was starting, there was a loud cracking sound. The people were so scared that they left the building." Subsequent inspections were unable to determine the cause of the noise, Kim says, “but the officials never used the building again. Church members know it was God rendering judgment.

Pastor Wu was 40 when the Cultural Revolution began.

"I still have very painful memories of that time," she says, "but younger generations don’t even remember."

Xi Ta Church was founded 96 years ago "and before 1948 (the Communist takeover) had a normal ministry," Pastor Wu says. Christians were persecuted in the early Communist years leading to the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and then closed. Xi Ta members met secretly in their homes during that decade. Bibles and hymnbooks were confiscated and burned.

She says hope was kept alive during the Cultural Revolution by the recitation of Bible verses members had memorized and by clandestine broadcasts of religious radio programs from South Korea.

The church reopened in 1979 and has grown rapidly.

"Bible printing resumed through the Amity Foundation and now we have plenty of Bibles," Pastor Wu says, adding that "we even have an extra 10,000 to hand out to those who ask."

Clearly, life has gotten much easier for Chinese Christians, but churches in China still operate within constraints that are unheard of in the United States.

"One fact is that the church cannot overtly evangelize," says Associate Pastor Sung Nam Chun, "so every member is an evangelist."

A restaurant owned by a church member features a group of young adults who stroll from table to table dressed in choir robes, serenading patrons with Christian folk songs.

"People are happy because we say 'God bless you,' not 'God curse you,'" Chun says. The food is excellent, too.

Xi Ta and Dongguan have extensive social ministry programs for children, the elderly, lay and community leaders and particularly for North Korean immigrants. The congregations also support theological education programs for the training of new pastors.

Pastors Wu and Chun are second-generation Korean-Chinese and third-generation Christians. Ho Ban is North Korean, as is Insik Kim. Clearly, the fates of China and North Korea and their Christian communities are closely intertwined.

"Refugees are still coming from North Korea," Pastor Wu says, referring to those who are fleeing starvation, "but the number has decreased from 10 per week a decade ago to two or three a week now to our church." Kim estimates the Korean population (North and South) of Shenyang to be about 300,000, about half of them Christians.

"The official Chinese policy is to send North Koreans back but they know persons who are sent back will be imprisoned at hard labor," Pastor Wu says, "so they tend to look the other way."

Contrary to western media reports, North Korea has "changed a great deal already," Pastor Chun says, "with access to some South Korean television, radio and consumer goods and exposure to other parts of the world through visits of various kinds."

The North Korean government is pursuing modest economic reforms — as many as hard-liners will tolerate, experts say. The Chinese government is preparing for increasing North Korean openness.

And China's churches continue to prepare for growth that shows no sign of slowing down. "One of the interesting phenomena is the growth of young people membership, more than the older people," Pastor Wu says. "They come here from all over the city. We try to encourage them to go to church in their own neighborhood, but, you know, it's hard to persuade them."

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