Risen Again: China’s Underground Churches

Emily Rauhala / Beijing
Oct 21, 2014

A Chinese Christian pastor leads prayers during a service at an underground independent Protestant Church on October 12, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The pastor places a palm on the man’s head. As he closes his eyes, gentle hands tilt the man backward, below the surface, then guide him up. He emerges cleansed of sin and spiritually committed to Jesus Christ.

It’s a scene that plays out every Sunday, somewhere. This time the rite took place below a makeshift altar, in an unmarked building, on the outskirts of Beijing. When the man rose from the makeshift baptismal tub he joined a community tens of millions strong and growing by the year: Chinese Christians.

Though Christianity has deep roots in China — it dates as far back as the 7th century — it is hard, in the present day, to get a clear picture of the community. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is wary of organized religion, and has alternately tried to crush, discourage, or co-opt Christian groups. But having survived the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, the faith is now flourishing: a 2010 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated there are 23 million Christians in China. In 2011, Pew Research put the figure closer to 67 million, or 5% of the population.

The numbers mask great variety — so much so that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what “Chinese Christian” means. Consider the country’s Catholics: the Holy See and Beijing do not have formal diplomatic relations, and the Pope is not welcome on Chinese soil. Yet Pew estimates there are 10 million Catholics in China. Of these, just over half are affiliated with the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which does not recognize the Vatican. Millions of others worship in secret churches.

So it is with Protestants. The government-approved Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement is 23 million strong, according to Pew, while as many 35 million others are unregistered, practicing their faith in underground or “house” churches. But the line between “permitted” and “forbidden” is always shifting. The southern city of Wenzhou, known as China’s Jerusalem, was last spring rocked by the destruction of ostensibly state-approved spires. Elsewhere, underground churches thrive in plain sight.

It was this ambiguity that drew photographer Kevin Frayer to an unmarked church outside Beijing on Sunday, Oct. 12. The people there worship quietly, but not covertly. The authorities know they exist, but seem content, for now, to look the other way. “Christianity is tolerated sometimes, to some extent,” says Frayer, “as long as it is controlled and behind closed doors.”

A new Chinese Christian man sits in a small tub of water as he is baptized during a ceremony at an underground independent Protestant Church on October 12, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Though CCP cadres remain suspicious of what they consider “Western” dogma, their biggest fear is not the doctrine itself, but its popularity — they worry that Christianity could grow more popular than the party. At the church outside Beijing, at least, the service was steeped in the rituals of worship, not the language of politics. A Chinese flag hanging near the pulpit was the only reference to the state.

After sharing a snack of fried bread and cabbage, about 80 men and women gathered for the service. There was prayer and song and sleeping babies. A woman wept. “It was very emotional,” Frayer says.

When he lived in Jerusalem, Frayer witnessed baptisms in the Jordan River. This time, it was a wooden tub — different, but just as deeply felt.