Across China, millions quietly gather every Sunday morning in apartments and farms that serve as “house churches.” With 50 to 70 million followers, Christianity is China's fastest-growing religion, but still faces an uncertain future. Ananth Krishnan

F or long, the villagers of Dingxinxian, in China's central Hubei province, regarded the weekly Sunday morning gathering with a mixture of curiosity and condescension. The sight of six farmers, quietly kneeling down in prayer and reading from a book, made little sense to them; it was a sight that was out of place in this small farming community. “They thought we all had some strange mental illness,” said Zhang Xin*, a soft-spoken farmer in her fifties. “They would come and stare at us, and wonder what we were doing. Some farmers thought we were part of some strange cult that performed magic!”

When Christianity first came to Dingxinxian more than a decade ago, the small weekly congregation that gathered in the courtyard in front of the local pastor's home aroused suspicions. The local government, under orders from the ruling Communist Party, had spent much of the past decade waging a relentless war on the Falun Gong, a movement of millions that had spread rapidly across rural and urban China and was known for its breathing exercises. Since then, “cults” were on every official's blacklist. “Uneducated officials did not know about Christianity,” Zhang explained. “So they thought we were Falun Gong.” Zhang likes to tell the story of how Dingxinxian slowly changed its mind about Christianity. Congcong, a boy in his twenties who was autistic, had lost both his parents in an accident. With no family left to care for him, the church took him in. Zhang says within months, Congcong's autism faded away. As the story spread, curious villagers joined the small Sunday gathering. Slowly, the congregation grew. “It was a miracle,” she said.

Tales of wonders

Across China's cities and villages, stories of miracles seem to abound. Around 900 km north of Dingxinxian lies Zhouzhuang, a small village in eastern Shandong province. There, a farmer in his sixties has a similar tale to tell. He speaks of how his faith cured a debilitating illness; other farmers too, he said, had similar experiences. Last month, the weekly congregation at Zhouzhuang moved into a brand new church, built on the village's outskirts. The size of the congregation had expanded so fast that the old meeting place had become too crowded to host the Sunday sermon.

This proliferation of faith in today's China isn't just happening in the countryside. In Beijing, hundreds of thousands quietly gather every week, in apartments and homes that serve as makeshift “house churches.” Tian Mei* is among them. She speaks of how her house church brought her back from the brink of committing suicide, when the death of her husband and an abusive second marriage left her alone and penniless. For millions, like Tian, churches have become an unlikely refuge, a source of support for those displaced in today's China. Yet, for many, their faith is still a matter that is too sensitive to openly embrace, in an officially atheist country that is still wary of those on society's margins. “In the history of China, and in the history of Christianity itself, the spread of house churches is a miracle,” says Fan Yafeng, an activist, lawyer and leader of a Beijing house church, who is at the forefront of China's house church movement. Christianity has a long history in China, with missionaries from the West establishing themselves across China's east after the end of the Opium War in 1842.

Following the founding of the People's Republic by the Communist Party in 1949, churches have had an awkward relationship with the ruling party. Particularly during Mao Zedong's decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-76), dozens of churches were closed down, and hundreds of pastors imprisoned and forced to renounce their faith. Since the “reform and opening up”, restrictions on religion somewhat eased, and millions across China began turning to faith as the older ideals of the early Communist movement began losing their relevance. But the Communist Party has been particularly wary of Christianity, fearing Western influence could become a source of internal instability. The party has also restricted Vatican influence on China's Catholic churches. To strike a balance, the party set up the “Three Self Patriotic Movement” of churches in 1954, which was reopened after the reforms in 1979. Under this banner, churches would be registered by the government and run without any Western involvement - they would be self-financed, self-organised and self-propagating.

Church leaders like Fan, however, say the State-run churches lack credibility among some of the faithful, and are far from adequate to cater to the millions of Chinese Christians. In Beijing, for instance, the government has set up six Three Self churches, which can, at maximum, accommodate 20,000 believers. And this is a city of at least 500,000 Christians, by some estimates. Three Self Churches have to have their pastors approved by the Communist Party, and all sermons have to stick to the officially approved script. The churches also do not allow Bible study for children, which keeps some people away.Surveys by government-run think-tanks estimate there are more than 20 million Protestants and less than 10 million Catholics in China, though scholars like Fan say the number is far higher. (There is no census for religion in officially atheist China.) There are single house churches in some Chinese cities with congregations of 30,000 people. On a recent trip through Shandong's villages, I found churches in almost every village and town – most of these were unofficial churches. In truth, it is difficult to estimate how many Christians there actually are in China, given that many Chinese choose to keep their faith private, though estimates range from 50 to 70 million.

The Party is wary of the growing influence of house churches. Last year, two prominent house churches were closed down by the government – the Linfen church in Shanxi province and Beijing's Shouwang church. In the early hours of September 13 last year, the congregation at Linfen found bulldozers outside the doors of their church.

As the church was razed to the ground, thugs attacked members of the congregation. The pastor, and some other members, were arrested on the charge of “illegally using farmland” (a regulation rarely invoked). The case went to trial in September, and the pastor was sentenced in November. “The Linfen case is an important and influential case for the development of house churches in China,” Fan, the church leader, tells me. Fan, who has a background in constitutional law, is advising lawyers who are involved in the Linfen case. Up until last November, Fan was a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences – the country's most respected and influential think-tank. Following his increasing involvement with the house church movement and the Linfen case, he was fired from his position at CASS. Fan thinks 2009 was a turning point for the development of Christianity in China. Following the Linfen case, the government also cracked down on members of the popular Shouwang house church in Beijing, by forcing them out of their temporary residence. In a show of strength that attracted international attention right before Barack Obama's State visit last November, the several thousand members of the church held a service in a public park, in defiance of government orders and amid heavy snowfall.

Urban setting

It is in the thousands of house churches in non-descript apartment complexes in urban sprawls, and in farms in remote provinces, that the future of China's Christians lies. The Linfen church, which was set up 26 years ago with 25 members, now has a following of more than 50,000. In Hangzhou in China's east, the Shouxian house church has 100,000 members. Fan's hometown Wenzhou has a 15 per cent Christian population out of 7.5 million people, he estimates.

Fan says the movement has become too big for the government to suppress, and a compromise is the likeliest solution for a ruling party that is wary of unrest. With its actions in the international spotlight, the government this year allowed Shouwang to rent its own property. I visited the Shouwang church a few Sundays ago, during a worship service that was held in a meeting hall at the basement of a café in a northern Beijing suburb. This was to be their last service at the café before they moved into their expansive new surrounds. The mood was one of defiance. “We cannot be ignored,” the pastor told the congregation of at least 500. “The Lord has already come to China. And He is here to stay.” Fan's own house church is far more modest. It is hard to find, hidden in an apartment complex in another Beijing suburb. The only hint of its presence when I visit one Sunday afternoon is the melodic hymns that fill the apartment block. Fan led the small congregation of less than 50 people, as they passionately affirmed their faith. “Christianity is destined to come to this ancient country,” the congregation sang in perfect harmony. “On your guard against the forces that are against Christianity, for preaching has never been easy. Let us take our gospel to the world. And let us wake China up.”

* Names have been changed on request.

With contributions from Li Boya

This proliferation of faith in today's China isn't just happening in the countryside.