BEIJING -- Americans are used to thinking of Chinese Christians as people imprisoned and beaten for their faith, and that is still true in some areas. In some cities, though, a nuanced struggle has emerged, with harassment replacing outright persecution and leaders negotiating with secret police at the local Starbucks.
Now, evangelism opportunities are great. I mentioned last month in this column that I interviewed CEOs who are openly talking about Christ with their employees and setting up Bible studies. I worshipped and talked with house churches made up of urban professionals that grow, split to avoid too much official attention, grow some more, and split once again.
Now, Chinese Christians do a tricky minuet with Communist Party authorities: They have freedom as long as they allow officials to save face. Wise Christians act like smart baseball players who know that hot-dogging it around the bases after hitting a homerun merely prods the pitcher to give them a fastball bruise the next time up.
For example, a leading conductor whom I'll call Chang (name changed to avoid waving a red flag in front of Chinese officials who scan the Internet) is one of numerous cultural leaders willing to say openly that their artistic excellence did not alleviate their misery. Chang searched in Taoism and Buddhism but eventually encountered Christians who displayed love and humility: "This touched me. I wanted to be one of them. Reading the Bible, I realized why I was so miserable -- because I am a sinner."
Chang is now running a thriving school that trains music directors for house churches. Contributions have allowed him to move into a new facility with 18 pianos in soundproof practice rooms and a 200-seat concert hall. The government has cancelled Chang's public concerts but otherwise leaves him alone, and he fills his hall once per month with a concert publicized only by word-of-mouth.
Chang is one of many Christians who refrain from flaunting their independence or directly criticizing the government and instead piggyback on what government officials themselves are saying about the need for stronger moral values. For example, a divorce rate estimated at 30-60 percent (there are no reliable official figures) is creating havoc in Chinese families, so church-sponsored Marriage Encounter weekends and "water buffalo camps" -- teaching men not to be so hard on wives -- have won favor even from high-ranking officials who themselves have troubled marriages.
China is also facing an enormous migrant problem as China's population quickly moves from 80-20 percent rural to 80-20 percent urban. Most newcomers to cities live in poverty: Often embittered, can't crawl home, but their pent-up grievances could lead to a violent explosion unless Christians, like the British Methodists of the 18th century, pave the way to a peaceful transition to a fully industrialized society.
Maybe some officials even realize that Christians like Pastor Gao (also not his real name), whom they used to jail, are also helpful, even though he operates an illegal seminary dedicated to teaching migrants. Gao and others teach theology, English, computers and music to 26 students, some of them still teenagers, who squeeze into five small bedrooms of two run-down apartments with old bicycles and part of a kitchen sink outside.
Gao's grandfather when young was a disciple of famed missionary Hudson Taylor, who died in China in 1905. Mr. Gao became a Communist Party member but he listened to radio broadcasts from other countries, began to read the Bible seriously, and prayed to "the God of my grandfather."
Those like Gao who believe in a Savior may turn out to be the salvation of China and of the world. As China becomes an economic and military superpower over the next several decades, the ascendancy of aggressive and xenophobic leaders will be a recipe for war -- but the impact of hundreds of millions of Chinese Christians will be immense.