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A Thriving Protestant Church in Shanghai




It was a misty Sunday morning in January. A church bell calling for Holy Communion rang out as usual at seven o'clock sharp. Its solemn sound reverberated in the overcast skies over downtown Shanghai, a city still beautiful and prosperous after experiencing changes over ages.

Located over 20 meters away behind the century-old Yangtze Hotel is the darkish red brick belfry. The well-arranged architecture around it belongs to the Mu'en Church, the largest Protestant church in Shanghai and also the first of its kind in China which resumed activities in 1979 after the decade-long "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

An Old Church

The Mu'en Church was initially built in 1929. At that time, it was called the Abounding Grace Church. However, the dissemination and development of Protestantism in Shanghai can be traced back to the 1840s.

The first missionaries who stepped onto the soil of this east China coastal metropolis came from the Episcopal Church of the United States. They underwent all kinds of hardships and difficulties due to unfamiliarity with the place and people, along with the language barrier. Some of them dedicated the rest of their life to the mission work in the city where most people did not believe in Christianity. Decades of unremitting efforts at last resulted in Shanghai accepting the religion while turning itself into a busy seaport. Bible study classes, missionary schools and churches then mushroomed.

"Over the past six years, the number of people attending Sunday service has been increasing," said Shi Qigui, a senior pastor. Born in the same year as the Mu'en Church, Shi graduated in 1953 from the Jinling Union Theological Seminary in Nanjing, the largest of its kind in China.

According to Shi, church membership has been enlarged by 300 annually in recent years. "They include poorly educated old women, as well as young people who have received a high level of education," said Shi.

"It's quite different from the situation 10 years ago when most Sunday service attendants were elderly people."

"On Sundays, this hall, capable of accommodating 1,000 people, is often packed," said Shi. "A similar situation prevails in other churches in the city."

Statistics show that Shanghai now has 120,000 Christians, but there are only some 30 churches in the city proper. Some 5,000 believers have joined the Mu'en Church, but only a small portion can attend the service. In addition, many non-Christian residents often come to watch the Sunday service activities.

Woman Pastors

"Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lord a new song. Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.."

A low, vigorous female voice echoed in the candlelit hall at half past nine.

The call to worship was followed by full-throated singing from the church choir and then by silent prayer.

Lin Weici knows all these conventional arrangements like the palm of her hand. Having finished her mission, she walked down the aisle, over which hung a large cross.

Lin has been a pastor for four years. Born into a Christian family, she entered the Jinling Union Theological Seminary at 18. After graduation, she became a nurse in a kindergarten run by the Young Women Christian Association of Shanghai. Her husband was the chief editor of Wind of Heaven, the most influential Protestant magazine in China. Her daughter is now a member of the choir.

"There are many people who want to develop a faith in Christ, and they need a guide," said the young woman pastor, with her eyes brimming with devoutness and confidence.

She felt fortunate to be one of the 44 pastors in Shanghai, of whom 12 are women.

"Some 70 percent of our church members are women," said Lin, who appeared affable and well-bred. "Often they find it inconvenient to speak their mind to male pastors. On such occasions, they would come to me."

Many female members of the Mu'en Church have a low educational level, according to Lin. She and her fellow clergy organize various study groups for them, explaining the stories and doctrines in the Bible over a cup of tea. They also teach them to read and copy biblical texts. This helps improve their degree of literacy, and some former illiterates are even able to read newspapers and write simple letters.

"Nonetheless, what most church members want is a spiritual ballast. They need to put Christ in their heart." Lin held, "Some creeds of Protestantism are actually in conformity with 'serving the people' advocated by the Communist Party of China (CPC). In addition, both also share the principle that one should love one's motherland and nation."

The Mu'en Church just carries out its activities in this way, according to Lin. It organizes its members to offer aid, financial and material, to senior citizens and elderly persons without family and take care of them the year round. Protestants also donate the money they raise from selling their handicrafts to disaster-stricken areas and rural dropouts.


Golden Era

Prior to 1949, the year the People's Republic was founded, China was only one of the spots on the itinerary maps of Western missionaries, and Chinese Christian churches were controlled by foreign churches. The situation remained unchanged until the 1950s when China's Protestant circles initiated the Three Self (self-administration, self-support and self-propagation) Movement.

Since then, religious affairs have been managed by Chinese Protestants themselves. Chinese churches have stood on their own in financial support, and developed theological ideas, religious artistic manifestations and worship rites with distinct Chinese characteristics. The efforts have thus enabled Chinese churches to get rid of Western influences and turn Protestantism into one of the Chinese religions.

"China's Christianity is also free from factionalism," said Pastor Shi. "This is what none of the foreign churches or countries dare dream of."

The success of the China Christian Council in this aspect has been appreciated by Dr. Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church.

Shi held that China's Christianity now enjoys a golden era of development as "the CPC fully recognizes the role of religion and never regards Christianity as "fierce floods and savage beasts."

Since 1979, the Mu'en Church has operated normally. In addition to routine gatherings and Sunday service, the church hosts wedding ceremonies for young Christians, baptizes believers and holds Christmas pageants and various other activities. Sometimes, clergy go to the countryside to preach sermons for devotees who are unable to attend a church service due to transport problems.

Foreigners visiting or working in Shanghai often come to attend services in the Mu'en Church. Sitting side by side, Chinese and foreign Protestants from different cultural backgrounds sing the hymn to the same melody but in different languages.

The church has also invited some foreign pastors and religious organizations to a visit. They include famous American Preacher the Rev. Billy Graham and a Canadian youth choir.

Devotees

When the morning service ended, it was drizzling outside. Candles were still burning, and it was more quiet and solemn inside the hall.

"I love this atmosphere," said Liu Suilin, 34, "It was so harmonious that I began developing a faith in Christianity."

"I'm an idealist. I've been dreaming to be a perfect person since childhood. I admire heroes and adore those around me, who enjoy high prestige and command universal respect."

Study in Britain in 1992 marked the most important turning point in Liu's life. There, she got to know a minister from Africa. He helped her with her daily life as well as study. He also often brought her with him to church to attend services.

"I was deeply moved by his sincerity and selflessness. Later, I became aware that this is the Christian spirit, and this is 'love'."

The African minister also guided Liu to read the Bible and other religious books. When she read "You are the salt of the earth.... You are the light of the world" in the New Testament gospel of Matthew, Liu felt she was suddenly enlightened. Shortly after she returned to China, she was baptized at the Mu'en Church.

Liu is now a volunteer of the church, and she keenly believes that everything she does is for the "glory of the Lord". She said she now can face unfair treatment calmly and be tolerant of others' fault. She also does her best to help others to let more people believe the strength of "Love".

When night fell, another service began at the Mu'en Church.

Meanwhile, the Bund was ablaze with lights. Colorful neon lamps were glimmering along the Nanjing Road, the busiest commercial street in Shanghai, which separates the Mu'en Church from the Bund.

In recent years, changes are taking place in Shanghai and also around the church. Scaffolds are common sight. New buildings stand straight row upon row. Some people joke, "Shanghai is a big building site."

However, the Mu'en church is an exception. It retains its old, primitive, yet solemn outlook. Modern Protestants come in and out of the church like their predecessors, listening to and spreading Christian maxims.


Tel: (202) 328-2500 Fax: (202) 588-0032
Email: chinaembassy_us@fmprc.gov.cn

 


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