CHINA | Great risks, long journeys, government sabotage, official informants, chaotic crowds, packed halls, and fervent prayers: Welcome to a Christian training conference in Hong Kong
Posted April 3, 2015, 01:00 a.m.
MA ON SHAN, Hong Kong—As the overcast skies lightened on a cool Saturday morning, the sound of 1,500 voices singing Chinese hymns rang out on the grassy YMCA campground in Ma On Shan, Hong Kong. The voices emanated from the main hall, where mainland Chinese pastors, evangelists, and laypeople had squeezed plastic chairs into a space too small for the crowd, leaving only a squiggly shoulder-width aisle to escape. Chairs packed the foyer of the building and streamed out the opened doors on the sides and the back of the building.
Hymn sing at the Threefold Vision Training Conference.
For nearly an hour before the actual start of the service, young and old sang from memory hymns by the popular peasant songwriter Xiao Min, starting over from the beginning when they had reached the last note. Every once in a while, someone in the audience would pick a new hymn, and the crowd would join along, singing with their eyes shut, heads slightly bowed, and some with tears silently streaming down their faces. They’d flooded into Hong Kong from every part of China—the countryside of central China, the bitterly cold Northeast, the coastal cities of Shanghai and Wenzhou—for a chance to meet together and worship freely at the second annual Threefold Vision Training Conference hosted by the U.S. group China Ministries International (CMI) and the Stephen Tong Evangelical Ministries International in Jakarta, Indonesia.
For those who’ve grown up attending church conferences in America, this isn’t your average weekend retreat. Days are packed with 10 hours of preaching and worship, securing a seat inside the building requires showing up an hour early to stand your ground, and getting a meal in the cafeteria means deftly maneuvering (or pushing) through a long, amorphous line. The 500 who don’t make it inside the cafeteria receive boxed lunches consisting of white rice and small pieces of meat. Although organizers expected 1,000 people to attend, more than 1,500 ended up at the campsite—a combination of the Chinese habit of just showing up “by faith” and the government hacking of CMI’s website. Registration was a nightmare, and like that night in Bethlehem, there was no room in the campsite for a few hundred attendees.
Every event at the conference was packed to capacity.
The intense desire to hear the Word preached paired with the chaotic pushing and hustling for the seats displayed some of the best and worst of the Chinese church today. Speakers mentioned that the one force that could take down the church isn’t the Communist government, but the church itself—through failed church governance, a lack of love, and its members behaving like the world around them. Yet at the same time, many traveled hours and even days by bus, train, and plane to get to Hong Kong; risked government threats to attend the conference; and still felt a burden to pray for the same government officials who persecute them.
A look around the packed hall revealed the sheer diversity of the Chinese church—a fourth came from government-sanctioned Three-Self churches, while three-fourths came from house churches. A stooped elderly woman in shiny Mary Janes sat next to a young student in skinny jeans and a snapback cap, while a businessman with a diamond-encrusted watch worshipped next to a middle-aged woman wearing a knock-off Adidas sweater.
Most were drawn to the event by the top-billed speaker, the Rev. Stephen Tong, a Reformed Chinese Indonesian pastor in Jakarta whose message has reached tens of millions of Chinese people through both his crusades all over Asia and recordings passed around in China (the Chinese government does not allow Tong into the country). For many, the conference is their one chance to see the 75-year-old fiery preacher, who peppered his sermon with Chinese history, Western philosophy, and Reformed theology. Another draw was American theologian Wayne Grudem.
“In China, the opportunity to hear this type of authentic message is limited,” said a traveling evangelist from Northeast China. “But here these speakers can say what they want, and with their message they motivate the pastors, evangelists, and laypeople.” Through the weekend, speakers touched on sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square protests, democracy, abortion, and political dissidents.
The fear of these discussion topics led the Chinese government to block several hundred Christians from crossing the border into Hong Kong. Church leaders who had registered for the conference received calls from officials threatening to shut down their house churches if they attended. Some heeded the warnings, but the suffocatingly packed hall showed that more had gone ahead as planned. A pastor said she had been approached by religious bureau officials to “drink tea” after returning from last year’s conference and was quizzed about her connection to the event and what the speakers discussed. This year, she showed up without registering in order to avoid detection.
In an attempt to throw the conference into chaos, the government also hacked into CMI’s registration site, said CMI president Samuel Chao. The government overloaded servers with registrants with fictitious names and contacts, while the forms of actual registrants never reached the organizers.
As these unexpected attendees showed up at the YMCA, tempers flared as many couldn’t understand why they weren’t on the list when they had reserved a spot online. Unwilling to send away Christians who had taken great risks and long journeys to arrive, CMI frantically rented rooms at a nearby hotel for 400 attendees and buses to shuttle them back and forth. An extra 80 people who didn’t have a place to sleep were stuffed into the campsite rooms, with some people sharing beds to make space. In the end, everyone had a place to sleep and food to eat.
Attendees pray for government officials.
The enormous number of attendees made even the simplest transitions a hassle. During a time for workshops, hundreds of people carrying their chairs over their heads amassed on a staircase leading up to a classroom, only to be turned away by a locked door as the 150-person capacity room had been filled. Men and women scrambled over each other, sometimes pushing and shoving to get a seat in the main hall and setting down thermoses and programs to save seats for their friends.
Volunteers in red vests kept trying to clear a pathway around the hall, but the minute they turned away, attendees would sneak their chairs back into the aisle. One afternoon, I sat near a volunteer passing out meal tickets, and suddenly found hordes of people leaning over me with their hands outstretched, yelling over each other about how many tickets needed. Yet the minute the service started, the frenzy stopped and the crowds quieted to hear what the speakers had to say.
Not everyone in the audience agreed with the messages from the pulpit. A student at a government-sanctioned seminary commented that some of the pastors shouldn’t have broached such sensitive topics, especially since the Hong Kong conference coincided with the annual gathering of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing. She worried that there’d be difficulty waiting for her when she returned to China. A balding man sitting two seats away from me grumbled angrily when Grudem argued that the Bible indirectly supports governments chosen by the people.
Also sprinkled throughout the audience were informants sent by the government—one Christian told me that they made up about 10 percent of the attendees. Chao said volunteers spotted persons taking photos of conference attendees with high-powered cameras. When approached, they were found without a conference badge and escorted off the premises.
During a time for questions and answers, Tong received a question written on a slip of paper by a self-identified Communist Party member. The writer asked if Christians would exact revenge on the Communists if one day they truly became the overwhelming majority in China.
Organizers expected 1,000 people to attend the Threefold Vision
Training Conference; more than 1,500 arrived.
“No, because Christians love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them,” Tong responded. “The highest Communist leader should thank the Lord because even though you persecute them, these people are your best citizens and they still pray for you.”
On the last day of the conference, the 1,500 voices rose again, this time in prayer for the Chinese Communist Party. The hall reverberated with whispered prayers and tearful pleadings as men and women who had faced years in prisons, who had watched authorities tear down the crosses on their churches, who had been followed and threatened and beaten, joined together to pray for their afflicters.
The traveling evangelist explained that they weren’t afraid of the government, even though they realize they may be persecuted. “They feel that in light of the growth of the church and their own spiritual lives, the persecution is worthwhile.”
The largest contingent of attendees–nearly 600 people–came from the city of Wenzhou, where authorities had demolished hundreds of crosses and church buildings. Known as “China’s Jerusalem” for its large population of Christians, Wenzhou originally enjoyed a relatively good relationship with the government, as some house churches were allowed to register without falling under the rule of the Three-Self church.
But last year under the guise of weeding out “illegal structures,” Zhejiang province officials dismantled crosses from more than 400 churches. While some churches voluntarily took down their crosses, others resisted. In some cases, hundreds of churchgoers guarded their church buildings and faced off with police in full riot gear. One especially violent confrontation took place outside Salvation Church last July, as police beat parishioners with electric batons, injuring 14.
In the weeks following the conference, authorities sentenced Wenzhou Pastor Huang Yizi of Fengwo Church to one year in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order.” He had led church members to pray and sing hymns in front of the local Public Security Bureau after the Salvation Church incident. Eight Christians who had tried protecting Sanjiang Church from demolition also were sentenced on charges of “illegal occupation of farmland” and “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order.” Last April, thousands of local Christians surrounded the church in protest before excavators smashed the large hall.
Today services continue in the cross-less church buildings in the area, although Wenzhou Christian John Li (his name has been changed for security) said government control is tightening. Authorities limit children’s fellowships and pastoral trainings, while forcing some Three-Self churches to align more closely with the government. During Christmastime, about 10 churches tried to put their crosses back up, but in each case police arrived a day later to take them back down. At one church, police kept a 24-hour guard around the church to make sure the cross wouldn’t reappear.
But Li sees good coming from the church demolitions: Some churches had fallen away from orthodoxy and embraced a prosperity gospel while others had become too concerned with building massive, elegant churches. “It let all the Wenzhou believers of different backgrounds walk together—both Three-Self and house churches,” Li said. “After this, Wenzhou Christians don’t care about creating great big monuments on earth, but want to make a difference in the society.”
With the recent harassment in mind, one song was sung with special zeal and repeated often throughout the four-day conference: the Chinese translation of “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross” by Fanny Crosby. —J.C.