Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Converted out West Are Losing Faith Back Home

Thousands of Christian believers return to China every year. Why can't they find a place to worship?

MEIXIAN COUNTY, CHINA - MAY 2: (CHINA OUT) Catholics walk to the simulated crucified site of Jesus at Cross Hill at Paowo Village on May 2, 2007 in Meixian County of Shaanxi Province, China. Cross Hill is a Cross Hill is a Catholic holy place first built by missionary Liu Jialu as a simulation of Calvary. Liu was approved by the Pope Pius VI to name the place "Cross Hill". In 1777, Bishop Nania of Shaanxi Province appointed May 3 and September 14 as the Holy Day for all people who came to worship, according to local media. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)
MEIXIAN COUNTY, CHINA - MAY 2: (CHINA OUT) Catholics walk to the simulated crucified site of Jesus at Cross Hill at Paowo Village on May 2, 2007 in Meixian County of Shaanxi Province, China. Cross Hill is a Cross Hill is a Catholic holy place first built by missionary Liu Jialu as a simulation of Calvary. Liu was approved by the Pope Pius VI to name the place "Cross Hill". In 1777, Bishop Nania of Shaanxi Province appointed May 3 and September 14 as the Holy Day for all people who came to worship, according to local media. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

Andrew Wang’s father kept calling him: “Come, help us fold these.” But Wang no longer wanted to help his parents prepare paper offerings. Burning fake money and other paper effigies on certain days on the Chinese lunar calendar is a tradition many Chinese families, including Wang’s, keep in the hope that their ancestors will receive and enjoy the ersatz gifts in the other world and protect family members in this one. Wang had followed this practice since he was a child. But two months before leaving London after two years of study, Wang had been baptized against his parents’ wishes.

Since the early 2010s, increasing numbers of Chinese students have studied abroad, mostly in English-speaking countries; a majority of them have landed in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Among them, as many as tens of thousands who converted to the Christian faith overseas return to China every year. (No statistics on this trend are publicly available; this estimate reflects conversations with multiple sources close to the issue.)

Yet large numbers of converts give up after coming back to China. Volunteers and missionary staff who have worked for years with Chinese students in the United States estimate that 80 percent of believers eventually stop going to church after returning home. It generally takes time for returnees to find their places again in a country still searching for rules and norms to match its rapid economic and social changes. And because Chinese churches operate under a controlling and suspicious atheist state, the supply of intimate church environments continues to fall short of evidently growing demand.

In 2015, more than half a million Chinese students studied abroad, according to Chinese government statistics; over 328,000 of them land in the United States, according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education. After finishing their studies, many return home by choice, while others succumb to the difficulty of obtaining jobs and work visas abroad. From 2012 to 2014, nearly 1 million students returned to China, exceeding the number of students abroad from the previous 30 years combined.

When Chinese converts return home, they often find it difficult to select a church where they feel comfortable. Many have grown up without exposure to China’s religious scene, where public proselytizing is severely limited and church networks are isolated and self-contained. China is officially an atheist country; about 88 million are registered members of the Communist Party and are forbidden to believe in any religion. The government oversees religious activities, assigns pastors, and provides guidance to registered churches. (They are known in Chinese as sanzi, meaning “three-self,” standing for self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation — part of an effort to disavow foreign meddling.) These churches often feature rhetoric in line with party doctrine. Apart from the usually well-funded, newly renovated registered churches are underground organizations known as “house churches,” which operate with more autonomy at often obscure locations — sometimes in a house or apartment. Their arguable lack of standards and regulations often raises concerns among believers, especially in a country where state-controlled schools and companies are regarded as of higher caliber than their private counterparts.

For the returnees who have known church only in a liberal Western campus setting, both registered and house churches represent a drastic change. Wu Yutong, for one, had a hard time adapting to life in Shanghai after returning from pursuit of a master’s degree at the University of Glasgow, during which she converted to Christianity. After graduation, she moved to London for six months to volunteer at a ministry serving overseas Chinese. She said “many things conflicted” with her faith after she moved back to China. Shanghai is known as China’s most open city, with a variety of Christian churches; there are a large number of registered, house, and international places of worship. Yet Wu spent months looking for the right church. At first, she learned of one that met in an apartment, serving a congregation of about 200. Wu felt the preacher was too young, so she left for another house church that met in a Christian-owned bar on a high floor overlooking the Bund, Shanghai’s landmark waterfront. The bar is cleared every Sunday for a service for about 150 people.

Acquaintances had warned Wu that the church had a reputation for prosperity theology. At first, she enjoyed the services, but later learned that the pastor ran a luxury clothing dealership on the side and often shared ads for his store on WeChat, a popular social app. That struck Wu as inconsistent with her faith, so she moved again, settling on an English-speaking church that meets in a hotel auditorium. She found the relatable and humor-laced messages there similar to her church in London. But Wu still misses the ministry where she volunteered. “The pastors there are very experienced. They are always caring and understanding.” She was, she implied, not getting the same experience back home.

Wu is not alone; many returning Chinese converts find churches at home a bit cold. Under the eyes of a watchful and often hostile state, Chinese Christians have learned to be intensely cautious and somewhat defensive regarding outsiders. There is also the low clergy-to-parishioner ratio; as of 2012, there are fewer than 25 seminaries and Bible schools in China, each of which graduates classes smaller than 200, according to the Wall Street Journal. Yet the number of Christian converts has grown by millions, according to Chinese government data, which are generally considered conservative.

Vicky Peng remembers when she started attending St. Paul’s Church in Nanjing, shortly after she returned to China in 2014 after studying at Queen Mary University of London. Built in 1923, St. Paul’s was the first Christian house of worship in the city, then the capital of the Republic of China. Every Sunday, the church opens its doors to at least 700 worshippers. It has a modest and not particularly church-like façade and sits across from one of a chain of plastic surgery hospitals. On the day last summer that I visited St. Paul’s, the main worship hall, illuminated by chandeliers and LED candles, hosted a mixed audience, including hunched pensioners and college students. Ringing cell phones occasionally interrupted the sermon. The crowd was solemn and calm, without the chatter or irritations common in China’s overcrowded public spaces.

At first, Peng found St. Paul’s staff dispassionate, its rituals too formal. It suffered in the contrast with Peng’s Chinese Baptist church in London, which has a far smaller congregation of 200 and a student fellowship of 20. But after a year of withdrawal, Peng came around. “When I first went to St. Paul’s, there were many voices in my mind that resisted the place.” Over time, that change. “Now the hostility is gone, and all I hear are the messages I need,” she said.

Peng’s year long adjustment is common. “When Christian converts first return to China after graduation, they often feel confused and frustrated. They are inclined to blame these on their unfulfilling religious life,” said Sylvia Lu (a pseudonym), who runs a small underground organization that helps returning Christian converts plug into local churches in the Shanghai area. “From day one, missionaries abroad want to serve Chinese converts,” Lu said. “But once converts are back in China, there are not many churches with the will or energy to continue to nurture their spiritual lives.”

Instead of serving as a church substitute, Lu’s organization offers the student converts a sense of community, with individual meetings every other week and occasional group events. For security reasons, her organization accepts participants mostly through recommendations by American campus ministries, such as Bridges International, a nonprofit in Austin, Texas. To dodge censorship, they avoid using keywords such as “church” or “prayer” on social media. When our phone interview had a few connection hiccups, Lu became nervous and later explained that her Christian friends had been followed and interrogated by state security personnel.

Family provides another obstacle to the unfettered access of a convert’s new faith. Eva Zheng, who returned to the second-tier coastal city of Shaoxing after earning a master’s degree in interior design in Indiana, hopes to find someone who shares her religious values, but her parents won’t have it. “My mother says there are so few guys to choose from,” she said. “Why make it harder by only looking for Christians?”

Despite their initial surprise, most parents seem to accept their children’s faith. They often do so from a utilitarian atheist perspective: If their children’s faith causes them to live a healthier lifestyle, and brings the unlikely but possible blessing of some supernatural power, so be it. Returnees say parents often warn them against “wallowing” in their new faith, a verb frequently assigned to teenagers addicted to online gaming who fritter away their educational and professional opportunities. To many Chinese parents, both religion and video games raise similar fears of a child unmoored and possessed by an unconventional power.

Outside the family, a low awareness of religion — not intolerance — prevails. A converted returnee might not hide a cross necklace she’s been wearing, but wouldn’t insist on praying when having lunch with colleagues. Some don’t volunteer their religious beliefs, although they don’t hide them if asked.

Chinese culture itself can also cause converts to waver. “Co-workers like to joke about it,” said Iphie Nie, who works for a U.S. consulting firm in Beijing after spending time in New York. “I feel like the environment we live in — both pop culture and traditional culture — does not go well with our Christian faith.” Jason Fu, who teaches at a university in Nanjing after returning from the University of Nottingham in England and did not wish to share his real name, finds that balancing his work schedule, routines, and faith is almost unattainable. “Theoretically, we should prioritize God over everything else, but real-life scenarios often don’t permit that,” he said.

Becoming a Christian has changed Fu’s views about the pursuit of wealth. He once admired a hardworking neighbor who accumulated several apartments during China’s real estate boom. Now he sees it differently. “My impression of this society is that without belief, you don’t know what you live for. You struggle on an assembly line. You work hard to make money; make money to marry; marry to have kids; have kids to wait for them to grow up. Choosing to believe in Jesus is the only major decision I have made for myself.”

Update, February 8, 2017: This article has been updated to anonymize a source upon post-publication request.

China Photos/Getty Images

Han Zhang is a journalist based in New York.  Twitter: @ohanzhang