First of five parts
Official Chinese surveys now show that nearly one in three Chinese describe themselves as religious, an astonishing figure for an officially atheist country, where religion was banned until three decades ago.
The last 30 years of economic reform have seen an explosion of religious belief. China's government officially recognizes five religions: Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam and Daoism. The biggest boom of all has been in Christianity, which the government has struggled to control.
One way it has tried to do that is by establishing government-sanctioned churches. In one such church in the east of the country, China's Protestant heartland, parishioners bow their heads as the pastor says grace. Hundreds are huddled around circular tables to eat lunch.
The official church is part of what's called the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the state-sanctioned Protestant organization. Three-Self refers to the strategy launched in the 1950s of removing foreign influences from Chinese churches — self-governance, self-support, self-propagation.
The church is marking husband-and-wife day, which is an annual celebration of faith and community. A thousand people each week from dozens of nearby villages pack into this church, situated about 300 miles from Shanghai.
Among them is Yao Hong, a 38-year-old woman in a maroon jacket who became a Christian almost two decades ago, seeking comfort after her husband at the time had an affair. She believes it's patriotic to be Christian.
"God is rising here in China," she says, gesturing around the cavernous church. "If you look at the U.S. or England, their gospel is very advanced. Their churches are rich, because God blesses them. So I pray for China."
Ariana Lindquist for NPR
Worshippers attend a service at a church in China's Protestant heartland in the country's east. By some estimates, China now has 100 million Christians, more believers in Christ than Communist Party members.
Worshippers attend a service at a church in China's Protestant heartland in the country's east. By some estimates, China now has 100 million Christians, more believers in Christ than Communist Party members. Ariana Lindquist for NPR
In the past, she has left the village to work in Shanghai. She says her belief in Christ was a lifeline in the alien metropolis and her church acted as her family.
"Whether they know you or not, they treat you as a brother or sister," she says. "If you have troubles, they help out with money or material assistance or spiritual aid."
As China urbanizes and millions of rural migrants experience the social and economic dislocation of traveling to new cities, Christianity can provide them with an instant community.
Many believers sitting on the hard wooden benches of the village church are older. They tell stories of the rewards of faith and how prayer cured illnesses and ended beatings from husbands.
Pastor Ni is in charge of this church. (NPR agreed to withhold his full name to protect his identity.) He says there is total religious freedom in China, and he characterizes relations between state and the church as extremely good.
Ariana Lindquist for NPR
Pastor Ni leads a service at a state-sanctioned church. He says he believes there is total religious freedom in China. Relations between church and state, he says, "are extremely good."
Pastor Ni leads a service at a state-sanctioned church. He says he believes there is total religious freedom in China. Relations between church and state, he says, "are extremely good." Ariana Lindquist for NPR
"The government never interferes with our internal affairs," he says. "There are no orders, no coercion. That doesn't exist and we get on well."
In this part of the country, every small village has at least one church, and each shows signs of being carefully tended. One has a door curtain made from a patchwork of rice sacks; another, a hand-sewn altar curtain, complete with a white appliqued cross.
Local ministers say that about 10 percent of the population in this part of China is Protestant, but all believe that the real figure may be much higher.
Gray Areas Governing Religion
No one knows exactly how many Christians there are among China's population of 1.3 billion. There are an estimated 21 million members of the government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic movement, but nobody knows how many Protestants worship in unregistered house churches.
Some recent surveys have calculated there could be as many as 100 million Chinese Protestants. That would mean that China has more Christians than Communist Party members, which now number 75 million.
About 30 miles from Pastor Ni's church in a dusty country town, a group of women from another state-sanctioned congregation pray ahead of a public performance they have planned for the day. China's constitution protects freedom of religion, but proselytizing in public places is forbidden. However, the gray areas are growing ever greater, and these women are exploiting those blurred lines.
The women chat and laugh as they carefully apply their makeup. They're wearing traditional pink silk pajamas for the first act, with thick red down jackets on top. They set up on a noisy street, and their show opens with a folk dance. A woman dressed as an old man whips a woman in a donkey costume.
A crowd quickly gathers, mostly elderly people, bringing their own wooden stools with them.
The next skit hits the audience with Christian messages. Two women dressed up as husband and wife wear traditional big-head papier mache masks that engulf their entire heads. They argue, come to blows and ultimately are brought back together by finding God.
The troupe's show goes on for two hours. They sing traditional opera, adding Christian messages. They perform classical dances, swirling pink and white fans in unison. They even don black sequined jerseys and long black boots to groove to pop songs.
Ariana Lindquist for NPR
A woman from a government-sanctioned church performs in a Christian-themed dance and theater show on a noisy street in China. The group is spreading the word of God through traditional skits and plays.
A woman from a government-sanctioned church performs in a Christian-themed dance and theater show on a noisy street in China. The group is spreading the word of God through traditional skits and plays. Ariana Lindquist for NPR
Wang Meizhen, the troupe's unofficial leader, says its members "use traditional art to bring in the non-believers."
"It's difficult for them to walk away. Then we include Christian messages. We want to bring them to God," says Wang, who converted to Christianity 10 years ago.
'Boss Christians' And 'China's Jerusalem'
Not far off on a windswept hillside, an elderly caretaker gives a tour of an enormous, newly built church, complete with its own baptism pool. It's an example of how informal networks of rich urban Christians are helping the spread of rural Protestantism.
The church was built with funding donated by Christians from the coastal city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, about 500 miles away.
Wenzhou is known as "China's Jerusalem." It has more than 1,000 churches, and at least 12 percent of the population is Christian. It's also one of the richest cities in China, where private business is booming. These two factors form a recent trend: the Christian entrepreneur or — as they're called in Wenzhou — the "boss Christian."
The biggest of all the boss Christians is a man named Zheng Shengtao.
For him, finding riches was intertwined with finding God. His start in life was humble: delivering goods on a three-wheeled bike. Back then, private business was still banned, and in 1983 his attempts to make money landed him in jail.
"I stayed in prison for 69 days," Zheng says. "There was a charge of speculation and profiteering. I hadn't thought about Jesus much before. But I started to think about him all day long. It wasn't that I believed in him. I just prayed he would get me out as soon as possible."
The experience convinced him to become a devout Christian.
Despite his rocky start as an entrepreneur, Zheng flourished after private business became acceptable.
Now, he is a member of the provincial Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the government, and director of the Wenzhou General Chamber of Commerce. He has been ranked by Forbes magazine as the 395th richest man in China, with assets estimated at more than $400 million.
His consortium is called the Shenli Group, a name which translates literally as "God's power." It encompasses mining projects, real estate development and machinery.
Zheng believes that making money is literally doing God's work.
"We have to be the salt of the earth. We don't bribe officials to make money or make fake products or harm the customers' interests or evade tax. We don't think the wealth belongs to us. We're just like bank clerks. It's God who gives you the career and the wealth and asks you to manage them," he says.
Boss Christians like Zheng are literally invested in the current political system. So they are tolerated — welcomed even — in this part of China. But the fact that the economic elite are pouring resources into religious activism could be unsettling for China's atheist leaders.
Churches That Follow God, Not Government
One example is an unofficial church in an unmarked building in Wenzhou's suburbs where a steady stream of imported cars drops off worshipers for a prayer meeting on a weekday night.
"The state was trying to control us," says one worshiper, who asked not to be named, "so we set up our own church not to follow the government, but to follow the God of the Bible."
As the prayer meeting begins, a woman at the front of the room starts crying and praying into a microphone. Hundreds of people are kneeling on mats on the floor, wailing and rocking, tears dropping down their cheeks.
This is the new face of Christianity in China: the up-and-coming urban middle classes. Material needs met, they are now seeking spiritual comfort.
It's clearly a charismatic gathering, even though Christianity in China is supposed to be non-denominational. It's also technically illegal, since the prayer leader isn't approved by the state-sanctioned church and the church is unregistered.
Although leaders of some larger unofficial churches have been harassed and persecuted, the authorities largely turn a blind eye, unwilling — or perhaps unable — to deal with this explosion of faith.
Now, there is public discussion about whether these gatherings should be legitimized. Recently the state-run media has been running pieces featuring these "house churches," raising expectations they may be recognized.
Thomas Banchoff, director of Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, has held discussions with officials from China's State Administration for Religious Affairs, or SARA.
Ariana Lindquist for NPR
A group of traveling evangelical students sing religious songs in a rural village. Technically they are breaking the law against proselytizing, but authorities tend to turn a blind eye to the preaching.
A group of traveling evangelical students sing religious songs in a rural village. Technically they are breaking the law against proselytizing, but authorities tend to turn a blind eye to the preaching. Ariana Lindquist for NPR
"I understand there are quite a few different perspectives within China among the leadership about whether to accommodate these groups, whether to set strict limits and how to proceed," he says.
Officials from SARA refused repeated requests for interviews for this story.
Faithful Continue To Push Boundaries
Their powers to govern religion do, however, seem to be waning. That seems clear in a rural village in eastern China, where young people are openly trying to gain converts in defiance of the laws prohibiting proselytizing in public places.
They claim not to be aware of such laws. A crowd of villagers is listening, perched on tractors and low benches, their feet swimming in a sea of mud.
In a fiery sermon, one young missionary makes oblique references to rampant materialism, corruption and the immense wealth gap between rich and poor. It's a message that hits home in this hardscrabble part of China.
"In China, a lot of so-called atheists treat money as their God," storms the young man who is preaching to the gathered crowd. "But only in God's truth can you find real freedom."
China's Christians are pushing back the boundaries, and the authorities don't seem to know how to respond. Recent reports say some leaders of larger unofficial churches are harassed and persecuted and their congregations are prevented from meeting in their previous places of worship.
But in this rural part of China, these young missionaries are operating without hindrance.
After their performance, theu climb into a trailer pulled by a tractor, which will take them to their next destination. They are intent on saving souls, one village at a time.
China's youth once trundled across the countryside spreading communism. Now, they're spreading God's word.