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July 26, 2011

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Oh come, all ye faithful

FAMILY influence, personal experience and keen interest in Christianity are the major reasons for a fast growing popularity of the religion in China. Tan Weiyun reports.

Grace Church, hidden on Shanghai's Shaanxi Road N. behind old brick walls and phoenix trees, draws many worshippers every weekend and flocks of Christians for get-togethers and youth fellowships.

"No matter how bad the weather is, the church is always full of devout worshippers," says a 70-year-old elder of Grace Church surnamed Qi.

The 100-year-old church, with a seating capacity of 1,700 and many activity rooms, holds youth fellowships every Wednesday night and get-togethers on Saturday and Sunday.

"Each event can attract more than 1,300 people and among them, well-educated young people are becoming the majority," says Qi.

The church has baptized almost 10,000 people in recent years and it receives many Christians.

Christianity in Shanghai increasingly appeals to young professionals, the middle class and people who are well educated and attracted to Western culture, according to Shanghai Ethnicities and Religions, an official website of Shanghai Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee.

The website states that the city has more than 200,000 Christians, 160 churches and around 370 clerics and staff.

Comparative figures over the years are not reported.

According to the 2010 Blue Book of Religions published by the Institute of World Religions under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there are about 23 million Protestant Christians in China, or roughly 1.8 percent of the country's population.

"After China's reform and opening-up in the early 1990s, religious liberty has been greatly developed and Christianity is growing fastest," says Yan Kejia, the director of the Institute for Religious Study and Research of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

Urban converts or those who are interested in religion are primarily well-educated, middle-class professionals interested in Western culture, Yan said in a recent interview.

"Another big reason is that Christians regard preaching as a mission, which also contributes to the fast expansion," the director says.

Gu Chuanyong, deputy chief of Jiangsu Provincial Administration for Religious Affairs, believes that the phenomenon is the result of well-off people seeking to satisfy their spiritual needs.

"During this time of rapid economic and social development, more Chinese are seeking spiritual consolation and tranquility, particularly when they find it hard to get satisfying answers to real problems," Gu says.

Nationwide, the majority of Chinese Christians are farmers, according to Yan. "That's because village life is relatively monotonous," he says.

Vicki Tang, age 28, graduated last month from the four-year East China Theological Seminary near Dianshan Lake in Shanghai's Qingpu District and is now a cleric in Grace Church.

The Shanghai native was baptized in 2003; she was born into a Christian family and grew up with the religion. She used to go to church every Sunday with her parents and grandparents.

"But honestly, I never thought about taking it as my faith until the year I was diagnosed with a malignant lymph tumor when I was about to enter high school," she recalls.

While she was lying in a hospital bed, Tang began to think about the meaning and purpose of life.

"I was thinking about what God means to me and what I should do in my short life," she recalls.

She pulled through her medical crisis and felt reborn both physically and spiritually. "Since then, I started to think about God and took religion as part of my life," she says.

In 2007 after working in a medical equipment company for two years, she applied to the East China Theological Seminary.

Founded in 1985, the seminary is one of the largest in China and has trained more than 870 Protestant clerics.

More than 95 percent of the graduates work in the city's various churches, the National Committee of the Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in Shanghai and the Shanghai Committee of Christian Affairs.

The others undertake advanced studies or teach in the seminary.

Applicants are required to be baptized and work as a volunteer in a church for at least one year before admission. Courses include theology, Bible studies, history of Western philosophy, ethics and psychology.

"Only if you work for at least a year in a church can you apply to be a minister," Tang says.

Her class has around 30 students; each year there is only one class.

Family influence, personal experience and keen interest in Christianity are the major reasons for study.

Katia Deng, 27, was baptized in 2008. Another Shanghai woman, she says that young people increasingly become interested in Christianity during fellowships every Wednesday night.

She even encouraged her mother to convert to Christianity.

Her fellow believers come from all walks of life, mostly professional. They include lawyers, teachers, architects, doctors, businessmen and office clerks.

"People are craving love, trust, care and the truth. But seeing the tremendous social problems and shouldering great pressures in life, we get kind of lost and confused," she says.

"I think this is one of the biggest reasons why more people are walking into the church."

Deng says faith in God renews her life.

She feels more self-confident and secure through her religion.

"Life to me now seems full of love and care," she says. "I learn to be selfless and respect people whether they are rich or poor, and this brings me great joy."

Both Deng and Tang say it's a good thing that more young people begin to focus on their inner space and spiritual development.

"China is going at a crazily high speed, and people's spiritual development is left far behind, so our lives feel empty and lack meaning," says Deng.


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