BEIJING -- They have faced arrest, torture and death for their faith. But more than 40 years after the Cultural Revolution, Chinese Christians are getting bolder about sharing their faith in public.
One of the largest underground churches in Beijing has decided to go public. Recently, CBN News gained exclusive access to their leaders and meetings.
On a recent Sunday morning, a few of blocks from Beijing's financial district, hundreds of Christians gathered to worship God.
"Twenty years ago, we would have never permitted you to film our meeting. But today, China is changing and the church has to change as well," said Jin Tian Ming.
Jin pastors Shou Wang Church, one of the largest so-called underground churches in Beijing. This is the first time since founding his church 17 years ago that he's opened the service to cameras.
"We worshipped in secret for years," Jin said. "We were spread out across the city meeting in different people's homes."
Coming Out of Hiding
A couple of years ago church members decided to come out of hiding. They rented space in a small office building and began meeting together in one location.
"We brought all the small house churches together in one place, even though it was a huge security risk, but this was an important first step," said Liu Guan, an elder at Shou Wang Church.
Next, they went public.
"We felt that God was calling our church to be a city on the hill, a light on the mountain top. To do this, we had to open up," Liu said.
Members began openly inviting non-believers to the meetings. The church began to grow. Now approximately 1,000 people regularly attend the weekly service and often it's standing room only.
"In my church, we have gathered so many Christians they all have the passion to be public and open," Liu said. "They want to be a good witness to the society."
Once a month, among other evangelistic efforts, church members go out into the community distributing food and clothes.
"There are so many needs in this city," said Ping, a member of Shou Wang Church. "God is calling us to play our part as a church in reaching those who are down and out and have never heard about the love of Christ."
Such open proselytizing is still forbidden in China. Technically, it is also an illegal gathering since the church hasn't registered with the government nor is it part of any of the state-sanctioned churches. But the authorities have chosen to turn a blind eye.
It's a far cry from the dark days of the Cultural Revolution when authorities burned churches, temples and mosques to the ground. Pastors and Christians were routinely arrested and labeled counter-revolutionaries.
Today, Chinese government data and international surveys report millions of Chinese people are flocking to religions like Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and Islam. But it's Christianity that's experiencing the most dramatic growth.
Although it's extremely difficult to obtain precise figures on the number of Christians in China today, but believers are clearly a part of mainstream society. All the more reason, experts say, that Christians - especially those who are part of the so-called house church - go public.
Secret Government Meetings
Recently, Shou Wang Church did something that would have been unthinkable decades ago -- they began holding secret talks with government authorities in Beijing, including with members of the city's security bureau.
"From our perspective we are making progress, and our dialogue with them is getting better and better," said a confident Liu.
Nevertheless, this is a church that has faced its share of challenges. A couple of years ago, they were looking for a new home because they were growing so fast. Once they found a location, they approached a landlord with a price and the landlord agreed. But then the authorities began to put pressure on the landlord.
"The government didn't want us to move into this new location, so they started harassing the landlord not to sell us the property," Pastor Jin recalled.
Show of Defiance
On November 1, 2009, in the middle of a bitter winter storm and with no suitable place to meet, 500 members of Shou Wang Church met in an outdoor park to worship and publicly protest the government's pressure.
"We wanted the authorities to know that our goal was to meet in one place," Jin said. "We had found a place, and we didn't want to go back to meeting in secret and in small groups. So now we were willing to meet in the open; it was a bold move."
The government wasn't going to let that happen. So instead of rounding them up and throwing them into jail, the authorities asked Shou Wang's leaders to go back indoors. They agreed.
Seeking Legal Recognition
But finding a suitable place to meet on short notice was difficult. In a surprising move, the government stepped in and offered the church space in a theater operated and owned by China's powerful People's Liberation Army.
Liu Guan says it was a significant gesture -- one that he and many others hope will pave the way for China's house churches to be legally recognized.
"Maybe it won't be a reality in our generation," Liu told CBN News. "But we are hoping for this."