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'Third Church' China's New Face of Christianity

BEIJING - Christianity in China began decades ago in the countryside, but today, a dramatic shift is happening.

Young professionals in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are changing the face of Chinese Christianity, as faith moves from rural to more urban areas.

On a recent Wednesday evening, a group of men and women in their late 20s met in an apartment not too far from the city center to discuss how to thrive in their rapidly changing nation.

Those who attended are members of China's new privileged class -- highly educated, cosmopolitan, middle or even upper class of urban professionals. And they're all Christians.

"We've never had it so good in China today," Jia Li Tian, a member of the group, told CBN News. "But there's more to life that just money and materialism."

Pressures to Succeed

Jia works for one of Beijing's largest tour operators. Like young urban professionals in other parts of the world, he and his peers live in high-rise apartment buildings. They own a car - sometimes two. They are tech savvy. They travel. They have money to spend.

But the pressure to succeed and thrive is fierce.

"The competition for jobs in the big cities is intense," said Zhou Jie, a Spanish translator who works in Beijing.

"Status is everything," said 23-year-old Liu Yi Zhuo, a business consultant for one of China's biggest oil companies. "How much you make. How big is your apartment. What kind of car you drive. This is what people focus on."

"The government makes it possible for us to earn money and have a good life," Jia added. "But how do we handle all these pressures? The government doesn't have answers for this."

Filling the Spiritual Vacuum

But religion is filling a void within this rapidly-changing Chinese society.

"I'm different person today," graphic designer Zhu Kun said over a cup of coffee.

The 23-year-old is one of the many city residents who are now embracing Christianity in record numbers.

"The last couple of years have been difficult for me," Zhu said. "I've struggled professionally and personally. But then someone introduced me to Jesus and now I have a different outlook on my life."

Jesus in the Office

Zhu worships at Shou Wang, one of the largest unregistered or "underground" churches in Beijing. Jin Tian Ming leads the church.

"God called me to start a church to reach these young people with the Gospel," Jin said.

Jin, who himself is a graduate of China's most prestigious university, began the Shou Wang church 18 years ago with 10 people. Now, close to 1,000 attend his weekly service.

"The majority of them have graduated from college and work in the city," he explained. "We have lawyers, professors, doctors, business people."

Jin added that similar gatherings are springing up in other big cities, attracting the white collar working world.

"They are looking for ways to handle the dramatic changes in China, and they are finding answers in Christianity," he said.

New Face of Christianity

Jia Lin Tian helps run a Bible study for new converts in the city. He says this is the new face of Christianity in China.

Such believers are part of what some are calling China's "Third Church."

Peter, not his real name, has worked with China's underground churches for decades. CBN News agreed to conceal his identity to protect him.

"They are called the 'Third Church' because they are very different than what used to be the only two real kinds of churches in China," Peter said. "The registered church -- registered with the government -- and then the unregistered churches, usually called house churches which thrived in the countryside in the 70s and 80s."

"But then after the 1989 (Tiananmen) demonstrations, these urban, educated, well-to-do Christians started forming urban churches," he continued.

'Third Church' Growth

Although Christianity continues to grow in China's countryside, experts say it's in big cities like Beijing where the church is growing fastest.

"Whereas the rural church was not able to have an impact on society as a whole, the 'Third Church' in the cities is able to do that because they are comprised of leaders who can have an impact," Peter explained. "[They are] businessmen, government officials, professors, leaders in engineering, every aspect of life."

Pastor Jin's congregation is technically an illegal gathering. He hasn't registered his church with the government, nor is it part of any of the state-sanctioned churches.

But rather than hide from authorities, Jin and others who lead such congregations in big cities say they want to work with the government officials.

Moving Past Persecution

The Chinese government has always maintained a tight grip on religion. Torture, arrests, imprisonment, and beatings of Christians are still practiced in the country.

But in recent years, authorities have made positive overtures towards house church leaders -- especially those in urban areas.

"The church in China is growing and Christianity is becoming more and more a part of mainstream society," Jin said. "The authorities know this and they are showing a willingness to work with us."

And young, urban believers are welcoming the gesture as they use faith to navigate the opportunities and challenges of China today.