The Meaning of Shouwang
In 2011, it is still hard to know for sure how many Christians are in China. An official census published in 2010 estimated the number at 23 million. Other calculations have ranged from 40 million to 130 million. According to God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World, China probably has close to 100 million Christians and will soon have the world’s largest Christian population. The book, published in 2009, was written by John Micklethwait, Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, and his colleague, Adrian Wooldridge.
Yet, as Aikman pointed out in Jesus in Beijing, “in numerical terms they were still a small minority...but they were being noticed, and they kept turning up in the most unexpected places.” The Christians Aikman met across China were farmers, businesspeople, students, scholars, artists and even government officials.
Today Christians can be found in almost all walks of life in China, and like private companies before them, non-state-owned churches - known as “house churches” - are beginning to grow into an “important component” of the Chinese society.
According to Li Fan, Director of the World and China Institute, a Beijing-based non-governmental think tank, house churches have become the most powerful non-governmental organization in China. Li Fan reckoned that all over China, house churches had nearly one million worship and meeting places where the participants might account for 1/3-1/2 of China’s NGO population.
Shouwang Church is just one many house churches scattered across China. Early in April, more than 20 house churches in Beijing alone declared their solidarity with Shouwang by holding prayer meetings. Some of them are also large pastoral churches. Shouwang's story, however, is especially instructive one, since it began as a tiny Bible study group. The Bible study not only survived in a (seemingly) hostile environment but thrived. It has gone on to make a national and even international impact.
The current global media spotlight centers on the physical meeting place of Shouwang Church because since 10 April, 2011, the church has been forced to worship outdoors for three consecutive Sundays. Before that, the Shouwang congregation of about one thousand people had gathered in a conference hall of the Old Story Club in the northern urban area of Beijing for more than a year. But according to Shouwang Church, the owner of the rented venue was under mounting pressure from the government. In March, Shouwang planned to rent a conference hall of a hotel in the northwest of the city. However, the church said some relevant government agencies again interfered and prevented it from renting the new premises.
During the past three Sundays, numerous uniformed and plainclothes police officers were sent to a public square at Zhongguancun, known as "China's Silicon Valley", in Beijing’s northwestern district of Haidian. That is where Shouwang worshipers were supposed to gather. Hundreds of people of the Shouwang congregation were detained for hours, some even for 24 hours or 48 hours.