Baylor Choral Activities Director Will Conduct Handel's Messiah in China on Easter

March 31, 2010

Christianity Growing in China, but Still Tightly Controlled

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While Christianity has been growing in China, religious practices still are tightly controlled. So Dr. Alan Raines, director of choral activities at Baylor University, was surprised and thrilled when he was invited to conduct an Easter Sunday performance of Handel's Messiah at the opening of a large new church in Suzhou.

Especially significant is that the church has been built with the government's cooperation, he said. The Du Shu Lake Church was the recipient of the 2008 architectural design award in the People's Republic of China. It was financed with a $7.5 million dollar grant from the Suzhou Industrial Park Administrative Committee, which worked with Christian believers from more than 27 countries on the project.

"This is going to be amazing in that it is the first time the famous oratorio has been performed in this province," said Raines, who was invited by missionary Tim Conkling of China Ministries International.

Christianity has existed in China since at least the seventh century and has gained influence over the past 200 years, but Christians sometimes have been persecuted. Many Chinese Christians meet in underground churches, Raines said. However, Chinese adults are permitted to be involved with officially sanctioned Christian meetings through certain organizations.

The government will control what goes on within the walls of the new 1,000-seat cathedral, Raines said. An example: Choir members are not permitted to wear choral robes for the performance.

"The men will wear tuxedos," Raines said.

The choir includes expatriates from other countries, international high school and university students and Suzhou residents, he said. The Gothic-design church, located in an industrial park on the banks of a lake, will serve a local Suzhou Chinese Christian congregation and the English-speaking Suzhou International Fellowship.

While there has been a softening of the Chinese government's historical stance on Christianity, "it's hard to imagine this would have been approved five years ago," said Dr. Byron Johnson, co-director of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion and a professor of sociology. "This is a hopeful sign of progress.

"It's encouraging to see this happening, and it's especially exciting to see Baylor right in the middle of it," he said.

While 75 percent of Chinese report no religion, the numbers can be misleading, said Dr. Carson Mencken, a Baylor University professor of sociology.

Mencken is project director of the Spiritual Life Survey, a national probability sample of 7,121 households in the People's Republic of China, conducted in 2007. Data were collected by Horizon Key, the leading social research data collection firm in China.

The sample is part of a larger research project on spirituality in China, conducted by scholars at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and funded by John Templeton Foundation.

While the majority -- 75 percent -- reported no religion, 43 percent reported worshipping gods/spirits at ancestors' graves, and 42 percent believe in karma. Generally, spiritual life in China is a mix of practices and beliefs from a number of traditions, among them folk religions, Buddhism, Christianity and Taoism, according to the research.

The largest identifiable group in China -- 17 percent -- is Buddhist. The second largest group is Protestant Christians, with 2.3 percent, with other groups, such as Muslims, Taoists, and Daoists, making up a very small portion of the religious landscape.

The number of Christians in China is a debated topic because religious identity may have a less clear meaning in China. For example, while about 2.5 percent of respondents said they were Christian, 5.1 percent reported believing in Jesus.

Because of historical patterns of persecution against some Christians in China, some Christians might be reluctant to identify themselves as such to a stranger doing a survey, Mencken said.

Contact: Terry Goodrich, Assistant Director of Media Communications, (254) 710-3321

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