By Ryland Barton
Churches catering to Chinese immigrants have long been a vehicle for newcomers to integrate with American society, helping them to learn English, develop job skills, and make friends. And true to the pattern, it’s that promise of community in unfamiliar circumstances that gets new members in the door at Northwest Christian Church in Round Rock, Texas.
“Newcomers want to find out what people are good to meet, they want to leave a good impression,” said Pastor Cheng-Chi Yu. “Then they begin to accept the doctrine.”
There are more than one thousand Chinese churches in the United States, most of them Protestant, bringing together people from diverse origins—Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, and even other Southeast Asian countries.
But not everyone is sold on Christianity, at least at first.
“Worship is the goal,” he said. “But most of our members don’t come here Christian. They convert and get baptized as adults.”
Pastor Yu explains this as a process in which new members grow more enthusiastic about Christian principles as they form relationships with churchgoers.
The Chinese-American Christian population is large in comparison to China’s, with over 32 percent of Chinese Americans regularly attending some sort of Christian service, according to the Pew Research Center. Compare that with China, where about 1.5 percent of the population attends state-sanctioned churches and an additional 3 to 5 percent attend unofficial services.
However, Pastor Yu says that if you walk into a Chinese church in America, it’s not going to look any different from a church in China.
“They sing the same songs, they speak the same language, they read the same bible,” Yu said.
But Robert Woodberry, a UT sociologist who focuses on religion in China, says that churches in China attract a different crowd. He says that being a Christian in China is often a signifier of taste or class.
“In the US intellectuals often differentiate themselves from ‘ordinary people’ by not being Christian,” Woodberry said. “In China, it’s different, it’s reverse. Ordinary people are for the most part not Christian. Which means intellectuals can be Christian.”
But there is diversity in the Chinese Christian population. “Really, it depends on which type of Christian, which part of China, which period of time,” said Woodberry.
There are three authorized Christian organizations in China—the China Christian Council, Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Unofficial churches—colloquially called “house churches”—often operate secretly or in more rural parts of the country.