Off the grid
The Chinese Christian school movement doesn’t officially exist, and parents make great sacrifices to join it—but it’s growing quickly
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CHINA—In a residential area on the outskirts of a large city, children in navy blazers and khaki skirts push open a bright yellow wrought iron gate. Inside sits a Christian school with classrooms displaying alphabet letters, caterpillar crafts, bean bag chairs, and Bible verses. Some kindergarten and elementary-age students squeal while grabbing their pint-sized red-and-white choir robes from student lockers for Monday morning chapel.
Not an unusual sight in the United States, right? But it’s an amazing sight in China, where 300-500 Christian schools, most newly formed, officially do not exist. As these children practice speaking English with American teachers, read Chinese books in their well-stocked libraries, and learn traditional Chinese tea etiquette, in the government’s eyes it’s as though they never stepped inside a classroom.
The wooden jungle gym, the tire swings dangling from rafters, the father who leads a house church on Sundays and clips bamboo trees in the courtyard, the classrooms with colorful verses in Chinese characters (“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”) are all suspect because the school is unlicensed and church-run. Unless rules change, its graduates will not be allowed to take the gaokao, China’s nationwide college entrance exam.
While such a future is unthinkable for most Chinese parents who value degrees and university prestige, the demand is growing—often faster than the supply of qualified, sustainable schools—for schools like this one that teach education based in biblical truth.
For a country with more than 68 million Christians, a few hundred Christian schools with fewer than 60 students each is barely a drop in the Yangtze River. Yet unlike the missionary-started Christian schools in China’s past, this time local Chinese are understanding the need for Christian education and seeking to provide it for the next generation.
As in any new movement, mistakes and trials abound, compounded by the constant fear that officials will crack down. To combat the problems, educators and pastors are training teachers, writing curricula, and setting up an independent accreditation agency. Courageous parents, more concerned about their children entering the kingdom of heaven than entering top-ranked Peking University or Tsinghua University, are plunging headfirst into this countercultural move.
JASMINE ZHU, a petite and soft-spoken mother of a 6-year-old (I’ve changed Zhu’s name and others so as not to help persecution-minded officials), is one of those parents. She spent her formative years in the atheistic public school system, where teachers call belief in God a mere superstition. When Zhu first heard the gospel, the idea of a living, all-powerful God was difficult to grasp: It contradicted everything she had ever learned. As she grew in her faith, married, and became a mother, she wanted to raise her daughter to love God and knew that sending her to public school could sabotage that.
When Zhu’s daughter was 2, a woman from her church in Eastern China attended a Christian teacher’s training and excitedly returned to tell a group of Christian parents what she had learned. Those six or seven couples became the school’s original “board of directors.” With one trained teacher and another mother, they started an unofficial kindergarten class for their 3-year-olds. (That’s when Chinese children go to kindergarten, which includes what Americans call preschool. Since kindergarten is not part of China’s nine years of compulsory education, starting a private kindergarten is easier than opening an elementary or middle school.)
Zhu, a public school teacher herself, quit her job to teach at her daughter’s school two years later. At first, she wasn’t sure what Christian education entailed, but she learned on the job as she attended training courses and prayed: “God’s grace exceeded what I asked for.” The starkest difference she saw between Christian and public schools was the relationship between teachers and students. Public school teachers worked to control the kids outwardly—often through shame and fear—without caring for their internal problems. She saw Christian teachers loving students, and for the first time since becoming a teacher she began examining how teachers could change lives and not just shovel information.
Her school has faced difficulties throughout its four-year existence. It has changed locations every year due to visits from officials, expensive rent, and safety issues. This fall it will move to a larger space on the outskirts of town that will give children room to run around, but the new building is too far for some of the parents to make the trek. As a result, money is tight as the school only has 19 students enrolled and 11 instructors teaching kindergarten and first, second, and seventh grades.
“Maybe we are doing this imperfectly and there are still areas that need to mature,” Zhu noted. “But this is better than knowing we could start our own school, yet still sending our kids to public schools because of the world’s standards.” The choice is a permanent one: Parents who send their kids to Christian kindergartens can still enter the public school system, but if they pull their kids out of the system after first grade, the students can never get back in, save for connections with high-level education officials.
IN THE 1800s Western missionaries found evangelism hard going and tried to reach the Chinese by building hospitals and schools. By one count, China had 6,000 Christian schools by 1925; but when Communists gained power in 1949, they expelled missionaries and shuttered Christian schools unless they secularized. Some schools moved to Taiwan, and others completely shut down.
John Liu, a Christian education leader in contemporary China, says dependence on Westerners contributed to the failure of the schools. Sitting in a McDonald’s, Liu used plastic coffee lids to show how missionary schools rarely developed deep roots in Chinese soil: Once the foreigners were gone—Liu brushed the caps aside—so was the Christian school system. Now, though, foreigners train teachers and provide resources, but at most schools local Chinese Christians do the heavy lifting. Foreign Christian high schools and colleges play a part by providing further education for Chinese students after they graduate.
Liu’s interest in Christian education began as he thought about teaching his firstborn son about Christ. He originally planned to start his own school, but his background in marketing thrust him into the role of organizing the first national Christian education conference in 2006. Only 30 people attended then, but now hundreds do. By connecting pastors and educators of different denominations, groups are creating indigenous curricula and educational standards.
Other schools are blends. Jerry Wolfe, a lanky American with a goatee, started a bilingual school that differs from others in that foreign and local students learn together. That’s a sensitive issue in the authorities’ eyes, but parents hope children will learn both Chinese and Western ways and blend the best. In four years, the school has grown from 13 to 122 students meeting at two locations, with students from six different continents.
The school melds a classical Christian curriculum with local curriculum in areas such as math and Chinese language. Over lunch, Wolfe’s elementary-age daughters excitedly sang about Africa’s geography and recited chapter two of Luke’s Gospel in Chinese. Wolfe wants every part of the school to meet government qualifications, even if it never gets the green light, so the school’s two buildings meet all the space requirements to open a school, and school leaders have all necessary degrees: “If we’re successful, it wouldn’t be measured by the current group of students but by the school as an institution. Is it still a blessing to the city 50 years from now? And are the kids who’ve come out of it really living a life that glorifies God?”
Liu, who says “public school is used by the devil to lead kids to hell,” also thinks long-term. Already parents are seeing second-generation Christians leaving the church as academics and the cares of the world stifle their faith. Liu’s primary goal is to do all he can so the passion and growth of Christianity in China doesn’t end in one generation.
ANYONE WHO HAS STARTED a Christian school in America knows it’s tough: Square and cube that difficulty to get a sense of what Chinese parents face. They often lack business sense, struggle to find teachers who are academically and spiritually qualified, and have difficulties contextualizing U.S. Christian curricula. Two of the schools mentioned above struggle with financial pressures that could lead to their closure in the next few years, which would force parents to homeschool, find other Christian schools, or—if finances allow—send children overseas.
Those two schools are not unusual. At a recent training session for 15 principals in northern China, a finance teacher asked them to create five-year budgets for their schools: The result was a sea of red. Seated in neat rows in a largely bare-walled classroom located above a deserted strip mall, the principals hailed from all over China, yet pinpointed similar needs: more teacher training and help to keep up with rapid growth.
Often when word gets out about a new Christian school, parents rush to secure a spot for their children—so small, inexperienced schools have the pleasure but also distress to see enrollment doubling every year.
Schools started by house churches get financial support from Sunday offering baskets, but those started by parents mainly depend on tuition, which typically ranges from $2,500 to $5,500. This means the schools typically cater to wealthier families, although demand exists in rural areas as well. At the training session a woman with a face darkened from working in the fields spoke of starting a church school that had low tuition—$320 per year—and couldn’t pay enough to keep its teachers. She tried raising tuition to $400 a year, but the parents (mainly farmers) balked: Four teachers left, leaving only two teachers for 60 students.
Many of these schools only go up to middle school, so parents and students still must figure out what to do for four years after graduation. So far, most Christian school grads have gone overseas to U.S. Christian colleges, yet the high cost makes it an unrealistic option for many. Christians have started a few colleges in the country, including a three-year program to train future Christian teachers. Graduates can also attend technical schools, house church seminaries, or directly enter the workforce.
Even though students at Christian schools are unable to take the college entrance exam, some schools are making sure their students are academically prepared for the test, should the law ever change.
Yet even with the uncertainties and setbacks, the educators I spoke to believe local, small Christian schools are here to stay. One principal noted that even if government officials quashed the schools, they’d keep popping back up: “Christian education will grow the same way the house church grew, which is to say the house church grew without a center. They just rent a building and start it, and when they fill it, they rent another one.”
Listen to June Cheng discuss Christian schools in China on The World and Everything in It.
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