BEIJING, CHINA - OCTOBER 12:(CHINA OUT):Chinese Christians sing during a prayer service at an underground independent Protestant Church on October 12, 2014 in Beijing, China. China, an officially atheist country, places a number of restrictions on Christians and allows legal practice of the faith only at state-approved churches.?The policy has driven an increasing number of Christians and Christian converts 'underground' to secret congregations in private homes and other venues. While the size of the religious community is difficult to measure, studies estimate there more than 65 million Christians inside China with studies supporting the possibility it could become the most Christian nation in the world within a decade.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
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At a Sunday service in an underground church in Beijing, worshippers clap their hands and vow to spread their Christian faith in China, and beyond.

“Use me as an instrument, Lord, send me out in the world,” they sing. “I will go make you known. Lord send me.”

A Protestant revival in China has swelled the church’s membership to tens of thousands, and its ambitions are no longer limited to the country. 

Beijing’s Zion church is one of dozens in the country to have sent missionaries overseas, as evangelical Christians follow their country’s huge infrastructure push into Southeast Asia and the Middle East, creating a dilemma for the officially atheist Communist party.

There are about 1,000 Chinese missionaries outside the country, compared with virtually none a decade ago, according to churches and academics. Church leaders hope to increase their number to 20,000 by the end of the next decade. 

Those leaders say missionary activity is a natural extension of China’s Protestant movement, which has grown rapidly in recent decades and now numbers about 100m. 

“When a country develops religion to a certain level it will engage in missionary activity. This is very normal,” says Cui Qian, pastor of the Wanbang Missionary Church in Shanghai. 

Mr Cui’s church has 20 missionaries overseas, mostly in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. They work as Chinese teachers or at state-owned enterprises, and learn local languages, says the pastor, who recently visited a missionary couple in Lebanon. 

Nearly all Chinese missionaries are from “underground” churches independent of China’s state-controlled Protestant association, which for decades have been subject to Communist party crackdowns. 

That experience makes them ideal for low-profile activities in countries including North Korea, Mr Cui says. “It’s Chinese-style missionary work. We don’t build churches and we don’t need much organisational structure. We survived the Cultural Revolution. So we have experience”.

He links the missionary drive to China’s massive infrastructure initiative linking in Asia, Europe and Africa: “We have the Belt and Road policy, so there will be economic entry. Alongside the economic entry will be companies and other groups entering, including missionaries”. 

Chinese missionaries were thrust into the spotlight in June when two, Meng Li Si and Li Xinheng, were killed in Pakistan by a group apparently affiliated with Isis. 

They had been working in Baluchistan, a region home to an ongoing ethnic insurgency and at the heart of a $55bn-plus infrastructure programme backed by Beijing. 

The killings exposed a dilemma for China’s Communist party, which derives legitimacy from protecting its citizens wherever they may be but disapproves of religion and underground churches. Reaction to the incident from China’s foreign ministry was limited to assurances that it was “confirming reports”. 

Pastor Cui says the key to staying safe overseas is “not to create religious or cultural conflict”, adding: “But we are trying to create a conflict within people’s values. It’s a mental conflict.”

Some Chinese churches are inspired by an evangelical movement from the 1940s called “Back to Jerusalem”, named after a Chinese pastor’s vision of converting populations from east China to the ancient city. “The idea is that once Christianity spreads back to Jerusalem, it will hasten the second coming [of Christ],” says Carsten Vala, a professor at Loyola University Maryland who has studied underground churches. 

The movement was revived in 2000, when 36 Chinese Christians travelled to a neighbouring Buddhist country, according to its website. It reports a total of 274 missionaries working as of June in what it calls the “darkest regions of the world”, including 56 in Egypt, 30 in Myanmar and 20 in Pakistan

Chinese churches’ most ambitious plan is “Mission China 2030”, which aims to send 20,000 faithful overseas by the end of next decade. The number, calculated in part on an estimate of the number of foreign missionaries who died in China, was affirmed at a meeting of 1,000 Chinese church representatives in South Korea last summer. 

Chinese churches are basing much of their missionary activity on models pioneered by Christians in the US and South Korea, which have extensive overseas missionary networks. But the movement is becoming more Chinese. 

On an upper floor of a nondescript office building, Zion, one of the largest underground churches in Beijing, boasts a plush interior including large worship rooms with stages, where evangelical hymns are accompanied by electric guitar. 

In a sign of the movement’s growing ambition, Mr Gao, a pastor, says the church is trying to recruit more young people to undergo short missions.

“We used to just send missionaries to [training] centres abroad,” says Mr Gao. “But later we want to train missionaries ourselves.”

Follow Tom Hancock on Twitter: @hancocktom

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