A fast-spreading sect named Lightning from the East is alarming Christian communities across China by winning large numbers of converts to its unorthodox tenets, often by abducting potential believers. Its followers, who say they number 300,000 but whom observers measure in the tens of thousands, believe that Jesus has returned as a plain-looking, 30-year-old Chinese woman who lives in hiding and has never been photographed. They credit her with composing a third testament to the Bible, writing enough hymns to fill 10 CDs and teaching that Christians who join her will ascend to heaven in the coming apocalypse. They see signs of doom everywhere, from the perfidy of Communist Party propaganda to anthrax spores in the U.S. postal system. According to one of the group's Chinese leaders who uses the alias "Peter" and moved to New York City last year, "The judgment is ongoing in China and will expand through the world."
The sect—which calls itself "the con-gregation"—operates deep underground. A two-year police campaign against it and other so-called "evil cults," such as Falun Gong, has put 2,000 of its followers in jail, say its spokesmen. Yet by targeting Christian believers it is flourishing—even though its belief that the female Jesus has updated the Bible for China violates core Christian tenets. The appeal seems to be the group's claim to have improved the Christian faith by putting the end of the world into a Chinese context and offering believers a path to immediate salvation. Official Christian churches, by contrast, downplay the Final Judgment, emphasizing instead codes of behavior. That, plus the sect's insistence that China is "disintegrating from within," appeals to peasants, many of whom are poorly grounded in Christian principles and are angry at a government that has failed to raise their incomes or curb corruption.
Fearful for their believers' souls and welfare, leaders of China's roughly 60 million Christians have mobilized. Last year a man claiming to be Lightning's coordinator for north China met secretly with a senior aide to a Catholic bishop in Hebei province to try to convert the Catholic leadership there. He failed, and the bishopric has warned clergies to remain vigilant against Lightning. In Henan, the main church in Dengfeng county called a meeting of 70 lay leaders for a two-day training session on Lightning's "heresies"—but since then five of the leaders have joined the sect. Lightning "is the greatest danger we face today," says a minister named Li who no longer allows strangers to worship in his church in Zhengzhou city, where the sect began a decade ago.
Lightning is the most aggressive Christian sect to emerge in China since the revolution, but it follows a beaten path. In the decades before the communists swept to power in 1949, a Chinese missionary known as Watchman Nee built his congregation, the Little Flock, to 300,000 followers in central China. The sect's emphasis on decentralized congregations launched a home-church movement that helped Christianity survive communist repression. Yet as Little Flock congregations became isolated, they splintered into separate groups. The Shouters, for instance, rewrote the Lord's Prayer to read simply, "Oh, Lord Jesus," and taught followers to holler the phrase while stamping their feet in unison. Other offshoots, like the Disciples, believe that the devil exists in all people—and can be beaten out of them.
Today, the Communist Party's restrictions on religion help sects flourish. China's 18 state-sanctioned Protestant seminaries can't graduate enough ministers, and in the countryside, believers commonly outnumber ordained preachers 50,000 to one—not enough shepherds for an expanding flock. The unavailability of rural health-care means that "seven out of 10 converts come to faith through illness" after people pray for their recovery, estimates Faye Pearson, a teacher at China's biggest seminary, in Nanjing. Many of these converts have scarcely read the Bible. Without strong doctrinal leadership, it's a prescription for heterodoxy. "I'm not sure that most rural Christians are well enough grounded in Christianity to even know they're in a sect," says Daniel Bays, a historian of Chinese Christianity at Calvin College in Michigan.
A typical country church, this one outside Dengfeng county is run by a lay minister who has received no special training on dealing with strange sects. It is poor. The pulpit is a red flounce curtain draped over a desk; broken windows let the swirling central China dust coat the whitewashed walls. The biggest single expenditure this year was the $25 the congregation gave its most desperate members to celebrate the lunar new year. Every Sunday 150 peasants crowd onto low wooden benches to receive the Word, including a gray-haired woman known as Granny He.
On a chilly night three autumns ago, a young woman in her 20s walked past the chickens scratching in Granny He's courtyard and knocked on her red wooden door. The caller had done her research: she knew Granny He was Christian and that her husband, a teacher, spent time away. They talked about God for two hours that evening, and for longer on subsequent nights. Then the visitor arranged for a rare luxury—a car to drive Granny He to worship in someone's home. There, she and seven other believers sat facing the preacher. He said the Jesus of the Bible is the old one. The new Jesus has come, and she will destroy the earth. They sang hymns that the new savior had written to the tunes of familiar revolutionary ditties like Communist Party, My Loving Mama. Granny He returned four more times. On occasion, when the spirit moved them, they danced. "I half believed and half doubted," she says. A month later, concerned relatives forbade her to attend any more meetings. Sundays now find her back on the country church's wooden benches, but she sounds ambivalent about Lightning: "I don't think they harm people's spirit."
Granny He's experience was a textbook piece of evangelism. The sect's most trusted members receive a 67-page missionary manual explaining the dos and don'ts of conversion. Do start slowly, lend money, convince converts that God's work is incomplete and, finally, that doomsday is coming and Jesus has arrived to complete that work. Don't tell them until they are firm believers that the new Jesus will destroy the Great Red Dragon, which in the Bible represents Satan but to Lightning represents China. And if anybody asks why the "all-powerful" new Jesus must hide from police, the answer is that "there's a time for secrecy and a time for openness, but she has her plan," says Joseph Yu, a believer who arrived in New York City two years ago.
Sometimes, the plan seems unfathomable. A 60-year-old woman from Zhengzhou says Lightning devotees invited her to teach the Bible in their homes last year. They drove her to an unfamiliar village and presented her with a screaming and trembling man. They instructed her to cast out his devil. She couldn't. Then a Lightning follower prayed and sure enough the devil vanished, proving the woman's God was false, they said. Frightened, she acknowledged that her God seemed less powerful. Still, they held her nine more days, until her minister tracked her down and sought the police. She is too afraid to be quoted by name. "The other day I dreamed that they piled onto my bed and wouldn't leave," she said in a phone interview.
Lightning from the East has burrowed further underground in China. But already its followers hand out leaflets in Chinatowns in New York City and San Francisco. Lightning could soon strike the West.