China’s Growing Third Sector

How Will the Church Respond?

The “associational revolution” currently gaining momentum in China has significant implications for the church in China and for faith-based organizations outside.

Relegated to the fringes of society for the past several decades, Chinese Christians are now finding increased opportunities to make an impact on society through their involvement in meeting social needs. The role of nonprofit organizations (NPOs), including those in which Christians are involved, continues to grow in importance in the face of a shrinking government and decreased government funding for social programs.

By taking the lead in areas of society where other groups might not be as willing to venture, Chinese Christians—often in partnership with believers from outside China—can demonstrate the love of Christ in tangible ways. This incarnational approach to witness can already be seen in Christians’ concern for orphans, people with disabilities, the poor, and those lacking access to educational opportunities. Now AIDS victims, the unemployed, families in crisis, abused women and China’s burgeoning migrant population are emerging as segments of the society in particular need of Christian love and compassion. Organizations and individuals with experience in serving these populations are finding more than ample opportunities for involvement in China today.

Just as important as the actual services provided by NPOs are the mechanisms by which these organizations can build capacity and multiply their effectiveness while being responsible stewards of the resources entrusted to them—whether by contributors inside China or concerned individuals and groups abroad. China’s fledgling “third sector” lacks the well-defined procedures and accountability measures that are so common in the nonprofit world abroad. Meanwhile, the rules by which NPOs in China will be governed are still being written. At this historic juncture there is much that nonprofit leaders outside China can offer in helping to set standards, providing training and mentoring China’s future NPO and foundation executives.

As much of China progresses rapidly toward a more urban and globally integrated society, the Chinese church will struggle to maintain its social relevance. Life-changing spiritual revival may continue to sweep the countryside. Yet if Christianity is seen as disconnected from the everyday concerns of those in China’s cities the rapid church growth of the past 25 years may be slowed or even halted.

China’s emerging third sector provides a unique—perhaps unprecedented—opportunity to demonstrate that the same message that has brought meaning and fulfillment to millions in China during the past three decades is still relevant in the radically changing China of the 21st century. How the church responds to this opportunity will influence considerably its own future and the future of China as a nation.

Image courtesy of Journal Entry (Joel Montes de Oca) by Chris Lott, on Flickr.
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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio