Supporting Article

Christianity in China in the Context of Global Christianity

Both Christianity in China and global Christianity have undergone profound demographic changes since the year 1900. The two have interacted in significant ways with one another, both positive and negative, especially since the beginning of the twenty-first century. This contact leads to two questions: (1) What is the significance of global Christianity for Chinese Christianity? and (2) What is the significance of Chinese Christianity for global Christianity? These questions are important because Christians around the world are increasingly connected with one another. As Nigerian theologian Victor Ifeanyi Ezigbo and African-American ethicist Reggie L. Williams state, “Christianity is not truly global by its mere presence in many countries of the world. It is truly global when two criteria are met. First, the local communities of the world’s nations are given the freedom to rethink and re-express Christianity’s teaching about God’s relationship with the world through Jesus Christ. And second, the local communities see themselves as equals, conversing and critiquing each other and contributing theologically to Christianity’s long tradition.”[1] Chinese Christians have a unique place in global Christianity, and they are entering into a deeper conversation with Christians in both the global South and the global North.

Global Christianity[2]

The most significant trend within global Christianity is its dramatic demographic shift to the South. This shift has been documented by many scholars as a groundbreaking process affecting not only all religions worldwide, but how Christianity itself is practiced as a global phenomenon.[3]. Yet, over the course of the twentieth century and already into the twenty-first, Christians have continued to make up approximately one-third of the world’s population. This sustained percentage masks dramatic changes in the geographical makeup of global Christianity—a process of both North-South and East-West movement stretching back to the earliest days of Christianity—that is far from inconsequential.

The shift of Christianity to the global South is most clearly illustrated by the drastic changes in Christian percentages by continent between 1910 and 2010. In 1910 the majority of Christians worldwide resided in the global North, with only small representations in Oceania, Africa, and Asia; 66 percent of all Christians lived in Europe. By 2010 Europe’s proportion of all Christians had dropped to only 26 percent. Conversely, less than two percent of all Christians lived in Africa in 1910, which skyrocketed to almost 22 percent by 2010. The global North contained over 80 percent of all Christians in 1910, falling to less than 40 percent by 2010. It is clear that Christianity in 1910 was largely a Western phenomenon, including a strong European Roman Catholic presence in Latin America, where few church leaders were actually Latin Americans. The most dramatic difference between these two dates is in Africa—less than 10 percent Christian in 1910 but nearly 50 percent Christian in 2010, with sub-Saharan Africa well over 70 percent Christian.

Divisions between Christians

Another trend is the increasing number of Christian denominations in the world. There are now more than 45,000 Christian denominations, ranging in size from millions to less than one hundred members.[4] Korean theologian Moonjang Lee writes, “Christianity has become too fragmented. Existing in a fragmented world, churches fail to show a united front. There are so many divisions within Christianity that it is an intriguing task to clarify a Christian identity.”[5] Today, the vast majority of denominations are located in the Independent (more than 27,000) and Protestant (nearly 11,000) traditions. If current trends continue, by 2025 there could be 55,000 denominations.

Christian Renewal Worldwide

A further trend inside global Christianity is the appearance of unprecedented renewal movements occurring globally within all traditions. Renewal within global Christianity takes many forms, including evangelical movements, liturgical renewal, Bible study fellowships, and house church movements. The numbers of Christians involved in various kinds of renewal movements include 300 to 545 million Evangelicals[6] and 600 million Pentecostals/Charismatics. The locus of Christian renewal is clearly in the global South, where the majority of its practitioners live and where it is growing most rapidly.

Comparing Chinese and Global Christianity

Table 1 compares Christians in China with Christians around the globe in 1900, 2000, and 2010. In 1900, Christians made up less than 0.5 percent of the population of what is today China,[7] whereas Christians were 34.5 percent of the global population. But throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, Christianity in China saw tremendous growth, while the percentage of Christians around the world declined slightly. At the same time that Christianity in the global North has been declining, Christianity in the global South has been on the rise. Chinese Christianity is part of that story.

Table 1: Christianity in China and the World, 1900-2010
  1900 % 2000 % 2010 % 1900–2000 % p.a.* 2000–2010 % p.a.
Christians 558,131,000 34.5% 1,988,414,000 32.4% 2,272,774,000 32.9% 1.11% 1.35%
Independents 8,859,000 0.5% 301,804,000 4.9% 378,958,000 5.5% 3.12% 2.30%
Orthodox 115,855,000 7.2% 256,653,000 4.2% 276,605,000 4.0% 0.69% 0.75%
Protestants 133,606,000 8.2% 426,950,000 7.0% 507,239,000 7.3% 1.02% 1.74%
Catholics 266,566,000 16.5% 1,047,224,000 17.1% 1,172,804,000 17.0% 1.20% 1.14%
Evangelicals 80,912,000 5.0% 239,563,000 3.9% 300,426,000 4.3% 0.95% 2.29%
Pentecostals 981,000 0.1% 460,526,000 7.5% 587,579,000 8.5% 5.49% 2.47%
Christians 1,651,000 0.3% 76,691,000 6.0% 107,956,000 7.9% 3.39% 3.48%
Independents 1,000 0.0% 50,043,000 3.9% 75,342,000 5.5% 9.87% 4.18%
Orthodox 5,000 0.0% 10,000 0.0% 10,000 0.0% 0.60% 0.00%
Protestants 385,000 0.1% 16,421,000 1.3% 24,721,000 1.8% 3.32% 4.18%
Catholics 1,100,000 0.2% 12,000,000 0.9% 15,000,000 1.1% 2.10% 2.26%
Evangelicals 270,000 0.1% 10,172,000 0.8% 15,246,000** 1.1% 3.21% 4.13%
Pentecostals 2,000 0.0% 35,152,000 2.7% 52,091,000 3.8% 8.87% 4.01%
*% p.a. stands for “percent per annum,” the average annual growth rate over the period listed. 
**Strict self-identification. Operation World, using a broader definition, estimates 75.4 million or about 70% of all Christians.
Source: Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo, eds., World Christian Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed May 2015).
Note: Christian traditions do not add up the Christian total because the table is missing doubly-affiliated (members of more than one denomination), unaffiliated, and disaffiliated Christians. House churches are found in the “Independent” tradition. In addition, Evangelicals and Pentecostals are found within the four traditions above and should not be added to the others.

Christian traditions

While Roman Catholics make up more than half of all Christians globally in 2010, they make up only one-third of all Christians in China. Protestants (e.g. Three-Self Patriotic Movement) and Independents (e.g. house churches) make up two-thirds of all Chinese Christians (note, however, that there are very large numbers of doubly affiliated in China). The fastest growing Christian tradition in the world and in China (from 2000 – 2010) is Independents (globally including African Initiated Churches and nontraditional Christian churches; in China, mainly the house church movement). Note that Christians in China grew 2.5 times faster (from 2000 – 2010) than global Christianity (3.48% p.a. vs. 1.35% p.a.).

Evangelicals and Pentecostals

Globally, Evangelicals are 13 percent of all Christians, and Pentecostals are 25 percent of all Christians. In China, Evangelicals (strict self-identification) are 14 percent of all Christians while Pentecostals are much higher at 48 percent of all Christians. (Evangelicals, on the broader Operation World definition, are 70% of all Christians in China). Chinese Christians who interact with Western Christians (in particular) on the global stage often find themselves more conservative theologically and more dynamic in worship and practice. At the same time, they can often clash with other Christians in Asia over the strongly “Chinese” culture expressed in their Christian faith.[8]

Chinese in Global Christianity

Chinese Christianity has at least three characteristics that are significant in the context of global Christianity: (1) nondenominationalism, (2) growth under pressure, and (3) mission after colonialism. Each of these characteristics can be set in opposition to key features of Western Christianity: (1) proliferation of denominations, (2) decline under favor, and (3) colonial mission. Finally, a fourth area is the global diaspora of Chinese around the world.


While there is clearly a Catholic/Protestant divide both in Chinese Christian history and in the present situation of the church, Chinese Christians have, for the most part, avoided the denominationalism present in the rest of the world. This means that Chinese Christians might have a special role in bringing together Christians from different backgrounds. Until recently Chinese Christians have not had a significant presence at international gatherings, but that is beginning to change. A potential disadvantage of this increased contact, however, might be the introduction of denominationalism into China.

Growth under pressure

The modern history of persecution of the Chinese church includes diverse interactions between the Chinese government and Christians—in some places severe, and, in others, merely restrictive. At present, there seems to be a very uneven treatment of Christians across China. Internationally, Christians are under great pressure. The Pew Research Center reports on the limits to religious freedom in most countries in the world, with Christians as the most widely persecuted religious group (139 countries).[9] Persecution is one important area that Chinese Christians share with other Christians around the world. At the same time, Western Christians have been declining as a percentage in virtually every country where Christianity once was aligned with the state.[10]

Mission after colonialism

Despite persecution and limited contact with the world, Chinese Christians have expressed a vision to reach the whole world with the gospel. One such initiative is the Back to Jerusalem movement, with its roots in the 1920s. It was revived in the early 2000s, and Chinese Christians set their sights on sending 100,000 missionaries to the Middle East (back along the Silk Roads on which Christianity initially made its way to China).[11] Meanwhile, Christians around the world have focused the vast majority of its mission efforts on places that are already Christian.[12] An unanswered question is how Chinese mission strategy might impact global mission strategy, especially in light of the fact that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western mission was often aligned with the colonial enterprise.


Finally, there is the Chinese diaspora, one of the world’s largest, with major global impact across business and education. Chinese are living all over the world; more than 50 million are estimated to now live outside of China with large concentrations in Thailand, Malaysia, the United States, Canada, and dozens of other countries.[13] While Chinese have the tendency to minister only to their fellow Chinese abroad, missiologist Enoch Wan offers suggestions for forming strategic partnerships with other diaspora communities (such as the Koreans).[14] Generally, Chinese are more Christian in diaspora than they are in China (e.g., Chinese are 30 percent Christian in Australia, but only eight percent at home).[15] For these and other reasons, Chinese in diaspora are strategically placed throughout the world, both to interact with other Christians and to reach non-Christians.


Today, Christians in China are increasingly interacting with Christians worldwide. What do they offer to each other? As stated above, one of the single greatest challenges to global Christianity is navigating fragmentation and diversity. Another significant challenge for global Christians is interaction with people in other religions. Here, Chinese Christians might have something special to offer. They live in one of the most religiously diverse countries on earth and are also found in many other countries. They can take their own experience, missiologically and theologically, and speak to the global Church about good practices and lessons learned from living without denominations in religiously diverse settings. The global Church, on the other hand, has become increasingly connected, something that the Chinese church would greatly benefit from. It is this kind of interaction and dialogue that will continue to define the relationship between local forms of Christianity around the world and the global Christian community.


  1. ^ Victor Ifeanyi Ezigbo and Reggie L. Williams, “Converting a Colonialist Christ: Toward an African Postcolonial Christology,” in Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis, ed. Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha, and L. Daniel Hawk (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), pp. 88–101.
  2. ^ This section is derived from a longer essay by Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Bellofatto [Zurlo], “Upon Closer Examination: Status of World Christianity,” in River of God: An Introduction to World Mission, ed. Doug Priest and Steve Burris (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2012), pp. 108–124.
  3. ^ See Philip Jenkins, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion  (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009); Mark A. Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009).
  4. ^ See Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo, eds. World Christian Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007) for a complete listing of Christian denominations in every country of the world.
  5. ^ Lee, “Future of Global Christianity,” in Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 104.
  6. ^ The structural definition of “Evangelicals” consists of all affiliated church members self-identifying as Evangelicals (300 million in 2010, World Christian Database). The theological definition includes church members who affirm or practice belief in the crucified Christ, an experience of personal conversion, adherence to the Bible as a theological foundation, and active engagement in missionary evangelism (545 million in 2010, Operation World). See Gina A. Zurlo, “Demographics of Global Evangelicalism,” in Brian C. Stiller, Todd M. Johnson, Karen Stiller, and Mark Hutchinson, eds., Evangelicals Around the World: A Global Handbook for the 21st Century  (Thomas Nelson, 2015), pages 34-47.
  7. ^ Not including Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan, all examined as separate countries in the World Christian Database.
  8. ^ This is particularly true in countries in Southeast Asia where Chinese are a minority but economically stronger. See “South-East Asia’s Chinese,” BBC News, August 29, 2001,
  9. ^ “Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion,” Pew Research Center (September 2012): 23, accessed May 2015,
  10. ^ Johnson and Ross, Atlas of Global Christianity, pp. 154-173, 190-193.
  11. ^ David Ro, “The Rising Missions Movement in China and How to Support it” in Lausanne Global Analysis, Vol. 4, Issue 3, May 2015, pp. 4-10.
  12. ^ “About 82% of Christian expenditure is dedicated to the pastoral ministries of the churches in the home countries of the givers, mostly in the heartlands of the Christian faith.” Johnson and Ross, Atlas of Global Christianity, p. 296.
  13. ^ Huiyao Wang, “China’s Competition for Global Talents: Strategy, Policy, and Recommendations,” Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada: Research Reports, May 24, 2012, pp. 1-19.
  14. ^ Enoch Wan, “Korean Diaspora: From Hermit Kingdom to Kingdom Ministry,” in Korean Diaspora and Christian Mission, ed. S. Hun Kim and Wonsuk Ma (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 101–116.
  15. ^ Vegard Skirbekk, Stuart Basten, Eric Caron Malenfant, and Marcin Stonawski, “The Religious Composition of the Chinese Diaspora, Focusing on Canada,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 51, No. 1, January 2012, pp. 173-183.
Image credit: Yellow China by John Keogh via Flickr.
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Todd M. Johnson

Todd M. Johnson

Todd M. Johnson is Associate Professor of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts and co-editor of Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh University Press, 2009).View Full Bio