The spectacular growth of Christianity in China over the past thirty years raises many fascinating questions that scholars will work on over the next decade or two. Books will be written attempting to account for the uniquely rapid rise in the number of Christians in China, contrasting the situation there with the relative failure of the faith to take hold in, for example, Japan. Others will focus on the degree to which Chinese Christianity is a distinct phenomenon from the Western version of the faith. To what extent has Christianity shed the label of a Western import and become indigenously Chinese? May we speak of a Chinese theology, fashioned to suit Chinese needs and tastes? Interesting questions all, and no account of modern Christianity will be complete without the answers. Theologians, philosophers and historians, among others, will bring their own measurements to bear in the assessment of the impact of China on Christianity.
More difficult to measure but no less fascinating is the impact of Christianity on China. Will China be changed by Christianity and, if so, how? What would a Christianized or even semi-Christianized China look like? Wherever Christianity has taken root, whether as the predominate faith or as an established minority, it has served to shape its host culture. The term Christendom was employed to denote those lands where, regardless of the intensity of individual devotion to the faith, a discernibly Christian culture prevailed. The cultural practices and virtues that constituted a Christianized culture evolved from monogamy and literacy, to the more abstract values of individual liberty and commercial ethics. The widely believed and taught judgment of Chinese scholars over the last quarter century is that Christianity was, and is, an important ingredient in the success and strength of the West in nearly every field of endeavor. It has been the work of some “cultural Christians” in China to mine Christianity for the virtues that may, with profit, be applied to China. Among such scholars, the level of enthusiasm for the Christianization of China is varied, but there remains a conviction that the faith has something to offer China in its future moral and material progress.
Developments have, however, overrun the theorizing. The mustard seed planted has blossomed into a billowing tree. The growth in numbers of devout believers in China has already started the process of forging a Christian culture in pockets of the nation. Most of these pockets are found in rural areas among the peasants where growth has been most notable. While many scholars have started to point to the growth of the church in the megacities, rural areas and smaller cities have been the stronghold of the church over the last three decades. Peasants have always comprised the vast majority of the population in China, yet have rarely been the source of intentional movements of cultural change. Even the Communist Revolution, ostensibly on behalf of the peasantry, had urban origins.
China’s leaders have learned the lesson over the last half century that they can largely ignore what happens in rural China. Many episodes in China’s recent history bear this out, but none so convincingly as the great famine of 1959-62. If the death of twenty to thirty million peasants in a man-made famine did not excite a revolt against the government, nothing could. China’s peasants lack a voice or the political power to change their own conditions. This puts them off of the radar screen for most of the urban elite. As two Chinese journalists put it in a book on the plight of China’s rural poor: “City people know as much about the peasants as they know about the man in the moon.” Only movements that originate in or make it to the cities bear attention. With regard to Christianity, all of the anecdotal evidence suggests that unauthorized house churches in the cities find themselves under more pressure that those in the country, where many openly flout the requirements to register with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. When the church gains ground in the city, the government takes notice.
In David Aikman’s widely-read account of the state of Christianity in China today, he writes that “China is in the process of becoming Christianized.” He qualifies this by noting that this does not necessitate a majority of Chinese becoming professing Christians. It means that “the Christian view of the world will be the dominant worldview in China political and cultural establishment.” If the rate of growth continues undiminished, this assessment is almost certainly prophetic.
The question remains whether Christianity will become a full-fledged urban phenomenon in China. Only in this way can we expect Christianity to achieve the position of cultural dominance that Aikman predicts. Throughout the history of the church, the growth has normatively come first to the poor and only later to the rich. Missionary efforts in China to reach the elite first, going back to the Ming dynasty Jesuit campaign, have not succeeded in reaping a large harvest of souls. However, at times in China’s history, the faith has shown the ability to penetrate and impact important urban centers, particularly coastal entrepots. Christians even enjoyed enough influence to imagine the faith having an important role in shaping China’s future. In places like Fuzhou in the early twentieth century, where Christianity enjoyed healthy growth, Protestants believed that China’s salvation would come through the agency of Christianity. As China scholar Ryan Dunch writes of these Protestants:
They envisioned a strong and confident China, regenerated through Christianity, built upon an uplifted citizenry educated to the moral duty of patriotism, taking its place confidently in a world community of nation-states progressing toward a bright global future.
If the same vision has taken hold of today’s Chinese Christians, it means that Christianity is primarily seen as a way to make China stronger and better; it ultimately serves the interest of nationalism.
In my read of the situation and in conversations with Chinese Christians, one of the appeals of Christianity in China today is the very fact that it is an international phenomenon that transcends, or should transcend, national or cultural loyalties. Christianity is not popular because it represents everything Western, nor because it has been so indigenized that it is seen as a native Chinese faith. Rather, Chinese Christians see the faith as a force that brings unity in the world as nothing else can. To embrace it is to embrace the one entity that has the power to unify the globe.
For this reason, Chinese Christians have ambitious plans to spread the gospel beyond China. Christianity may be a blessing to China but is not a blessing to be hoarded. Missionaries are being sent all around the world with an emphasis on the least evangelized areas on the planet to China’s west. The scale of Chinese foreign missionary endeavor is still small, but the potential is seemingly limitless.
The realization of this potential will be an important moment for Christianity in China.
China is still a net importer of Christian input. The source of missionaries, materials, theology and strategy is still the West. The most important marker that China is being changed by Christianity will be when the tide begins to turn and the Chinese become net exporters of the faith. The impulse to reach out, beyond the borders of your own nation, is itself a sign of confidence and maturity in the faith. This instinct to move out into the world, as Chinese Christians are starting to do, is being mirrored in China more broadly. The Chinese, throughout recorded history reluctant to engage the world beyond their immediate borders, are moving out boldly into the world both to extend China’s economic might and to make a cultural impact abroad. The virtual colonization of parts of Africa by China, Inc. and the opening of hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the globe bear witness to this phenomenon.
For Christians, there is a confidence that results from seeing cultural change in the name of Christ. Missionaries who come from cultures where there has been little impact by Christianity can only testify to the work of God in their individual lives. A far more powerful and credible witness is possible when you can point to how your community, or culture, or nation have been transformed.
China has been transformed over the last twenty-five years and will see even more dramatic changes in the next quarter-century. The most notable changes have taken place in the economic realm where the lives of Chinese, particularly in the cities, have been improved by the economic miracle that their country has achieved. Less impressive has been the progress towards greater political freedom, the urgency of which has no doubt been blunted by the economic gains. Anecdotal evidence from those who observe the Christian scene in China suggests that Christians there are invariably more politically aware and knowledgeable than their non-Christian compatriots. The vicissitudes of the political scene bear directly on their ability to worship and share their faith as they see fit. They tend to be better acquainted with their constitutional rights and to know where to seek help in defending those rights. In places where Christians are concentrated in sufficient numbers, there have even been attempts to challenge the government on its religious policies through the construction of unauthorized churches or by taking local officials to court. As one house church network leader put it: “Christianity is freedom.” Christianity is also seen to insist on rules and respect for law, both God’s and man’s. As economist Zhao Xiao put it:
(One thing Christianity) will bring is a spirit of contracts. We know that, whether it is a market economy or a constitutional system, behind them all is a civilization based upon rules. So what we need is a group of people who observe rules. Only then can this system work with highest efficiency. And this spirit of contracts, it comes from belief in Christianity 
A Christianized China will be a China that is more immersed in the language of individual rights and freedoms, tempered by the rule of law.
In many ways it will always be difficult to identify change in China that may be directly attributed to Christianity and its influence. This is true in other parts of the world where the forces of Christianization and those of Westernization may be nearly indistinguishable. Other forces will undoubtedly receive the credit for positive change that improves the lives of all Chinese. Christianity may always be a minority movement in China, but it will be like the leaven in the meal which has strength beyond its weightlike the kingdom of God itself, detectable only to those anticipating its arrival.
Image credit: DSC00495 by makzhou, on Flickr
Brent Whitefield is pastor of missions and outreach at Northpoint Evangelical Free Church in Corona, California. His work takes him to Asia several times a year. 'He has taught East Asian history and Communication Arts (Valparaiso University, Biola University, California Baptist University) for sixteen years. View Full Bio