Peoples of China

Getting on Target

The door to China continues to open. While missionaries as such are not welcomed by the authorities, opportunities abound for qualified Christians to enter and work in China in a wide variety of fields.  As churches outside China are able to break free from traditional approaches that do not fit the current situation in China, some very effective ministry strategies are developing.

A critical component of many of these strategies is the targeting of one or more specific groups of people. Hundreds of distinct unreached people groups have been identified, and an increasing number of churches and servant ministries are focusing their efforts upon reaching one or more of them with the gospel.  For this we praise God.  What is being done needs to be continued and expanded.

However, there is an additional challenge that needs to be faced.  Most of the information being disseminated about unreached peoples in China focuses only on the minorities.  This is due in large part to the fact that the peoples of China have been examined almost exclusively through an ethnolinguistic paradigms.[1]  This, and the fact that the church has grown at an amazing pace in parts of China over the past 50 years, has led to the popular misconception that most of the population of China should be considered reached.[2]

I refer here to the Han Chinese, the majority population of China, which comprises over 92% of the population—close to 1.2 billion people.  The unreached peoples among them are not as easily identified as those among the minorities, but they are no less real. Simple logic suggests their existence. The approximately 100 million people Peoples of China Peoples of China classified as minorities in China are comprised of over 400 distinct ethnolinguistic groups.  Would we not expect to find that a bloc of humanity ten times as large has at least that many subgroups within it.

Even from an ethnolinguistic point of view, a careful study of the Han peoples of China reveals that they are not one people group, but many.  The peoples of China speak a multitude of diverse languages and dialects.  While a common written script creates a certain level of commonality, there are significant differences in the speech patterns of various sub-groups of the Han, as well as many diverse cultural practices. These differences are deeply rooted in different ethnic backgrounds. In recent years Beijing-style Mandarin Chinese (called Putonghua) has been taught throughout China, and most of the population of China can understand it.  The government has worked hard to unify the country, and these efforts have resulted in some homogenization of the population.  However, for many Chinese, their local dialect is still their heart language, and their local customs are more precious to them than those lately imported from afar.  It is folly to ignore this reality if we are serious about reaching all the peoples of China with the gospel.

More than twenty years ago David Liao, a Christian leader of Hakka descent, wrote a book about his people entitled The Unreached, Resistant or Neglected?  In the book he argued convincingly that the Hakka people, who had been classified as resistant to the gospel, had actually been neglected, as few missionaries had bothered to learn their language and culture.  Since the Hakka are classified as Han Chinese and most are fluent in Mandarin, missionaries assumed that they had largely been assimilated into the majority culture.  But the Hakka people are fiercely proud of their heritage, and it has only been since missionaries learned their language and presented the gospel in culturally appropriate ways that any real progress has been made in their evangelization.

In this case, the barrier to the spread of the gospel was not one of understanding, but of acceptance.  This appears to be the case in many segments of the Han population of China. The gospel may be heard or read with a certain measure of understanding, but it comes to the people in such a foreign manner that they do not see it as having any relevance to their lives.

As important as ethnolinguistic differences can be, it is equally important that we consider other ways of defining unreached people groups.  If we are to fully understand the challenge of the unreached in China, we must also consider what might be called sociologically-defined people groups. Generational differences in China today are very significant, as are educational levels and occupations. Defining people groups in sociological terms is not the favorite approach of those who want to track our progress in bringing closure to the task of world evangelization.  Most people are part of several different sociologically-defined groups, making it impossible to count them only once (a necessary component of any tracking methodology).  However, identifying and targeting such sociologically-defined people groups is absolutely essential to the development of effective discipling strategies.

As the demographics of the church in China today are analyzed, it is evident that the church is growing rapidly among some segments of the population, but not in others.  Why is that?  It is clear that there are some major barriers to the flow of the gospel from one group to another within China.

What is not clear is exactly what those barriers are, and what can be done to overcome them.

Major new research efforts focused on the Han Chinese, similar to those already underway among the minorities, need to be undertaken.  These efforts need to look at not only ethnolinguistic differences, but sociological and other kinds of differences as well. The questions that must be asked and answered, without the limitations imposed by unwarranted a priori assumptions, are:

  • What groups of people in China have yet to be effectively penetrated with the gospel?
  • What are the barriers that must be overcome in order to reach them?
  • How can these barriers be overcome?

These are questions that can and should be asked not only by researchers, but by every Christian interested in reaching China with the gospel. Targeted evangelism and church planting strategies have repeatedly been demonstrated to be more effective than generalized approaches.

While such research efforts are going on, existing China ministry efforts need to be evaluated and new China ministry efforts need to be developed in light of what we do know.  For example, we know that the church in China is largely a rural church, yet the country is rapidly urbanizing.

How can we refocus our efforts so as to become more effective in reaching the cities of China with the gospel?[3]

As is evident from the number of questions raised in this article, this author does not claim to have all—or even very many of—the answers to the challenges facing us in identifying and reaching the peoples of China.  We at ChinaSource welcome input from any and all who have something to contribute to this discussion.  The task before us is huge; we must pool our best thinking and resources as we confront it, and then acknowledge that it will only be by the grace and power of God that we will be able to complete it.


  1. ^ The AD2000 Adoption Guidance Program answers the question “What is a People Group” in this way: “A people is a significantly large ethnic or sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another.  For evangelistic purposes, it is the largest group within which the gospel can spread without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.  Although there are other types of people groupings, in the context of this program, the word people refers to ethnolinguistic people groups.” 
  2. ^ To be fair, it needs to be noted that the Han Chinese are now being  included on preliminary lists of the Harvest Information System being circulated by researchers at the AD2000 and Beyond Movement, as well as others.  This author deeply appreciates the responsiveness of these valiant laborers to his and others’ input in recent years. 
  3. ^ See the Summer 2000 issue of ChinaSource journal for more on this subject.
Image credit: Hakka villager by Rain Rannu via Flickr
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Jim Nickel

Jim Nickel was vice president of ChinaSource from 2000 to 2004 and was involved in promoting work among the unreached Chinese peoples for many yearsView Full Bio