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How Many Christians in China? And Does it Make a Difference?


At the end of 2011 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the latest edition of their statistical report "Global Christianity" detailing the size and distribution of the Christian Church around the globe. This time out, the study made a special effort to evaluate the various claims regarding the size of the Christian population of China, the results of which can be found under the heading "Spotlight on China" (Pew Forum Spotlight on China http://pewforum.org/Christian/Global-Christianity-china.aspx).

While the "Spotlight" section itself is fairly short, the document Appendix C [PDF] http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Religious_Affiliation/Christian/ChristianityAppendixC.pdf that is linked to in the third paragraph provides far more detail. Focusing on the methodological challenges of reporting on China's Christians, "Appendix C" is particularly valuable for its analytical comparison of the different recent attempts to measure the size of China's Christian population. The Pew Forums total of just under 70 million is somewhat smaller than what is currently fashionable in China ministry circles, but the rigor with which they set about their task and the attention they gave to the many other studies warrants thoughtful reflection from anyone serious about measuring the size of Chinas growing Christian population.

Growing in Numbers! Growing in Influence?

And that is really the point of all this, isn't it? China's church is growing. The "Christianity fever" of the 1980's has continued in various forms on up into the twenty-first century, and now the rapid rate of Chinese church growth is almost a clich in mission circles. The result is that today we have many different scholars representing a range of organizations in and outside of China working hard to determine just how big this church is and perhaps is going to become.

While I am generally curious to know just how big the Chinese church is, I must confess that I find in recent years I have found it to be increasingly difficult to get excited about the actual results of these studies. At one level, this reflects my own growing sense over the last few years that perhaps the days of most rapid growth are now in the Chinese church's past. As the social and political costs of embracing Christianity decrease over time, there is a real danger of the perceived value of faith also decreasing thus making Christian belief seem much less vital and much less worthy of attention. If at the same time there is an increase in the proportion of believers who are coming to faith through paths that are further and further removed from the abundant miracle narratives of the 1970s and 1980s, then the church may be faced with a situation where it will have to rely more on its own witness and less on God's miraculous intervention. Although I see both of these trends as affirming signs of the growing maturity of the church in China, such changing realities do point towards a future that may mean slower growth for Christianity in the Middle Kingdom.

But my main reason for showing less interest in the total number of Christians has more to do with my own understanding of what is at the center of Christianity. In his ministry on earth, Jesus repeatedly demonstrated his preference for depthfor heart transformationrather than mere numerical increase. And so the question I ask when confronted with the inescapable reality of a Chinese church that is experiencing numerical growth is not simply "how many are there?" Rather, I find myself drawn to a much more subjective question: is the growing Christian population of China (for no one debates that at least right now it is still growing) having a growing influence on Chinese society and cultural norms? In other words, can we say in China today that more Christians mean more of Chinese life transformed by the Gospel? What are the evidences or the fruit from this growing community of people who say they have been transformed by Jesus?

While this may be a difficult thing to measure using objective, scientific metrics, from a more mundane perspective this is precisely the sort of thing that should be broadly discernible. At its simplest, answering this question is merely a matter of viewing China and her church in the same kinds of ways we would look at the Christian populations of many of the so-called Christian nations in the West. As an example, regardless of the size of the Christian population in North America, the fact that divorce is every bit as common within the church as without is routinely taken as a sign that the North American church is far from healthy. If the church in China has been and still is growing, then what is happening within the Chinese church with regards toto take this one exampledivorce? Is the leavening effect of the church in this area, or indeed in any other areas, making itself felt?

This is an important question. Imagine a community that statistically was measured as being 60% Christian. Suppose also that this Christian population was regularly involved in Sabbath worship, daily prayer life and other common statistical measures of evangelical Christianity. Now, if the society within which they lived was thoroughly reprobateif these Christians left no mark on the non-believing world around themthen surely we would have grave reservations about the ways in which this church negotiates the balance between being "in the world, yet not of it." And so in a like fashion I return to my question: is this Chinese church that is growing in numbers also growing in influence? Or to use the language of the Gospels, what fruit is this tree producing?

Measuring Influence at the Banquet Table

The lowest estimates for China's Christian population (over 30 million) find few supporters, while the highest numbers (around 120 million) have attracted many more followers. The Pew Forum's latest estimate of just under 70 million Christians in China would give China a Christian population of roughly 5%placing it right in the middle of the entire range of estimates from just over 2% to less than 10%. However, when we place this discussion of numbers within the context of the larger question of how much influence the church is having on life in China, the difference between these estimates becomes relativized. At the most, we are talking about the possibilityalbeit an exciting oneof one in ten Chinese people identifying as Christians.

Let's make this practical. Place yourself at a Chinese banquet table dining in a large restaurant in China. Look around the room and ask yourself this question: what would you expect things to be like if one person at each table were Christian? Would you expect anything to be different? How so? Are there any signs within Chinese society of the kinds of change you would expect taking place? Why or why not? Would conversations at the table be different if one person was a believer? How about if there were two believers present at each table? Keeping this in perspective, that would mean doubling even our largest estimates of the Christian population of China. If such were to happen we would certainly expect to see some changes!

In the real world, of course, we often find ourselves interacting with larger groups of Christians at all sorts of different levels of Chinese society. Much like any other association throughout history, Christians the world over have discovered that by banding together they can have more influence than mere statistics would suggest. If we imagine our Chinese banquet as an intentionally Christian wedding feast, we would typically find a much larger (though still not 100%) Christian presence in attendance. Asking the same question we asked before but now in the context of a Christian weddingwhat would you expect things to be like at an event so overwhelmingly populated by Christians?only serves to highlight the seriousness and importance of the question of influence. While I have attended many Chinese Christian weddings, it seems to me there is still more experimentation than conviction regarding just exactly what a Mainland Chinese Christian wedding should look like. The precise balance between local cultural traditions and Christian essentials (whatever those may be) is still very much in flux. Even so, these Chinese Christians are influencing their society; if nothing else, large and increasingly public Christian weddings represent one of the church's more successful attempts to assert their right to express their faith outside the confines of officially sanctioned religious venues. What are some other areas where the church is making its identity known and its priorities felt?

Of course, for those who are not Chinese citizens and are yet devoted to seeing the Kingdom of God grow in China this question poses a different set of challenges. Given the size and growth of the church in China today, is it appropriate for expatriates to focus their energies and resources on engaging personally in direct evangelism? The church in China has repeatedly demonstrated over the last 60 years her remarkable ability to spread the truth of the Gospel to her own people. But those same 60 years have seen the disappearance of nearly all memory of what it looks like to live publicly as a Christian in Chinese society. What would it look like for a particular Chinese church to influence her particular community in a public and engaging way? Where are the models of healthy Christian families, healthy Christian work ethics, and healthy Christian attitudes towards money that new young Chinese Christians are so desperately seeking? The church in China today is standing before her society pondering the words of the prophet, "How then shall we live?" (Ezekiel 33:10) This is the question of the hour for China ministry, and it is now time for the expatriate mission community to shift its efforts to supporting the Chinese church in her attempts to find her place and her voice withinbut without becoming completely part ofmodern Chinese society.

From Survival to Engagement

God through the prophet Jeremiah told the exiles living as captives in pagan Babylon to "Seek the welfare" of the city wherein they resided (Jeremiah 29:7). This enjoinder to actively strive to bring full shalom to our communitiesthe kind of true peace and right relatedness with all that is only possible under Yahweh's lordshipis reaffirmed by Jesus in his priestly prayer in John 17. While acknowledging that followers of Jesus no longer belong to the world, Jesus also reminds them that they are still in it. As the church in China enters a new age of ministryone in which mere survival is no longer the paramount concernthe challenge now is to rediscover a healthy balance between these two extremes. God has graciously seen fit to grow his church in China in answer to the prayers of millions of believers in China and around the world. But the transition from an inward-focused, protectionist mentality towards society to an outlook that seeks to publicly and actively claim that society for Christ is neither a natural nor an easy one to make.

There are already many encouraging signs that suggest the church is aware of this challenge and working to meet it in faithful obedience. The "Little Jesus" phenomenon from the hospitals of earthquake-stricken Sichuan was a powerful example of Christians engaging with their communities in ways that witnessed to the healing power of shalom. Being the first to respond as volunteers to care for those in the over-stretched hospitals, the Christians with their "Jesus loves you" buttons and t-shirts gave a convincing demonstration of what Christian love in action looked like. In no time at all, hospital workers came to trust and rely upon these humble servants to assist with many tasks. The growing interest in Christian alternatives to the state educational system is yet another sign of the increased determination of the Chinese church to transform their communities in ways that honor God.

By all means, let us continue working to measure and record the growth of the church in China. But one need only look at the early church to see that both size and influence have their roles to play in bringing about true Kingdom growth. Let us not lose sight of the larger picture: more Christians should also mean more "salt" and more "light" present in Chinese society (Matthew 5:13-16). I suspect this is best measured anecdotally, and when I look around my neighborhood this is what I am longing to see. Do you see signs of increasing shalom in your neighborhood? Is the Chinese church transforming its society in ways that please God and reflect His kingdom? Size is important, but it is only part of the equation.

Andrew T. Kaiser

Andrew T. Kaiser, author of Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China and The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876, has been living and working in Shanxi with his family since 1997. View Full Bio