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Missiological Implications of Chinese Christians in Europe

Diasporic Mainland Migrant Churches in Europe

Diasporic communities become an important socioeconomic focus as the volume of transborder migrants increases mainly due to economic push-pull resulting from globalization. Missiologists, as well, began to look into the missiological significance of this phenomenon, and diaspora missiology has become an emerging topic among mission minded Christians. This article focuses on the emergence of the Chinese diasporic community in Europe and its implications for global mission.

There are at least 40 million overseas Chinese outside of Greater China (Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao). Among them, there are at least 20 million Mainland Chinese migrants who began to emigrant from China since the 1980s.3 Therefore, the new Chinese immigrants of recent years, be they worldwide or European, are mostly from Mainland China. The rough distribution of these populations is as follows: Europe (1.5 million), United Kingdom (.5 million), Latin America (1 million), Africa (.5 million), North America (7 million), Australia and Oceania (.1 million), Asia (30 million).4

Among the approximately 1.5 million Chinese in Europe, Chinese Christian churches or fellowships appear in most of the major cities in European countries5 totaling at least 250.6 These sustainable Chinese Christian communities even appear in countries that previously had no record of a Chinese church, such as in Eastern Europe in countries like the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.7 There are no accurate statistics for the Chinese and Chinese Christians in Europe as it is a fluid situation with spontaneous mission activities initiated by autonomous Christian groups. However, a rough comparison between figures from 2002, 2006 and 2010 from the same countries strongly suggests a recent trend of rapid increase of Chinese, also mirrored by Chinese church numbers.8

Year Country Chinese Population Chinese Churches/Fellowships
2002 Spain 35,000 10
2005 Spain 100,000 20
2010 Spain 131,000 28
2002 The Netherlands 5,000 14
2006 The Netherlands 100,000 20
2010 The Netherlands 120,000 25

The increased number of Chinese Mainland immigrants in Europe has caught the attention of the more mature Chinese churches in the UK, USA, Canada, Taiwan and Hong Kong as they regard these new immigrants as mission targets. There are three main groups among the new migrants: students/scholars/intellectuals/professionals; merchants; and laborers (legal or otherwise). Each group has different ecclesiastical features.

The student/scholars/intellectual/professional group is often the target of mission groups both on campuses and among the Chinese communities. The common features among these new Chinese Christians are that most are highly educated as many of them hold advanced degrees earned in their host countries. Most of them learn about Christianity outside of China which precludes their having any roots, understanding or connections with Christian communities in Mainland China. Most of these new Christians formed groups in their host countries that began as fellowships and gradually evolved into independent congregations with a structure and formation similar to that of non-registered churches in China, namely congregational and non-liturgical. While many of these Christians would try to settle in their host country because of their professional skills and academic training, almost all are still intimately linked with family, colleagues or professional activities back in China. Currently, Chinese graduates increasingly choose to go back to China as economic prospects are getting better in China than in Europe, and some manage to establish returnee churches/fellowships in China.

The Wenzhou merchants dominate the merchant groups in Europe, and the churches among this group are established more by Wenzhouese with roots in China than by mission agencies overseas. They convert their fellow merchants who share similar linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Their church mode is almost the exact replica of what it is like in their home churches in Wenzhou. Hymnology and Bibles are brought from China. Even though they may live at or next to historical or contemporary centers of Christianity, their church life and activities seem to be thousands of miles and hundreds of years apart from their fellow Christians in their host countries. These churches seem to be more a global extension of the Wenzhouese church in China than a local expression of Christian faith by migrant Chinese. Their leaders are highly mobile creating much instability as they will go where there are business opportunities.

There are few studies on the last group of Chinese migrants, the laborers, as almost all of them are either irregular migrants making them difficult to study or living at the fringe of society and often difficult to track down. Because of their frequent illegal status, they are not in the official statistics, and they often live in secret, afraid of being caught by the authorities of their host countries. Many end up in the sweatshops or restaurants controlled by organized crime that is often related to human trafficking and may conduct illegal activities such as prostitution. These migrants are too ashamed to tell people back home. Few pay attention to this hidden group living on societys fringe which numbers tens of thousands, and so far, no mission has targeted this deprived group. The Chinese authorities have also chosen to ignore them since, as illegal people, they are not under the jurisdiction of the consular service of the Chinese Embassy.

This increasing number of Chinese Christians and the newly established churches have a significant impact on the overseas Chinese communities as these Christian communities often become the most important, organized, Chinese group in the migrant community. This is especially true in remote areas with a low Chinese, migrant population. Often these Christian groups are the sole agents providing support for newcomers. It is not uncommon for the Chinese churches to operate Chinese language schools as part of their Sunday School program, to provide Chinese language and cultural studies to the children of these new immigrants who often want their children to retain the Chinese cultural identity. Also, the free Chinese meal often offered after Sunday services in many Chinese churches in Europe, may be one of the few rare treats of a taste of home for many church attendantsChristian or otherwise. The apolitical, cultural and charitable nature of the Christian churches often makes them not only more popular than other Chinese associations in diaspora that frequently have political agendas and affiliations, but also the key players in the Chinese diasporic community, especially in Western countries where churches are often respected by the civil authorities. So, these Chinese diasporic churches serve not only the spiritual, but also the social needs of the Chinese diasporic community. They are a mission to the local community.

Other then a few well-established Chinese Churches in major cities such as London or Paris, where historically there has been a strong Chinese community, there is virtually little impact by these groups felt beyond the Chinese community for there is often minimum contact between these groups and their Christian counterparts in the host country. Therefore, there is little, if any, impact made by the growth of these new Chinese Christian communities on the local Christian landscape other than a few token or symbolic influences. Under reporting of these new Chinese Christian groups in the official Christian statistics of the host country is not uncommon due simply to the lack of contact or access to these ethnic Christian groups. Even though the number and size of these Chinese Christian communities are on the increase, so far their influence has been limited to within the Chinese community which seldom goes beyond its ethnic boundary.

Impact of European Chinese Churches in China

However, the impact of these new groups can be felt in China as more of these newly converted, overseas Chinese return from Europe to China for either a short-term visit or long-term stay. These Christians, while in China, generally will not participate in the government sanctioned, registered churches for they simply may not feel accustomed to their style of religious activities, or they may have a negative impression received in Europe about them (with the exception of, perhaps, the Wenzhouese Christians). They may establish their own groups, usually among their colleagues or friends, who are usually in professional or intellectual classes with a certain degree of affluence, or they may join existing groups. These clusters of highly educated Christians will form cell groups with a theological stance that identifies more with overseas churches than with Chinese churches in Mainland China. Their presence is being felt already in certain circles in China such as business, professional and academic. They belong to neither the government registered Three-Self/Christian Council nor are they necessarily a part of the traditional non-registered networks; they often set up their own churches with more links to the overseas Christians than to local Chinese Christians.

With the increase of Chinese in Europe, these Christian groups will also be on the rise. Their presence will contribute to an increasingly diverse Christian community in Mainland China that will bear a strong international flavor and intellectual atmosphereboth characteristics that are currently lacking among the Christian communities in China. Perhaps, in the long run, these characteristics will help to shape the Christian community in China into a community with a stronger global perspective than it currently has. In time, this will encourage a sense of global mission among the Chinese Christians in China. Furthermore, these Chinese Christian returnees with extensive bicultural exposure are potential, ideal candidates for cross-cultural mission work.

Mission Movements from European Chinese Churches

There are already mission movements from these Chinese Churches in Europe, especially from the more established ones in the UK and Italy. Most of the mission focus is on the new Chinese diasporic communities such as new Mainland Chinese immigrants who have arrived in Europe, or, in some cases, on short-term missions to Mainland China.9 In fact, many of these new Chinese diaspora churches owe their existence to such mission outreach. The Chinese church in Bucharest was established by COCM, a mission agency founded by Chinese Christians from the UK that focuses on evangelistic work among Chinese in both the UK and Europe. However, the lack of general coordination between the various mission agencies of the Chinese church that are targeting similar diasporic communities, as well as the lack of a total pan-European picture of the dynamic pattern of Chinese migrants, limits the efficiency of the mission effort as it reaches out to this diverse population of Europes Chinese community. In addition, a general lack of ecclesiological vision often results in difficulty establishing sustainable church polity and ecclesiastical structures. This often leads to fragmentation and divisionan undesirable yet commonly seen mode of church growth (in numbers) among Christian communities in Europe.

As for the missiological potential among the Chinese Christian communities in Europe, it seems that the Christian population among the diasporic community is still on the low side; many of the Christians are young in spiritual maturity and face the challenge of settling into a new environment (except for the more mature Chinese Christian community in the UK). Therefore, the current Chinese community in Europe seems to be more of a target mission field, a diaspora community that requires mission work rather than a mission sending pool which could do mission work beyond the diaspora scenario. Furthermore, as most of the Chinese mission agencies are focusing on evangelism, there are still few missions to those Chinese in Europe who are living on the fringes of society, often as slaves or fugitives exploited by various groups.


Granted, there are Chinese Christians who are establishing European footholds by taking advantage of Chinas global economic expansion, such as the Wenzhouese Christian entrepreneurs and new Chinese migrants. These Christians face the difficult task of survival to establish their roots in the host country before they can have any religious influence among the Chinese diasporic population. Only after they are firmly established, which usually occurs with the second or third generationas in the case of Chinese in North Americacan they have sufficient resources to reach the local population or beyond. Many of these newly established Christian communities in Europe are still relying on support from mission agencies or their home churches in China. Furthermore, the emergence of Sino phobic sentiments among European nations with an increasing Chinese political-economic impact can generate negative influences on the survival of Chinese diasporic communities; hence, Chinese Christian communities in such a context are often rather unstable, such as those in Italy and Spain. Even with an extremely stable international business and political environment that favors Chinese merchants and migrants, it will be a long, ecclesiastical, developmental process before these Chinese Christians in Europe can have a significant influence on the Christian world via cross-cultural proselytizing of their host populations and beyond. At present, these congregations are often an extension of existing Christian communities from Mainland China, Greater China, or other diasporic communities, composed mainly of newly arrived Chinese migrants. Their current task is survival, expansion and consolidation.

These Chinese congregations in Europe serve not only as the spiritual but also as the social resource to enable the healthy development of the Chinese community in diaspora. They also provide high, moral values to their members as well as inner strength to sustain them in the various hardships they face. On the positive side, these congregations can act as bridges to link the often self-contained Chinese communities with local communities through their common interest in religious aspiration. Often, they can also serve as a channel of good will from the Chinese community to the host society to decrease negative feelings often held by local populations. For example, the Chinese church in Bucharest supports the local orphanage as a sign of good will on behalf of the Chinese community. This benevolent act has provided a positive image of the Chinese which counteracts the typical, popular image of greedy Chinese held by Romanians in general.10

Chinese in the European diaspora are part of the great population migration trend that began in the late 20th Century and will certainly be on the rise in this 21st Century. This population movement will not only rewrite the ethnic and population profile of many countries in Europe but will also reshape the contour of world Christianity. The sheer size of the Chinese populationhence the increasing Chinese population in Europecannot be ignored as it enjoys one of the highest conversion rates. Currently there is a desperate need to convert the new Chinese migrants in Europe. More emphasis on missiological teaching among these churches is required to provide a global worldview to balance the current ethnocentric existences commonly found among these churches. More studies on this migration trend are needed to co-ordinate mission strategy and church planting efforts; more emphasis on social justice and compassionate ministries to those being exploited is required; and above all, there must be a more co-operative effort among mission agencies in order to maximize the limited resources for this particular field. With a more sustainable Chinese Christian community in Europe and with most of its members biculturally trained, perhaps this new contingent of Christians, living in virtually every country of Europe, can become a new wave of missionaries not only to its own kinsman, but also to other ethnic groups.

1 For example, see Enoch Wan, Diaspora Missiology: Theory, Methodology and Practice (Private Publication, 2012), available at https://www.createspace.com/3697446.

2 The Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission of the Republic of China (Taiwan) has 39.46 million as of 31st December, 2009. See www.ocac.gov.tw.

3 There were 28 million overseas Chinese migrants in 1985 and 35 million in 2000 showing an increase of 7 million, over a 15 year period. The majority of these new migrants are coming from Mainland China. If one uses the conservative rate of increase of these past 15 years, 20%, there would be at least an additional 7 million Mainland Chinese migrants by 2005 and another 8.5 million by 2010.

4 This author tabulates this rough estimate from various sources. It is just a rough estimate for there is no agency dedicated to keeping track of such figures.

5 For example, see Mary Wang, Recent Situation of Chinese Mission Work in Europe, in Great Commission Bi-Monthly no. 61(April 2006): 3-13. This contains perhaps the best estimated figures on Chinese and Chinese churches in Europe, but it only includes ten countries where Chinese Overseas Christian Mission (founded by Mary Wang) has established its work. There is no figure on the other 20 plus European nations. However, the figures in almost all of these ten countries are much higher then what Enoch Wan had quoted in 2002, perhaps a reflection of the rapid increase.

6 This is an estimate given by a cross-cultural worker who works in Europe and shared these figures in 2007 at a mission conference. See http://www.gospelherald.com.hk/news/mis_359.htm. It seems that this figure is higher than what Wang (see previous footnote) gave in 2006, perhaps a sign of the rapid increase of Chinese migrants in Europe since 2005.

7 There has already been an established Chinese Christian Church in Kiev, Ukraine for a decade, and there are a substantial of Chinese living there. However, this writer recently came across a VCD on the third anniversary celebration of the founding of the Simferopol Mandarin (Chinese) Church in the Crimea Republic of Ukraine. Simferopol, with a small population of 330,000, already has a sufficient number of Chinese living there to sustain a Chinese Christian Church!

8 The figures for 2002 are from Wan (2002) and the figures for 2006 are from Wang (2006). CCCOWE did an update in 2010, see Chinese Church Today (February 2011), pp. 8-10.

9 For example, the Italian Chinese Churches Association has had a mission team serving Lisu Christians in Yunnan since 2009. Personal communication with Christian leaders in Baoshan, Yunnan, February, 2012.

10 This authors field observation in 2004 and 2005.

Image Credit: 2009_07_wk3_DSC03945 by Gwydion M. Williams, on Flickr

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Kim-Kwong Chan

The Rev. Kim-Kwong Chan, PhD, DTh, is the Executive Secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council.View Full Bio