I will never forget the experience of worshipping in a church in a village of the Yi people in Guizhou Province on a Sunday in 1995. Joyfully these Christians lifted praises to the Lord in indigenous song and dance, scarcely giving the pastor five minutes at a time for a sermonette before bursting out in more worship. We were told that 70% of this village was Christian.
Scenes like this are rare, but increasing in China today. Recent research has revealed some very challenging details concerning the status of Christianity among the many people groups of China. In a soon-to-be-published book on the peoples of China, Paul Hattaway profiles 491 people groups, the vast majority of which are unreached. Over half of these groups have no known Christians among them!
On the other hand, there are a number of people groups in China with significant Christian populations. (See box below.) These statistics demonstrate that the peoples of China can, and will, respond positively to the gospel if only given the chance to hear it in an understandable and culturally appropriate way. The names of some of these groups will be unfamiliar to readers whose knowledge of the people groups of China is based on the list of 56 nationalities officially recognized by the government. Christian researchers are finding that these somewhat arbitrary groupings, created by the government of China, are not very useful for our purposes. Those who would obey our Lord’s commission to make disciples of panta ta ethne of China will need to look beyond the 56 nationalities to the realities of the many ethno-linguistic distinctions between the many peoples of China.
|People Group||Percent Christian|
|Miao, Small Flowery||70%|
|Miao, Big Flowery||53%|
One problem created by looking at China through the lens of the official groupings is that we can easily overlook dozens of unreached people groups, assuming that they are the same, or nearly the same, as a reached group within their nationality. The Miao peoples, for example, could be considered to have been reached, based on the fact that 70% of the Small Flowery Miao and 53% of the Big Flowery Miao are Christians. The reality is that there are dozens of Miao people groups that have no known Christians among them. The many people groups included under the umbrella of the Miao nationality speak dozens of mutually unintelligible languages and dialects. For the gospel to be transmitted from one group to another within the Miao nationality requires cross-cultural evangelism.
Besides these ethno-linguistic distinctions, there are other barriers to the flow of the gospel from one group to another within China. The differences between rural and urban peoples serve as a case in point. The church in China is predominantly a rural church, with Christians making up less than 1% of the population in most of the cities of China. Significant socio-cultural barriers will need to be bridged and other challenges overcome if the church is to fulfill the Great Commission in the cities of China. China’s Unreached Cities, a new book profiling 52 needy cities of China, should help the church around the world to begin to respond more effectively to this challenge.
Differing educational levels constitute another barrier to the flow of the gospel. There is a growing movement of interest in Christianity among intellectuals in China, but most of these individuals do not feel comfortable in existing churches, whether they be affiliated with the TSPM or one of the older house church networks. In all likelihood, new churches will need to be started to accommodate the needs of these new believers.
One of the great challenges that needs to be addressed is the lack of clarity concerning the many unreached peoples among the Han Chinese, especially in inland areas of China. As demonstrated by the accompanying map, the growth of the church among the Han Chinese has largely been limited to the coastal provinces and a couple of others adjacent to them. Churches in the other provinces with significant Christian populations (i.e., in the southwest and the far north) are largely composed of minority believers. What about the need of the Han Chinese in these areas to be evangelized?
Even in the areas where the Han church is the strongest, there appear to be large numbers of Han Chinese who are cut off from the gospel by virtue of the fact that they are native speakers of a different language or dialect than the Christians in their area. They may understand Mandarin well enough to grasp the meaning of the gospel when it comes to them in that language, but a barrier of acceptance may well exist because of their natural pride in their own heart language. As a Hakka Christian explained to me recently, “My people may understand you if you speak to them in Mandarin, but they will really open their hearts to you if you speak to them in the Hakka language.”
In addition to these issues, there are still large areas of China where the church is practically non-existent. In Tibet, in the Muslim northwest, in the Guanxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and in most of the interior provinces of China, the vast majority of the people have access to neither the gospel nor a church where they can worship the living God. In all these areas Han Chinese comprise a significant portion of the population, and full-orbed evangelistic efforts will need to take them into account along with the minority populations for which these regions are known.
The church in China is not oblivious to the challenge of the unreached in China. Recently the leaders of five large house church networks in China set a goal of seeking to reach 40 million people with the gospel during a month of evangelism. And this is not merely mono-cultural evangelism. Trainers are increasingly receiving requests from church leaders in China for assistance in developing competence in cross-cultural evangelism and church planting.
“I will build my church,” Jesus said, “and the gates of hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18, NIV). God is fulfilling that promise in China today. Let us stand with our brothers and sisters in the churches of China through our prayers and practical assistance, utilizing whatever channels God has given us, to support and encourage the growth of the church among all the peoples of China.