Supporting Article

The Problem of Gender Imbalance in Chinese City Churches

Part A


The Problem

Today, the ratio of men to women in churches in China is often about 1:2. Sometimes it is even worse—one man for every three to five women. When these numbers are compared to the usual ratio of men to women in Chinese society, we see a stark and serious contrast.

Although many churches outside Chinathose that may share a similar cultural background such as overseas Chinese churches and churches in Koreaalso have the same problematic ratio, the situation in those churches is nevertheless less serious. Similar imbalance situations occur in churches outside China because in economically well-developed societies men are more likely to be the major breadwinners for the family while women stay home to care for their children and families. Therefore, men will be more busily engaged in their workplaces along with other social involvements. In contrast, women will have more time to devote to church activities; these activities, in turn, provide women a social life and sense of self-fulfillment which they would otherwise feel missing.

When we look at the situation in China, even though gender inequalities exist there, due to China's social and economic structure, women, as much as men, are commonly part of the workforce. While needing to attend to the home and family just like any housewife would have to do, women in China often handle no lesser amounts of job pressure and workloads when compared to those that are on the men's plates. Hence, it is puzzling as to why a serious gender imbalance still occurs in churches in China; it is a question worth answering.

The serious gender imbalance that occurs in churches in rural areas is not as problematic as the one that exists in cities. In rural areas, almost all the men, except the old ones, have left the villages for jobs in the cities. The lack of men in churches is in keeping with the social and economic situations of the area. When compared to the ratio of men to women in rural areas in general, we might even say that the ratios in these churches fare slightly better.

The phenomenon that occurs in the city churches in China is one that is most puzzling and actually demands a closer look. As many young people are leaving rural areas for urban opportunities, cities in China are growing rapidly. These city young people can be divided into two main categories: those who have received a higher degree and those who are relatively uneducated. The latter often pick up low-end jobs in the cities such as construction. In addition, both groups consist mainly of men and only a few are women. Yet, given this context, men are still significantly outnumbered by women in city churches.

This imbalance in the ratio of men to women has brought many difficulties to the pastorate. Here are some challenges that the city churches are facing:

Problems related to single women.

The gender ratio imbalance creates many problems for the single female Christian who wants to get married. In general, it is more socially acceptable for a man to marry a woman with an income lower than his. A woman would need much courage to marry a man who earns less than she does. However, there are also many obstacles even if a man is willing to "marry up." The woman would have a higher income in the family meaning that she would have the dominant role in the relationship. This does not fit the ideal marital relationship described in the Bible. On the other hand, as many already know, if these female Christians were to marry non-believers, it would create difficulties for the churches, especially if the wife were actively involved in the church.

A new theology needed for female leadership in the congregation.

The second challenge relates to female leadership in the church. Aside from the fact that there are more female Christians in the churches in China than male Christians, women are also more active in the church and have taken more leadership roles. They are often creative, friendly and confident in their decisions; therefore, they bring more new female Christians into the church. While female Christians have shown their capability in leadership roles and have become more important in many ministries, studies related to this phenomenon and its significance are still inadequate. Hence, it is still very difficult to assess this phenomenon from a theological point of view and to develop appropriate attitudes for it. Female leadership in churches in China has created a challenge for the churches in terms of how they are going to respond to it.

The changing church culture.

One cannot deny that we have been seeing many ongoing changes in church culture and theology in Chinese churches. These changes may be related to the influence of the female majority in the church.

A change in theological emphasis.

The focus of church theology has changed from the cross, suffering and salvation to a more emotional and physical one of love and healing. Its understanding of salvation is more related to current life on earth which focuses not on freedom from sin, death and judgment but on a more purposeful, compassionate and well-supported life. It cares less about the accuracy of doctrine and puts more emphasis on one's relationship with God and with other people. Believing in God becomes more of a personal matter rather than a social and collective matter.

The females' influence on church culture.

The feminine changes described above can also be seen in the selections of songs, styles of worship, Christians' testimonies and other etiquette or rituals in the churches. They tend to focus more on personal feelings, often with a soft and fluffy emotional atmosphere.

A change of power structure in the church and style in running ministries.

There is also a change of power structure within the churchfrom having a single authoritative center to a more defused or multiple-centered system. The process of decision-making has changed from authoritative or institutional to a more interactive one that may focus more on people and their relationships.

The issue regarding personal interactions.

The friendships among women in churches tend to be developed in a typical female friendship manner which focuses more on being sympathetic and supportive with care and concern. Yet, this kind of close and interdependent friendship with personal admiration can often be subjective and therefore is unstable and unreliable. A lack of faithfulness and sincerity within friendships often creates problems for both the ministers and female members in the church.

On the one hand, the rich experiences in, and the practical demands of personal relationships pose challenges to the traditional theological model dealing with the nature and relations of being. On the other hand, the objective redemptive work of God in history through Jesus Christ has been reduced to the subjective experiences of human warmth and support in the immediate present. A fierce-as-fire demand is made to people to make a decision whether to submit or reject it, so that the gospel of receiving eternal life versus entering eternal punishment has been transformed into the flickering flame of a candle which comforts people in this dark, cold world, just like the magazine which has become a women's favorite, Reader's Digest. This is also the situation among many people in the urban churches in China today.

Where Is the Imbalance?

It is undeniable that there is gender imbalance in the city churches in China. However, we need to find out exactly which age groups are affected by this.

  • Children: There are almost no differences between male and female numbers for this age group. Even when differences are found, the occurrences are only caused by random or accidental factors.
  • Nine to 18 year olds: Only slight gender differences have been observed in this group. Aside from some random factors, a possible reason for this group having a difference in the number of male and female participants may be related to the fact that boys and girls have different senses of being obedient and dependent. In addition, having an unstable or detached family relationship can also be a factor.
  • Youth that includes college students and working people who are single: This group shows greater gender differences in terms of church participation. Still, the difference varies in different fellowship groups or churches. When observed, it can often be explained by some concrete individual situations such as the gender composition of the members' personal social contacts or the influence of the most active members in the fellowship group.
  • Young to middle-aged including those who are 22 to 45 years old: This group consists of young, urban, working people. They often have higher education and work in similar types of professions. Both men and women in this group tend to share similar cultures, lifestyles and values. Yet, this is the group that shows a very high contrast of men to women ratios in church participations; such observed gender differences are in many cases not explained by random situations.
  • Late middle age consisting of those 45 to 60 years old: This age group is often missing in many house churches in the cities. Even when Christians of this age group participate, they are often small in number and not very active. There are no significant gender differences in terms of male and female participation for this group and the effect is small even when differences are found.
  • The elderly, 60 years old or more: Elderly participants are found mainly in churches that have a focus on community ministries or services. Obvious gender differences in terms of the number of male and female participants are observed but those differences have no significant influence on community based ministries.

Social Circles of Members of City Churches

The rapid process of urbanization is drawing new immigrants to the city. The enormous scale of city construction and transformation has created a large number of new social circles and communities. The old Chinese saying, "A neighbor nearby is better than a brother in the next village," no longer reflects today's social relationships. For individuals, a sense of belonging is no longer tied to their living communities. Their primary social lives and activities also are not based on their living areas. On the other hand, relatives, coworkers, alumni, classmates, friends and people who come from the same village are often more important in one's social relationships. In addition, age groups, interests and professions have all become more important criteria for classifying communitiesand these are often important channels through which the gospel is spread. In fact, Christians between 22 and 45, who are precisely the most active ones in these urban, social circles, often play leading roles in city churches. They are entrepreneurs, technical experts, managers and those who may be called "white collar workers" in the urban cities. The characteristics of this group directly affect the environment and characteristics of the church, which include its gender ratio. Hence, to understand the gender ratio imbalance in the city churches, this age group would be a good place to start.

A Review of Some General Explanations for Gender Imbalance

  1. Men have more economic responsibilities and are therefore busier. It has been said that since men are typically the breadwinners for the family in society, they have more responsibilities and are busier in their jobs; therefore, they participate less in church. Yet, although this factor is observed more robustly in many churches in Korea, it is not the same for the city churches in China. It should be noted that while both men and women in Chinese cities have very similar job situations, the situation of gender imbalance still exists, and is even worse.
  2. Church culture has become too feminine and puts men off. First, this explanation seems to suffer from the chicken and egg problem. It is possible that this condition in church culture is because there are more women in the church and they are more active. In addition, it seems that overseas Chinese churches also tend to have a feminine church culture, if not even more so. Hence, this factor still does not completely explain the gender imbalance in the city churches in China. Also, feminine culture has become widespread in Chinese society; it does not exist only in the church. Yet, men in society and in the church are quite comfortable with this culture and have few complaints. In fact, from what I have personally observed, those who complain about feminine church culture are often women.
  3. The different psychology between the two genders in terms of social interaction may lead to the imbalance. This difference may be an important reason for gender imbalance. However, why would this difference lead to differing degrees of imbalance between the city churches in China and the Chinese churches overseas? This is puzzling.
  4. Believers in China are largely new converts while overseas believers are usually not first-generation Christians. This is a factor that should not be ignored. In the cities, most believers are first-generation Christians; since it is usually more difficult for men to become first-generation Christians, they are outnumbered in city churches. On the other hand, Chinese churches overseas have many Christians who are not first-generation. Their coming to Christ is more related to the influence of family teaching. Gender difference is therefore less likely to be a factor affecting their choice of conversion. Hence, the problem of gender imbalance for overseas churches is less serious.

The factors I have discussed above are all possible factors for the gender imbalance in city churches in China. However, they are still not the fundamental reason for the phenomenon as they do not explain why it is harder for men within China, when compared to those who are overseas, to become Christians.

What is the true underlying reason that makes churches in China suffer a greater gender ratio imbalance than the Chinese church overseas? I think it is not because city churches in China are different from Chinese churches overseas; rather, it is because they are situated in different social contexts. The status of Christianity in China is very different from the status of Christianity overseas. Christianity is considered a mainstream religion in Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and North America. It is part of mainstream society. It is also the core value or culture of some so-called upper-class communities. Yet, Christianity in China is still considered a minority culture and is just a subculture, which sounds neither positive nor important. In addition, both the Chinese government and society in China have a very different attitude towards the Christian subculture when compared to that of the North American government and society. Actually, if we look at people from 22 to 45 years old, who represent mainstream society and are well educated, we see different attitudes towards the Christian subculture between men and women. It is this difference between these attitudes held by men and women that serves as the most essential cause of the gender imbalance in the Chinese city churches.

Translated from found at the ChurchChina web site: https://www.churchchina.org/no101103 Used with permission. Translation is by Ring Low.
Image credit: Reading by Jenny NLF, on Flickr