Lead Article

Two Transformations

The Future of Christianity in China

The Current Situation

The current situation of Christianity in China is in fact a huge topic. This article is not going to describe all of its aspects but attempts to emphasize a few aspects of its current situation that deserve the most attention.

Very rapid increase in number. The most obvious change in Christianity in China is the increase in the number of its believers. According to the estimate of “Religion Blue Paper 2010” published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences World Religion Institute, there are 23,050,000 Christians in China. This is the latest figure that is officially recognized. However, academia and the religious circle generally consider this figure to be lower than the actual, and the number should be more than 50,000,000. Some overseas missionary organizations even consider that the number may be between 80,000,000 and more than 100,000,000. As these figures cannot be verified, it is difficult to draw a scientific conclusion as to which figure is accurate and reliable, so they can be used as reference only. However, it is recognized by all that Christianity is the fastest growing religion in China today.

Wide distribution. One obvious characteristic of the rapid growth of Christianity is its wide distribution. Nowadays, no matter whether it is villages or cities, coastal or inland areas, districts of the Han race or border areas where minorities gather, from the north to the south, from the east to the west, Christianity is in nearly every province, city and county in Chinaeven in Xinjiang and Tibet. It is difficult to find a district in China where Christianity is not found.

Relatively young and highly educated. There have also been changes in the makeup of Christianity’s membership. Nowadays, the average age of Christians in China is relatively young, and middle-aged and young people constitute its main force. On the other hand, the educational level of Christian believers has been raised tremendously when compared with the past. This is especially prominent in the recently developed urban churches, in particular the churches in large cities which have a significantly large proportion of university and graduate students. The phenomenon of the “three many-s” (many aged people, many women and many illiterates) of Chinese Christianity, commonly held by people in the past, no longer exists.


Similar to the description of the current situation of Christianity in China, this article is not going to set out all its problems but will point out certain problems that are having the greatest impact on its development.

Church-state relationship not yet formalized. The relationship between Chinese Christianity and the government has been a very sensitive and complicated issue for a long period of time. Within Chinese Christianity, the “three-self churches” recognized by the government and the “house churches” not recognized by the government are developing simultaneously. The relationship between either of them and the government is abnormal. The problem of the “three-self churches” is its being troubled by the management model of the government administrative department that does not separate church and state. The government intervenes and controls the personnel, finances and administration of the church in different ways, leaving the “three-self churches” with no autonomy. Moreover, they cannot get rid of the political mission imposed upon them by the government since their birth. These churches have official political overtones in addition to their religious nature.

The “house churches” are having more serious problems of a totally different nature. For a long time, the government has implemented policies not to recognize nor dialogue with them and to attack them if necessary. These churches are trying to find all possible ways to develop under the government policy of non-recognition and suppression. Recently, the relationship between the government and the “house churches” has been alleviated from the country-wide perspective, but the increase in the number of believers within them has not caused substantive changes in the conflicts between them and the government. In some areas, there are often clashes between the “house churches” and government administrative departments, and this has intensified to the extent of open combat in certain districts. Because “house churches” have enormous Christian communities constituting an important portion of Chinese Christianity, the problem of the relationship between them and the government has become the problem of Christianity in China that attracts the most attention.

Membership structure distribution not even. The membership of Chinese Christianity requires specific analysis. Behind the continual increase in the number of Christians there exists the problem of an uneven distribution of Christianity among the major people groups. In the past, Christians in China were mostly farmers in villages and a portion of relatively elderly citizens in cities. Nowadays, the average age of Christians is younger so that in addition to farmers and the traditional Christian families in the coastal areas, new Christians are mainly various kinds of intellectuals, freelancers, people returned from overseas, university students and non-manual laborers of enterprises. There are relatively low proportions of Christians among people engaged in industry and commerce, entrepreneurs, civil servants, state enterprise personnel, the self-employed and retired people in cities. Christianity has not yet become the most common and popular, major religion among the various people groups in Chinese society.

Recently, church leaders have noticed the differences in the needs for church development between villages and cities, but they seldom consider the imbalance in church members’ occupations. Because of Christianity’s current missionary approach in China and the environment it is situated in, the uneven distribution of Christianity in China’s population is not easily changed, even over a considerable time in the future unless the churches themselves adopt a new missionary and development strategy and regard the imbalance in church membership as an important issue to tackle.

Insufficient pastoral personnel. The development of the Christian church requires a large number of qualified full-time clergy, but the number of students recruited by and the teacher qualifications of the seminaries of the “three-self churches” are far from meeting the needs of church development. Among the numerous grass-root churches, there is a common problem of insufficient number and low quality of clergy. In respect to the “house churches,” because of their lack of legal identity, they cannot openly establish seminaries. Theological training and education have become more difficult, and it is a non-disputable fact that the majority of pastors of the “house churches” have no formal theological training. Both the “three-self churches” and the “house churches” attach great importance to training clergy. Recently, both entities have sent people to receive training in overseas seminaries, but that number is very limited; even if all of these returned to China after their training, they might not be able to contextualize what they have learned so it can be adapted to the development of the church in China. Therefore, the lack of pastors is a major issue that stymies the development of China’s church.

Administration not standardized. The internal administration of the church is a major worry restricting the development of Christianity in China. The government’s religion administrative department has strictly controlled the personnel, finances and administration of the “three-self churches” for a long time, and church internal administration has become part of the government’s religion administration work. Although this situation has ensured the official recognition of the existence and development of the “three-self churches,” it has also marked the “three-self churches” with the mark of “being politicized” and “government-run churches.” In the long run, dependence on the government without separation of church and state will only cause the church to lose her capability for independent development by her own strength. It will cause the church to deviate from the religious goals and sanctity of development of Christianity, which is not conducive to the healthy development of Christianity in China.

In respect to the “house churches,” those in villages have long been suppressed, and most are in a secretive or semi-secretive state. It is relatively common for them to exist under tremendous pressure so they have strict internal controls, paternalistic leadership and a closed management style. In certain churches there even exists a management style similar to that of secret associations in China’s civil society. With the focus of the church shifting to the cities, the easing of relations with the government, the increased openness of society and the popularization of the concept of governance within Christianity itself, democracy and openness in the internal administration of village “house churches” have been enhanced a great deal. Relatively speaking, the “house churches” in cities have already begun to focus on the standardization and democracy of internal church administration. They are trying to establish a relatively standardized, internal, democratic, supervisory system for collective decision making and supervision of pastors through elected elders or staff that represent the congregation on church matters. However, churches with this type of system are in the minority. Overall, the current internal governance of “house churches” in China is still based on decision making by leadersespecially the individual church pastors. Churches rely more on the personal charisma of their leaders; the democratic supervisory system has not yet become mainstream in church administration.

No room for charitable services. The providing of charitable and social services has always been the tradition and strength of Christianity in various countries. Since the reform and opening of China, both the “three-self churches” and the “house churches” have actively been trying to participate in services of this nature. However, because of political considerations, the mechanism for legal protection of religious organizations entering this realm has not been established. The government has not set out the ancillary policies, such as those on fund raising and preferential tax treatment, for religious organizations to enter this area. Charitable enterprise is not open, and government-run charities are still the main body for charitable services in China.

In spite of this, charitable organizations were set up of by the government-recognized “three-self churches” for the undertaking of some charitable service projects. However, these projects were undertaken largely in consideration of political image. The “three-self churches” across the country cannot set up high profile organizations to run charitable enterprises independently. Provision of such services is not the essential daily work of the “three-self churches,” nor is it the main channel for the public to be aware of and understand Chinese Christianity; there is no necessary link between charity and Christianity in Chinese society.

Regarding the “house churches,” since they have not solved their identity problem and are in the “shadows,” not known by society, they cannot enter the public domain in “the sunshine” to legally carry out charitable and social services. In the long run, whether or not the churches can openly be engaged in carrying out charitable and social services is an important factor for Christianity in China’s ability to obtain social recognition. If Chinese Christianity cannot enter the charitable services realm legally, there will be serious problems for its prospects of development in the nation.

Culturally boycotted. In recent years, with globalization, development of information technology and more cultural exchanges between the Chinese and foreign cultures, the extent of acceptance of Christianity in China has been raised, and the number of Christians in China has increased enormously. From a political and legal perspective, Christianity is one of the five officially recognized religions; the “three-self churches” are the officially supported churches, and the Chinese government had never opposed or criticized Christianity in the official media. However, in the eyes of the average Chinese, Christianity is still regarded as a religion of the West and an “imported product” of Western culture. Despite the fact that there are a lot of farmers among Christians, many Christians in cities are intellectuals, university students or people in coastal areas who know English or have opportunities to contact “the foreigners.”

As a system of faith, ethics and morals, the contextualization of Christianity has not been completed. In addition to Marxism which is officially advocated, the ethical and moral resources of the Chinese people are still largely derived from traditional Chinese culture, especially the Confucian culture. The prejudice, doubt and worry most people have against Christianity are mainly cultural. In China’s mainstream media and publications, Christianity has only changed from having a negative role to a “neutral” one; its presence is tolerated without the need for public criticism. The government has never given any public recognition or affirmation to the culture, values, ethics and morals of Christianity. From a cultural perspective, the position of Christianity cannot be compared with official, orthodox Marxism, traditional Chinese culture or Confucianism. A very small number of fundamentalist Marxists, radical nationalists and patriots regard Christianity as a cultural tool of the hostile forces of the West against China and demonize it from time to time. The classics and other publications of Christianity still cannot be published freely. Overall, Christianity is still in a position of being culturally discriminated against and has not become an indispensable part of mainstream Chinese culture.


Christianity has never had so many members in China, but at the same time its development has also inevitably exposed and magnified its flaws and problems; the future of Chinese Christianity is not entirely bright. Notwithstanding its tremendous development as compared with its situation sixty years ago and its legal recognition, it is still doubted and excluded culturally; it has no place in the social public domain, and it is still on the edge of Chinese society.

However, compared with the external resistance for the development of Christianity, the biggest obstacle to the church’s development is to recognize its own problems and correct them. To exist and develop in China, Christianity must begin to change itself, namely to realize two changes: to move from the edge to the center of the society; and to change from the management model of individual responsibility by church leaders to a collective management model of democratic supervision. Without these two changes, there is no future for Christianity in China. This is the major strategy for the development of the Chinese Church and is also the only way for the development of Christianity in China that cannot be avoided. Christianity must achieve these two changes in order to seize the historic opportunity for development in China.

For the reasons above, if the Chinese Communist Party cannot offer spiritual values that meet the needs of the Chinese people and cannot resolve the growing faith crisis within a period of time in the future, it will lose its qualification as the official source of morals and defender of moral standards for its people. If the other religions in China are unable or cannot fill the void created by the defaulting of the Communist Party, and if they cannot propose a solution to resolve the faith crisis when the Chinese people are most in need of a spiritual belief system, then Christianity has its opportunity. If Christianity can come out in time with a position as the provider of social ethics and morals and povide a spiritual belief system for Chinese society, if it can address the loss of faith of the Chinese people, then the people, the society, the culture, and China’s rulers will completely change their opinion of Christianity. This is the historical opportunity Christianity has in China; this is the breakthrough point for the development of Christianity in China!

Translated from Chinese by Amy Chow.

Image Credit: Zhu Shi Kou Christian Church, Beijing, China by V.T. Polywoda, on Flickr

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Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China.View Full Bio