In my previous post, I highlighted many of the adversities Christianity faces in China due to its limited religious freedom. But God has used those unfavorable conditions to accelerate church growth. In this section we see that thistles and thorns are not the only plants on the path of evangelism. We have simply ignored the little daisies growing along the way. I believe history did not simply happen, but it was controlled by the Master’s hand.
Stringent Religious Policy Guarding against Heretical, Cultic Beliefs
In the past few decades, the New Religious Movement has been a worldwide phenomenon impacting both the East and West. The new emergent religions have drawn adherents from both the churches and non-believers.1 They have influenced believers imperceptibly. A survey in the US indicated that roughly 60% of adult Christians hold some sort of New Age beliefs.2 As a rule, competition exists among religions in a country while its legal system plays a part to regulate their popularity.3 Thankfully, the religious policy imposed by the Chinese government has guarded against the propagation of non-conventional religions, i.e., those other than the five mainstream religions, Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. The Mormons and Jehovah’s Witness were deemed illegitimate religions although they are active in certain locations. It is a blessing that the strict religious policy has helped to shield the public from the dissemination of New Age and cultic beliefs.
Policy Promoting Social Care for Witnessing Christ
The policy of “mutual adaptation between religion and socialist society,” first announced in 1991, has been applied consistently as a leeway softening the conflict between atheism and Christianity for the past three decades.4 Although the prohibition against public evangelization has never been relaxed, this principle reminds churches to be active in social care as encouraged in the Bible (Titus 2:14). In a Chinese culture highly concerned about guanxi (personal relationships and social networking), Christian volunteer work helps to prepare the guanxi needed in witnessing Christ’s love both in the public domain and the private sphere. For example, in 2008 at the time of the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan, Christian volunteers stood out as the most active community in disaster relief. The church gained public recognition in that social engagement making a way for the personal sharing of Christ’s love to follow suit.5
Christianity Growing with Urbanization
Driven by the development policy of the Central Government, the pace of urbanization in China surpassed the rest of the world. In only four decades, China has achieved a level that the West took two centuries to achieve. Large-scale industrialization, marketization, and the gradual opening to international cooperation and world trade provided the fuel for its rapid expansion.6 The growth of cities and townships and the growth of Christianity have progressed in parallel. Those living in remote villages thronged into cities in search of upward mobility. Many previously unreached people appeared right at the doorstep of the church.7 Moreover, urbanization brought diversified truth seekers to the church including energetic younger generations, intellectuals, elites, businessmen, students returning from overseas, as well as migrant workers.8 Although rural churches dwindled, the church growth in cities and townships greatly exceeded the loss in the countryside.
Christianity Growing with Economic Development
It was a miracle that during the past 40 years, China was able to introduce a series of landmark market reforms to open trade routes and investment flow for pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.9 Economic reform also opened a way for Christianity to prosper. The prioritization of economic development allowed more freedom for people to tap into external resources resulting in enriched knowledge and cultural exposure. Following Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy, foreign trade and investment were encouraged. The government became more receptive to the normative pressure of the Western discourses of human rights and religious freedom. Foreign missional non-profit organizations, including those in Hong Kong, were allowed to provide community services and professional training.10 Despite rigorous regulation still being in force to deter open proselytizing programs, these organizations performed countless ministries to transform the culture so that the environment became more receptive to the gospel.
The Great Commission along the Belt & Road
Times have changed in recent years. The religious policy has been tightened since 2014, marked by the demolition of church crosses. However, after going through a century of toughening trials in the furnace, the church in China is poised for being forged into an instrument for advancing Christianity further. Some churches have started sending cross-cultural workers aboard. They have also envisioned sending out 20,000 ministers in 2030 with a climax to transform the Jews in Jerusalem.11 The Back to Jerusalem idea was initially conceived in the 1920s by the Jesus Family church in Shandong. After a century, as the church has matured, it is more ready to commit to the Great Commission. Providentially, the One Belt One Road Initiative is opening business connections, trade routes, and cultural exchange opportunities for Christians to carry out their missional activities through tent-making, blessing-based business, and non-profit service.
On reviewing these turns of events, we find that God is sovereign in all the progress seen in political development, economic performance, religious measures, social trends, industrialization, and urbanization to advance his blessing for the nations. His way is higher than what we can imagine. “In the day of prosperity be joyful. But in the day of adversity, consider that God has made the one as well as the other, so that man will not find out anything that will be after him” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Christians in Hong Kong often consider that we are better equipped for evangelism. Yes, but it does not mean that we have had better growth in comparison with our brethren living under restrictions in China. The following table unpacks the myth.
Table Showing Official Published Data on Protestant Population from the Governments in China and Hong Kong
|Number of Protestants
|Number of Protestants
|Annual Report on China Religion 2010
|HK Yearbook 2010
|China’s Policies and Practices on Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief 2018
|HK Yearbook 2018
Both sets of data come from official government reports. After calculating the compound yearly growth rates in the period between 2010-2018, you will find that the growth rate in China was 6.45% while in Hong Kong it was 6.59% per annum. However, the reports on the China side tend to have underestimated the total Christian population because the data on unregistered churches would never be fully captured.12 If it were, the growth rate in China should probably be either neck-in-neck with Hong Kong’s growth or even higher. Despite the constraints on evangelism in China, God’s presence in its development has made the soil as fertile as that of Hong Kong where religious freedom has been enjoyed for 180 years. The church in Hong Kong needs to trust in God. No matter what uncertainties lie ahead of us, we are still under his care just like our brethren in China have been over the past century. He will protect and guide us in the new normal just as he has done there.
- Bryan Wilson, “New Religious Movements: Their Incidence and Significance” in New Religious Movements: Challenge and Response, Edited by Jamie Cresswell, Bryan Wilson, (London, Routledge, 1999), p. 1-13, 258.
- Claire Gecewicz, “‘New Age’ beliefs common among both religious and nonreligious Americans”, Fact-Tank, Pew Research Center, Oct 1, 2018 on website: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/01/new-age-beliefs-common-among-both-religious-and-nonreligious-americans/
- Jianlin Chen, The Law and Religious Market Theory: China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 18-21.
- Mutual adaptation between socialism and religion was first published in 1991 in the No. 6 Document from the Central Government (中共中央、國務院關於進一步做好宗教工作若干問題的通知).
- Brent Fulton, China’s Urban Christians: A Light that Cannot be Hidden, (UK: Lutterworth Press, 2016), p. 67-68.
- Qi Ye, Song Qijiao, Zhao Xiaofan, Qiu Shiyong, Tom Lindsay, China’s New Urbanisation Opportunity: A Vision for the 14th Five-Year Plan. Coalition for Urban Transitions. London, UK, and Washington, DC, 2020, Website: https://urbantransitions.global/publications/.
- 舍禾, “我和民工有个约——温州城郊教会民工福音事工回顾与前瞻”, 教會雙月刊, 2007年11月第6期, 总第8期, P. 32-38, Website: https://www.churchchina.org/archives/cts0711.html.
- 段琦, “城市化對中國教會的變化及影響”, 中國宗教報告（2012）, 金澤、邱永輝主編，（中國: 社會科學文獻出版社, 2012）, p. 64-104.
- 江迅,中國脫貧模式傳奇改變一億人命運推動鄉村振興,亞洲週刊第11期, 2021年3月15日.
- Yanfei Sun, “The Rise of Protestantism in Post-Mao China: State and Religion in Historical Perspective”, American Journal of Sociology, Vol 122, No. 6, May 2017, p. 1698.
- 李聖風, 宣教中國2030, Great Commission Bi-Monthly, Issue 110 Jun 2014, p. 21-24.
- Lu Yunfeng, Wu Yue, Zhang Chunni, “How Many Protestants are There in China: An Estimate Based on China Family Panel Studies”, Kaifang Shidai (開放時代), (1) 2019, p. 165-178.
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