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3 Questions: A New Look at Chinese Christians

From the series 3 Questions

Our friends Mary Ma (Li Ma) and Jin Li recently published a new book, Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China. Using the tools of ethographic research and their unique perspectives as insiders, they provide an insightful look at the lives and faith of Chinese Christians today.

Here Mary responds to three questions about the book and about Christians in China today.


3 Questions

1. You took a unique approach in gathering material for this book. What did you hope to accomplish through your research?

We started our research as an ethnographic project, integrating oral history methods and sociological methods. I am a sociologist by training and my husband is an economic historian. To better unpack the "habits of the heart" of Chinese Christians, we favored an approach that allowed the expression of religious sentiments and historical complexity—ethnography integrated with oral history. The former method seeks for a “thick description” of cultural factors, and the latter documents life-course and conversion narratives.

Being members of unregistered churches made it convenient for us to start with an insider’s view. And we set out to interview people diversified in age, education, region, and theological persuasion. Making people tell their stories, especially the hidden themes of how the Christian faith survived in them, demands high trust. During our fieldwork, we spent a lot of time cultivating trust with our respondents. Given the prolonged suppression of Christianity in China, it takes great courage and rational prowess for believers to look back on their lives and analyze past events attended by hostility and sometimes violence. Thankfully, most of them were able to open up and tell their conversion experiences and their realistic life struggles. Because of their courage and thoughtfulness, the whole project was also a transformative experience for us as researchers.

2. As you describe in the book, the position of Christians in Chinese society has changed over the decades. What do you see as their role in China today?

The role of Christians in China has changed over time because Chinese society has undergone some key structural changes including marketization and urbanization. Of course, change affects almost everything in China—even within a short time span—but the speed of social change is often staggering. With oral history data, we were able to tell stories spanning from the 1950s to the current day.

Today the presence of Christians in China is embedded in what we term a "paradoxical reality." The number of Christians has been growing but, due to media censorship, the average citizens' perception of their presence is limited. Unless they have access to global news or some emerging new media Chinese people are unaware of the extent of Christian presence in China. So there is a perception gap between how foreigners see the development of Christianity in China and how the insiders see it. This has both positive and negative implications. Positively speaking, less, or even limited, publicity serves as a screening mechanism to keep churches from growing complacent. The negative implication is the privatization of faith or lack of Christian engagement in the public sphere. Our book discusses how Christian groups now diversify into professional groups, creating a growing trend of public engagement along professional lines. But these individuals need pastoral support from their churches, and that is often challenging. Or in a sense, there is a lack of thoughtful public theology among Chinese pastors.

3. How do you see the current political climate affecting this role?

The tension between church growth and suppressive political and media environments is likely to intensify. But churches can use technology creatively to serve traditional purposes. The digitalization of pastoral resources may also present new challenges to church leaders. With the diversification of ministry needs in both the rural and urban context, it is due time that the Chinese church deepens its theological understanding of the changing world and China’s role in it. The most worrisome trend is a growing sentiment towards nationalism all over China. This dominant cultural narrative enters into how Christians identify themselves as well. We worry that if Chinese Christians do not develop biblical discernment regarding the prevailing political discourse, they are more likely to mix China-centrism into their view of global mission.

Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China by Li Ma and Jin Li is now available at reduced cost from the publisher Wipf and Stock.

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio

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