According to Rob Gifford, China Editor for The Economist, much has been written about the growth of the church in China, but to understand the church's impact we need to look beyond the numbers.
Speaking recently at a forum in Hong Kong sponsored by The Kaifa Group and Island Evangelical Community Church, Gifford noted that the growth of China's church roughly parallels that of the growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire during the 4th century, following the Edict of Toleration. According to Gifford, the question is not how many, but rather what kind of impact China's Christians are having on their society.
Here are a few takeaways from Gifford's remarks about the church in China:
From the birdcage to the aviary. The Chinese government has given up on trying to control religion. Restrictive, all-encompassing regulations have been replaced by a control framework within which China's Christians have a degree of freedom to exercise their faith. Yet (as evidenced by recent events in Wenzhou) local officials still have the ability to cause problems for Christians if they don't like them.
Religion is not a priority for China's leaders, who have a long list of other issues to work on. As a result China has long outgrown its religious policy, which lags far behind the reality of where the church is today.
Christians are having an impact in their society, in business, even in politics, as they seek to live out what it means to be "salt and light." As the government struggles to know how to move forward in addressing China's myriad social issues, the church has a role to play. With Christians stepping into areas of need that have been left vacant by the government, people will increasingly look to the church for solutions.
Christian intellectuals are finding a place at the table, as evidenced by their participation in drafting the Oxford Consensus last year. Chinese believers joined their fellow intellectuals from the neo-Left and Confucian camps in an historic "drawing in" of Christians into the ongoing debate about China's future.
"Bottom-up" and "top-down." As Gifford puts it, "Christianity is a bottom-up faith; China is a top-down country." Herein lies the great dilemma: the things the government needs the most, it is most reticent to allow.
Regarding the role of the church outside China, Gifford notes that many of the challenges facing the Chinese church today are not that dissimilar to those facing the church in the West. Whereas the experience of the church in China thirty or forty years ago was vastly different from that of the Western church, there are perhaps more opportunities for mutual cooperation today than back then. "Perhaps we have more to offer now than we might have had a few decades ago," remarks Gifford.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio