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A Chinese Christian Exodus?

From the very beginning, migration has always been one of the key themes of Christian history. This unique Christian phenomenon has long been noticed, but recently highlighted even more by scholars. In a publication of 1979, Ralph W. Klein points out: “Exile was and is a catalyst for transplanting the faith” (Quoted in Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West, by Jehu J. Hanciles, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008, p. 139). In his book of 2008, Jehu J. Hanciles declares Christianity is “the definitive migratory religion” (Beyond Christendom, p. 155). It is no wonder that sojourn and journey are among the most popular metaphors for Christian life in the world.

Even in Chinese church history, migration is no stranger. From the arrival of the Nestorians in China in the 7th century to massive Christian migrations within and outside the country in the wartime of the 1930s to 40s, the movements and relocations of believers have been an indispensable part of the story of Chinese Christian missions.

This history seems to be repeating itself right now in China. Due to a number of monumental changes in politics, economy, and society in mainland China over the past decade, Chinese emigration has apparently been accelerating steadily. Even after its pandemic-related pause and decline, the trend seems to be heading up again. What caught our attention is the very obvious and strong presence of Christians in ongoing emigration from China. A couple of unofficial estimates put the percentage of Christians in the overall new immigrants from mainland China at 15-20%. If this number is credible, the disproportion is striking compared to the percentage of Christians in the general population in China, indicating that mainland China is losing its Christian population at a rather fast pace.

It is also apparent that this estimate is largely matched by what we are witnessing from overseas in recent years. Squeezed by mounting restrictions of Christian activities in mainland China, concerned with the lack of educational opportunities for Christian children, and disheartened by the economic down-turn, an increasing number of Chinese Christians especially from urban house church background have been joining the trend of “running”(润)out of the country and re-settling in Southeast Asia, Europe, and especially North America. They come either as investors, professional workers, or even students. As a result, churches are being planted overseas by a few urban house churches in mainland China, ministry platforms are being relocated abroad, and resources are being moved there, too. Something like this might have occurred earlier, but never on this scale. (We do not need to mention what has been happening to Christian community in Hong Kong for the past several years.) It is not far-fetched to say that a Chinese Christian exodus is unfolding before our eyes.

Yes, this unprecedented trend is still evolving. However, as this new reality begins to take shape, it inevitably invites the question: what does all this mean to us? Please allow me to make a few very preliminary observations.

First, this new reality challenges our existing concept of the church in mainland China. As the mainland Chinese church is sending its people and resources to other countries and regions, and setting up new centers of operation over there, it is obviously going through a process of globalization. Consequently, the reach and scope of the Chinese church is perhaps no longer limited to mainland China. For at least the next couple of decades, the church in China proper and in diaspora will very likely be rather homogenous and bound together in theology and ministry. Therefore, should our imagination of the Chinese church be stretched accordingly? Should the Chinese church be re-conceptualized? Put it another way, can the mainland Chinese church continue to be treated as a geographically local phenomenon? Would it be better to consider it a transnational movement or entity?

Second, in past decades, overseas-based churches and mission agencies tended to draw a clear line between the church inside China and China programs operated from abroad, and usually prioritized the former as the primary collaborators and recipients of support. However, as the church from the mainland is increasingly internationalized, the line between the church on the ground and church in diaspora is becoming blurred, and it is thus getting harder to make a clear distinction between them. In many ways, some overseas-based organizations and their programs could be just as strategic and impactful as those based in mainland China in advancing God’s kingdom in China. In making decisions, North American agencies need to take this new reality into account.

Thirdly, it is interesting to observe how the influx of a mainland Chinese Christian population will impact the make-up of overseas Chinese Christian communities and change their characters. This will have significant implications for the ministry among Chinese people in diaspora.

Fourthly, the rise of cross-cultural and global mission movement from the church in mainland China has caught the attention of the global church in recent decades. These new waves of emigration of Chinese Christians will most likely add new energy to that arising movement.

Fifthly, it is true many of these new immigrants are urban and middle-class believers in China. However, let us not forget that most of these moves made by them are involuntary, painful, and unplanned and come with great prices and sacrifices. Humanly speaking, this exodus is very tragic. Families have to give up good careers, sell homes, leave behind their elderly and friends, and step into strange societies and cultures. Sometimes congregations in their home country suddenly lose their pastors, and chaos and disputes ensue. It could be a traumatizing experience for everyone involved. Both new immigrants and left-behind congregations in China deserve our attention, care, and prayer.

How long will this “Chinese Christian exodus” last? What will be its future trajectory? What will be its global impact and repercussions? Nobody fully knows for sure. But we all know one thing is certain: God has a purpose in this, and migration has served his purpose in China before and will do the same again. We just need to follow his lead in the decades to come.

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Image credit: Icarus Chu via UnSplash.


CHEN Jing (pseudonym) is a theological educator teaching in North America and has been extensively involved in theological education for the church in China since the beginning of the 21st century.View Full Bio

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