Blog Entries

A Social Scientific Study of the Chinese Christian Community in Britain (3)

Key Issues for UK Chinese Churches

From the series A Social Scientific Study of the Chinese Christian Community in Britain

The first and the second articles of this series discussed the characteristics and trends amongst Chinese Christians and their non-Christian counterparts in Britain, as well as the significant impact of the large influx of immigrants from Hong Kong. What do these new changes and discoveries mean for those who care about Chinese churches and are dedicated to serving this community?

As part of the Bible and the Chinese Community in Britain project initiated by the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), I have interviewed nearly 50 church leaders to better understand the key issues facing the British Chinese Christian community at this unique and crucial historical juncture. The participants include local church pastors, preachers, and lay leaders, as well as directors of large mission organizations. Current reports on Chinese churches in the UK often focus on their significant growth in numbers. To be sure, while the interviewees were all grateful for the growth, they also faced unprecedented pressures. This reminds us that when discussing the British Chinese Christian community, we should avoid falling into the trap of moralizing numbers.

As always, we will let the data speak. These interviews have offered new insights from real-life experiences and have helped us identify the challenges and opportunities currently associated with Chinese ministry, as depicted in the word cloud below. The prominence of each word in the cloud reflects the frequency with which the theme was mentioned during the interviews.

An Asian woman and man hold microphones and lead a worship service. In the background, a man plays guitar. Current reports on Chinese churches in the UK often focus on their significant growth in numbers. To be sure, while the interviewees were all grateful for the growth, they also faced unprecedented pressures. This reminds us that when discussing the British Chinese Christian community, we should avoid falling into the trap of moralizing numbers.

Who Will Pastor the Newcomers?

Let us focus on the two words that appear most frequently. Among all interviewees, the theme most mentioned is co-workers. Today, the biggest challenge facing Chinese churches in the UK is arguably the lack of pastoral resources. Since 2021, nearly 30,000 Christians have migrated from Hong Kong to the UK. The social functions of the church also attract many non-believers, leading to a surge in church attendance. This raises a practical question: who will pastor them? This issue is mainly reflected in two interrelated aspects.

First, there is an absolute shortage of full-time Christian workers. Due to the difficulty many churches face in hiring suitable pastors quickly, existing staff have been forced to work considerably harder in the past three years. Ironically, although there is a high demand for roles within Chinese churches, these positions frequently come with unattractive salaries. At times, compensation is not even consistently offered, resulting in vacancies that remain unfilled.

Second, the influx of new members not only increases the overall size of the church but also the variety and number of services required, such as a significant increase in youth and seekers groups. Since all these require substantial manpower and there are not enough full-time workers, many lay leaders have consequently been raised to maintain the operation of these ministries. However, due to the limited capacity of senior leadership, these new lay leaders often do not receive adequate training and pastoral care, making them susceptible to self-doubt and stress.

Struggling Youth

The second popular theme is youth. The main force of this wave of immigration consists of economically better-off, middle-aged families who brought with them many teenagers and, to a lesser degree, younger children. As a youth group leader in a Chinese church in Oxford, I have myself felt this deeply. When I took over in 2021, there were only 10 people in the class; now the youth in the church have reached nearly 40. Similar stories are happening in countless Chinese churches across Britain. The issue of youth was mentioned repeatedly in our interviews, not just because of the numbers. In fact, it is directly connected to the issue of church resources, particularly the pastoral resources mentioned earlier. In many ways, the youth issue is the most prominent example of the lack of pastoral resources in churches.

Among the teenagers who have come to the UK in this wave, integration and mental health issues are especially concerning. Compared to adults, they often appear more vulnerable when faced with the rapid and massive changes in their lives in the past few years. They thus require more time and help to adapt to a new country: the language, the school, the people, and the religious life. It is not uncommon for them to experience trauma, conflicts with peers from mainland Chinese or British-born Chinese backgrounds, or significant doubts about the Christian faith. Our interviewees commonly see the challenges churches face in this regard, especially those frontline youth workers.

On the one hand, the existing resources for church youth, whether teachers or instructional materials, are quite limited. On the other hand, it is very difficult for churches to find individuals who understand both the local culture and the native backgrounds of immigrant youths, and who are also willing to spend time leading and accompanying them. Overseas Chinese churches sometimes equate youth and children’s ministries with cross-cultural ministries, and the challenges here are often more complex than those faced by adult congregations.

Making Room to Welcome Everyone

In addition, space is another key word appeared in the interviews. Over 80% of Chinese churches do not own their property and need to rent other churches, schools, or public spaces for Sunday services. When the congregation size was small, this was not a major issue. However, as the number of attendees grows, different meeting needs become urgent. Many churches need to add mid-week meetings or split Sunday worship into different time slots to accommodate the growing Cantonese-speaking congregation. They may also need new spaces to accommodate teenagers and young children. As a result, renting spaces becomes very problematic, as it not only increases costs but also strains scheduling. Interestingly, although the majority of Chinese churches in the UK are independent congregations, those with denominational affiliations (e.g., Alliance, Elim, and Chinese Church in London) have often grown faster over the past three years. One of the main characteristics of these churches is owning their own properties. By contrast, independent congregations often need to consider economic and logistical factors more when conducting their ministries, which in some ways limits their capacity and appeal.

The issues mentioned above, along with other topics discussed in our interviews, can essentially be summarized under one theme: Chinese churches in the UK are experiencing significant supply-demand gaps. This represents challenges but also brings many opportunities. When I first started researching Chinese churches in the UK in 2020, there were only four or five church organizations dedicated to serving the Chinese community in the UK. Today, this number has exceeded 20. The list includes local entities like the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Church of England, and the Alpha Course and even North American ones like the Southern Baptist Convention. In the long term, their engagement should not only help Chinese churches address the practical issues mentioned earlier, but also make Britain once again a significant missionary hub.

Share to Social Media
Image credit: Amonwat Dumkrut via UnSplash.
Yinxuan Huang

Yinxuan Huang

Dr. Yinxuan Huang is a research manager at the British and Foreign Bible Society. He was research fellow and coordinator for the Bible and the Chinese Community in Britain research project at the London School of Theology (2021–23), His main research interests are in sociology of religion, Chinese Christianity, East …View Full Bio

Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.