Blog EntriesChristianity in China

An Overview of the Church in China

For those who were not able to attend, here is a recap, as well as links to some of the ChinaSource resources which we drew from.

I started out by noting five trends within Chinese society over the past three decades:

  1. Ration coupons to Walmart. In the 1980s consumer goods were so scarce that staples such as meat, flour, and sugar were still rationed. Today, most Chinese cities are awash in consumer goods.
  2. Isolated to engaged. In the 1980s China was just emerging from nearly 30 years of isolation. Today she is not only engaged with the global community, but is increasingly a major player.
  3. Conformity to self-expression. In the 1980s, Chinese were expected to do everything in lock-step conformity (from dressing to thinking). Today self-expression is encouraged (to a point).
  4. Poor to economic power. In the 1980s China was very poor. Today it has the world's second largest economy.
  5. Hidden church to visible church. In the 1980s, very few churches were open and few people even knew what a church was. Today, churches have a visible presence in society.

Brent highlighted four common understandings, or narrativesthat westerners typically have regarding the church in China:

  1. The Persecuted Church By far the most common, this narrative views China's Christians as victims of a godless state that is bent on their destruction. While it may have been accurate 30 years ago, this narrative overlooks evidence of a growing number of Christians in both the registered and unregistered church who are practicing their faith openly on a consistent basis, for example, sharing the Gospel with friends and coworkers, engaging their society through good works, and conducting a variety of Christian activities in cyberspace. If such activities are acknowledged, they are assumed to be the exception rather than the rule.
  2. The Needy Church This narrative follows on the first, and portrays the church as sorely lacking Bibles, training for leaders, and other resources. The obvious implication is that Christians outside China must come to the aid of Chinese believers, who are too weak and under-resourced to meet their own needs.
  3. The Missionary Church Seizing upon the "Back to Jerusalem" vision which animated Chinese missionary activity in the 1940s and which has since been revived, this narrative exalts the Chinese church as the solution to bringing the Gospel into areas of the world where the church has yet to penetrate, particularly in the Middle East. The narrative paints the compelling picture of an army of up to one million Chinese missionaries moving out across the globe, while calling on Western Christians to support this movement financially.
  4. A Christian China This final narrative looks to the day when the Chinese church will have reached critical mass and so penetrated the culture that China will be transformed as a nation. Not too far below the surface lies the assumption that the triumph of Christianity will be accompanied by the demise of the Communist Party, opening the way for a free and democratic society.

Brent talked about some of the general facts about the Chinese church.

  1. The church is growing. No one really knows how many Christians are in China, but it is no doubt between 30 and 100 million.
  2. The church is diverse. There are three "faces" of the Chinese Church: The Registered Church ("Three-self"); Rural Unregistered Church ("house church"); Urban Unregistered Church.
  3. Christianity is not illegal in China. That may have been true in the past, but is no longer true today.
  4. Policy doesn't change; practice does. While the policies that govern religious affairs have not changed, the reality has changed. In China regulation and reality rarely go hand-in-hand.

I talked about six key challenges faced by Christians in China from the perspective of Christians in China (and in their own words). These are taken from translated articles published in Chinese Church Voices.

  1. Evangelism "China will remain the largest mission field in the world. During the next 30 years, China will still contain the largest number of nonbelievers and unreached peoples [ ] China has 2300 county-level cities. According to one study, only one third of these cities possibly have a church. The further west one goes, the fewer Christians one finds." (a Beijing pastor)
  2. Relativism "One of the earmarks of the post-modern age is the sabotage of absolute truth and the deconstruction of all things, the belief that nothing is absolute save relativity itself." (A blogger)
  3. Engagement with society "The Chinese church today needs to find and create opportunities for connecting with society. Of course we still need to go to orphanages and nursing homes, and make them feel our selfless love. Yet we also kneed even more creative channels." (a Beijing pastor)
  4. Building vibrant local churches "Only if the church can bring healing to the individual, build healthy families, establish supportive communities and provide moral direction to society, will the Chinese church receive favor that is far beyond anything we can imagine today." (a Beijing pastor)
  5. Training the next generation "Watchman Nee and Wang Mingdao influenced an entire generation of the church. Are there such lights in the Chinese church today?" (a Beijing pastor)
  6. Global missions "The house church in China is joining forces with the larger world church in places such as Brazil, Africa, and Southeast Asia in order to do our task of world evangelization. While China remains the largest mission field, it might also become the world's largest sending country." (a Beijing pastor)

Finally, Brent looked at the role of outsiders ("foreigners") seeking to serve the Chinese Church:

  1. Listen. We need to listen to what our Chinese brothers and sisters are saying.
  2. Pray. We need to pray for our brothers and sisters in China.
  3. Partnering in innovation. We need to look for new ways of service, remembering that strategies that may have been useful or appropriate twenty years ago may not be today.
  4. Modeling. Christians in China respond to models of Christian love and charity.
  5. Encouragement.

A special thanks to all who turned out on a cold and raining evening.

Image credit: Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio