Given the Chinese church’s exponential growth in past decades, predictions that China will one day have more Christians than any other nation on earth are not surprising. It is worth asking, however, whether these predictions take into account significant changes—both in China and in the church itself—that have taken place in the years following this dramatic growth. Three particular areas come to mind. They are offered here as a starting point for discussion and an invitation for further reflection on the dynamics of church growth in China today.
Evidence suggests that urban congregations continue to grow in size. New churches are being planted. While the picture may look encouraging, this growth is due in part to Christians migrating from the countryside, where many churches are in decline. Thus a key question is how much of the current growth is due to new conversions as opposed to believers simply relocating. In the future, as migrants move away from major metropolises and settle in second- and third-tier cities, it will likewise be important to gauge how much of the growth in those cities is due to reverse migration and how much is the result of more people coming to Christ.
The church has experienced two pronounced growth spurts in recent history. The first occurred in the 1970s and 80s in the countryside; the second, in the 1990s and early 2000s in the cities. The countryside revival was marked by signs and wonders. Rapid evangelism took place largely along kinship lines. Later in the cities church growth was fueled by the post-1989 turning to Christianity among young intellectuals, a proliferation of campus fellowships that would later form standalone unregistered churches, and massive urban migration—all within a period of relative openness.
Each of these two growth spurts had its particular sociopolitical context, with unique factors contributing to the growth. The situation today is considerably different from that of past decades. It remains to be seen whether the conditions for a third wave of growth will converge and, if so, what those specific conditions will be.
The Next Generation
Among Christian leaders in China today there is much concern about xin er dai, or second-generation believers. The obstacles to their remaining in the church and embracing the faith for themselves have been well documented, and include a lack of attention to children’s and youth ministry in the church, relentless academic pressure, and the distractions of a materialistic and technology saturated culture. If the government steps up restrictions on church activities for children and youth, it will likely become even more challenging to disciple this generation.
Each of these dynamics has implications for the future growth and sustainability of the church in China. Projecting future growth based on the church’s past experience may lead to unrealistic expectations. On the other hand, if China’s recent history has shown anything, it is that the church can grow amidst the most unlikely of circumstances.
The dynamics discussed briefly here suggest important questions that need to be explored further in order to understand the church’s trajectory as it heads into an uncertain future. What are you observing about these and other trends impacting the current growth of the church? We’d like to hear from you.
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