In the relative openness that characterized much of the past decade, China’s church deepened in maturity and became more sophisticated in its approaches to ministry. Influence within the society grew, as did its relationship with the Christian community globally.
Today it faces growing scrutiny by a Party that sees both the church’s domestic impact and foreign connections as problematic. While many developments within the church itself would seem to bode well for the future, 2018 finds China’s church potentially on a collision course with the current regime, as China’s leaders tighten their grip on all sectors of society, including religion. How the church weathers the uncertain days ahead will depend on a number of factors. Here are five areas to watch:
Religious Regulations signed into law last August will go into effect February 1. If vigorously enforced, these regulations could severely impact the activities of unregistered churches by imposing severe fines on those leading and hosting church gatherings. Provisions in the new regulations could also affect Christian publishing and online activity, as well as believers going abroad for study or conferences. The seriousness with which national and local officials enforce the regulations will provide an indication of how the Party intends to deal with the church in the future.
Sinicization has become a key component of current religious policy as the Party seeks to emphasize the value of “traditional” Chinese culture and beliefs while minimizing foreign elements and influences. Some TSPM churches have already begun holding study sessions on the Confucian classics. It remains to be seen how far leaders in the official church will be required to take this, and also whether official attacks on Christianity as “foreign” will stoke anti-Christian sentiment in the society at large.
Denominations continue to take shape within the unregistered church, bringing a new level of consistency in doctrine, teaching, and church organization, but also laying bare the theological divides that separate different Christian groups. The enthusiastic adoption of Western catechisms and hymns flies in the face of government attempts to “Sinicize” Christianity, discussed above. The new denominational alliances could strengthen Christian leaders in their response to heightened government pressure. On the other hand, divergent views on how to relate to the government could further divide the church.
Missions sending efforts on the part of the Chinese church are gaining momentum. According to one Chinese church mobilizer with ties to the major church networks in China, these groups have collectively sent out over a thousand cross-cultural workers. Chinese Christian leaders will make important choices this year concerning training and support structures, strategy, and cooperation with the international Christian community. All these will have a significant impact on the movement’s future development.
Foreign Christians in China face a new set of realities with the implementation of last year’s Overseas NGO Law, higher standards for foreign workers, and changes within the Chinese church itself. The religion regulations mentioned above could further complicate efforts of foreign believers to directly serve the church in China. How foreign Christians who remain in China adapt to a more restrictive environment, and how they engage with Chinese believers, will shed light on the evolving role of foreign Christian workers.
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