In his final installment in this series, Steve Z. put forward five propositions about how the church grows in China. Two things stand out as surprising.
The first is the absence of what are commonly referred to as the “four mores.” Past surveys of church growth in China have frequently led to the conclusion that the church comprises mainly older believers in the countryside who are primarily female and less educated. Many are seen as having come to faith because they experienced a miraculous healing, either their own or that of someone close to them. While this portrait of the church may have been accurate decades ago, Steve’s research provides further evidence that it is long outdated.
Looking at age, the largest group of respondents in Steve’s sample was those in their 50s, with a sizeable number of respondents in their 40s or 30s as well. Only 31% were illiterate or had only a primary school education. While experiencing a miraculous healing may have been a factor in respondents’ coming to faith, the most common motivations were going to heaven or knowing the truth.
Where Steve’s data does align with previous studies, however, is in the preponderance of women in the church. Female respondents accounted for 72% of those surveyed.
The other surprising discovery is the apparent interplay between China’s Communist culture and the personal spiritual journeys of Chinese Christians. A case could be made that, for many Chinese, Christianity provides credible responses to questions that Communism raises but is ultimately unable to answer.
Steve’s first proposition is that the pursuit of metaphysical ideals is the primary reason for the growth of the Chinese Christian community. As Steve explained to me recently, Communist education’s emphasis on truth launches China’s citizens on a quest for something the Party itself cannot deliver. For those exposed to Christianity, the gospel provides satisfying answers to these ultimate questions. This relates as well to Steve’s fourth proposition, which holds that the emphasis on reading that is deeply embedded in the Chinese cultural consciousness naturally predisposes seekers or new believers to gravitate to the Bible—the written word—as the source of truth. While the Communist Party of China has long exploited this predisposition in its own propaganda efforts, for Chinese Christians it finds fulfillment in their encounter with scripture.
A similar dynamic can be seen in the desire for eternal life as a major factor in Chinese becoming Christians. In contrast to the traditional Buddhist concept of reincarnation, the Marxist vision of a Communist utopia points to something better beyond the life that people are currently experiencing. When the Party promised to fulfill this vision during the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, the entire experiment collapsed in tragedy. Still this future vision persists in the Chinese political consciousness. According to Steve, when those who have been nurtured in this environment become Christians, they find this vision is actually in the Bible, fulfilled in the promise of eternal life.
Finally, the role of “evangelicalism in informal conditions” (Steve’s third proposition) points to religious policies that have fostered nontraditional and noninstitutional forms of Christian community. Rather than curtailing Christianity’s influence, these policies have inadvertently made the faith more accessible to more Chinese, creating distinctive communities outside the Party’s control. In these communities believers find the idealized, supportive relationships that were promised by Communism but never realized.
Since most of the Christians in Steve’s survey were themselves from Christian backgrounds, the study does point out the need for Chinese Christians to be intentional in taking the gospel beyond the Christian community if it is going to continue to spread. A major takeaway for Steve is the primacy of personal evangelism in spreading the faith. The challenge for Christians is to utilize their relationship networks outside the church in order to reach those who otherwise would not be exposed to the gospel.
Steve’s expectation for the survey is that it not become just another academic document but rather provokes conversation about what’s needed in China today. He hopes those who are training church leaders in China can, with humility, understand the informal character of the Chinese church, its traditional cultural background, and the importance of personal relationships, and can tailor their assistance appropriately.
Concerning his own future involvement with church leaders, Steve says as a result of his research, “I can go not only with passion but also with understanding.”
This blog series is based on research done by Steve Z. The research paper in Chinese and English is available for download below.
Image credit: A friend of ChinaSource.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio
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