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Consumerism and the Church in China


"Most large consumer-facing companies realize that they will need China to power their growth in the next decade." (McKinsey Quarterly, March 2012)

For global businesses the China market is a necessity, not an option. China's growing consumer class is expected to be the engine that powers the world economy in the coming decade.

Growing this consumer class is equally important for China's own future. In order to sustain an acceptable level of economic growth (and thus keep unemployment to tolerable levels) China must enlarge its middle class and build the world's largest consumer base.

From 1994 to 2004 consumer spending in China skyrocketed, increasing sixfold in the space of one decade. The increased buying power of urban Chinese is not merely an economic phenomenon. According to McKinsey consultants Jeffrey Towson and Joanthan Woetzel, "Urban Chinese are shopping to meet emotional needs, driving a skyrocketing demand for middle class goods, services and entertainment."

Herein lies both the danger and the opportunity for China's church. Materialism is already noted by many pastors today as perhaps the church's greatest threat. Pastors bemoan the relatively shallow spiritual experience of many of the millions of adherents who come to church each Sunday but whose lives during the week exhibit little difference from those of China's nonbelieving urban citizens. A misplaced focus on resources for resources sake could (as seen in the West and in other parts of the world) skew the church's direction. A "prosperity Gospel" could similarly distort the Christian message, ostensibly drawing many to the faith, but for the wrong reasons. Again, anecdotal evidence from some cities suggests this is already happening.

The opportunity for the church is to provide a truly biblical view of the created universe and of mankind's place in it. Rather than, on the one extreme, refusing to talk about wealth and the material world because to do so is "unspiritual," or, on the other hand, embracing wholesale and even endorsing the culture's emphasis on material acquisition, the church will be challenged to demonstrate what it means to be stewards in God's kingdom. China's new generation of urban consumers, overwhelmed by a never-ending onslaught of commercial advertising and perplexing financial decisions, would likely welcome sound stewardship teaching were the church to offer it. As more consumers go from the exhilaration of new purchases to the disillusionment of discovering that having more does not bring happiness, the church has the opportunity to provide an alternative worldview that puts work and material possessions within the larger context of mankind's purpose on earth.

A related question facing the church is whether China, as it becomes an increasingly wealthy nation, will also become a generous nation. Again, the church's opportunity here is to model and teach biblical stewardship in a way that brings constructive meaning to abstract economic wealth, challenging both long-held traditional norms regarding the role of money in families and society, as well as the current culture of ostentation. Early evidence from China's nascent philanthropy sector suggests that the church is already playing a significant role in education, capacity building, and policy development.

China's lack of coherent legal support for NGOs currently hampers the growth of the philanthropy sector. However, the maturing of civil society, including the emergence of more wealthy individuals seeking legitimate ways to invest socially, will likely push policymakers to come to grips with the sector and provide a legislative framework for its development. With centuries of experience in non-profit management, the global church, particularly among the Chinese diaspora, is well positioned to play a key role in developing the sector.

Furthermore, as the church in China looks outward over the next decade to define its role in cross-cultural outreach, support structures at home will be key to the long-term viability of the Chinese missions movement. Building a solid foundation of biblical stewardship teaching within the church and contributing to the building of the philanthropy sector within the larger society are thus necessary pieces in the realization of the Chinese church's current vision.

For more on biblical stewardship read "Faith and Generosity: Will the Church in China Make the Connection?" in the July issue of The Lantern.

Image credit: post hoc ergo propter hoc, by Erwin Fisser, via Flickr

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. 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... View Full Bio