According to Pew Research Center's latest statistics, China has more than 600 million religious believers. Of these, an estimated 68 million are Protestant Christians, accounting for just over five percent of the population.
Counting Chinese Christians has always been a less than exact science. Estimates of the number of Protestant Christians vary from the official TSPM estimate of 23 million (which includes only those in the registered church) to 105 million, the figure put forth by Paul Hattaway following intensive research on unregistered Christian groups in China, to the 100 million listed in the 2010 World Christian Database. Concluding their own exhaustive review of the data, global Christianity researcher Todd Johnson and his colleagues stated last year, "An estimate of between 70-100 million Christians seems reasonable " 
In his article, "Religious Statistics in China," Tony Lambert, a longtime China researcher and author of China's Christian Millions, looks at why estimating the number of Christians is so problematic. He states, "Counting adherents of religion in China is like entering a minefield. It is generally recognized that Chinese economic, population and birth-control statistics are massaged up or down depending on political requirements, and religious statistics are even more problematic." Lambert, whose own foray into this minefield began 40 years ago, then unpacks the intricacies of religious statistics in China, showing how to utilize both government and unofficial numbers to piece together a reasonable estimate of China's Christian population.
While it is impossible to arrive at a completely accurate figure, the significant growth of the church during the past three decades points to two important realities.
Prior to the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, there were less than one million Protestant Christians in China. The exponential growth that has occurred in the years since, particularly following Mao's death in 1976, is nothing short of remarkable, representing perhaps the fastest church growth in the history of Christianity. The irony, of course, is that policies intended to thwart the growth of the churchor to annihilate it completelyhad exactly the opposite effect. The staying power and creativity of China's Christians in the face of relentless opposition testify to a power much greater than the one that was trying to stop them.
Secondly, although with urbanization the church's growth is shifting from the countryside to the cities, the growth is nonetheless continuing, putting China on track to have the world's largest Christian population in the not so distant future. From a marginalized, largely unnoticed segment of Chinese society, the church has emerged to take its place as a future leader in global Christianity.
Thinking about the size of China's Christian population brings to mind a quote from the late Dr. David Adeney, author of The Church's Long March. Asked years ago how many Christians there are in China, Adeney replied wryly, "As I recall, the words of our Lord were 'feed my sheep,' not 'count my sheep'." An appropriate reminder that, while the size of the church is significant, the more important question concerns the spiritual strength and vitality of its membership.
Image credit: Joann Pittman
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