China's comeback as a world power is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary stories of our time.
Equally extraordinary is the comeback of China's church. Both numerically and in terms of its growing influence in society, the church has experienced phenomenal growth during the past three decades.
Given the resurgence of Christianity in China's recent history, the church's continued momentum going forward is, for some observers, almost a foregone conclusion. Others, however, would suggest that, without a fundamental change at this juncture in its development, the church's future may not be so bright.
To understand where the church is going, let's first take a look back at where it has been.
During the late 1970s to mid 1990s the church was in survival mode. Revival and explosive growth, especially among house churches in the countryside, highlighted the acute need for Bibles and trained leaders. (During the previous 30 years no new leaders had been trained, nor had any Bibles or other resources been produced.) Many outside the officially recognized church faced persecution.
The church's challenges at this time were seen as largely external. Churches and organizations outside China rallied to provide Bibles, training, and financial assistance to the struggling church.
In the late 1990s and into the 2000s the church began to experience what might be termed a season of success. New forms of church emerged in China's now burgeoning cities. With greater personal freedoms came a lessening of social and political pressure. Chinese believers began opening Christian bookstores, counseling centers, kindergartens, and private businesses with an overtly Christian identity. The Sichuan earthquake in 2008 represented a turning point for the church, as Christians from across China mobilized to support the relief effort.
The church's external challenges have not been resolved completely. Gaps remain in terms of leadership and the availability of Bibles and other resources. However, the development of an indigenous leader development infrastructure, both within the registered and unregistered church, signal the church's continued movement toward greater self sufficiency.
The big question for the church in this decade seems to be one of significance. Assuming numerical growth continues, the church is able to build more of its own institutions, and the evolving political and legal framework allow for greater stability and openness, what will the church do?
This is the question posed by Andrew Kaiser in How Many Christians are there in China? And Does it Make a Difference? An NGO leader and scholar with years of China experience, Kaiser asks whether greater numbers necessarily equate to greater influence for the church. On the contrary, it is possible that a church increasingly satisfied with its own place in society will turn inward.
Few would question whether Christianity in China has a future. The question is, what kind of future? Has the church valiantly emerged from the ashes of suffering, only to fade into irrelevance? Or are its best days ahead as it grapples with the question of what it means to make a difference in today's China?
President of ChinaSource. Follow Brent on Twitter - @BrentSFulton.
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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