In past decades, China's church had much less of a public presence. The gospel message was conveyed primarily through clandestine small group meetings or personal relationships.
Today’s urban church, by contrast, is on display through the presence of believers in business, education, government, and other areas, including a significant online presence. At this juncture China’s urban church leaders believe that engaging with their society is essential for the church to have a credible witness.
Sociologists Li Ma and Jin Li, drawing on their three-year ethnographic study of Christians in China’s major urban centers, note that “their active presence in the public space and their more explicit expressions of faith [help to] diffuse Christian values into civic discourse and to provide an alternative to the official ideology. Secondly, these elite-led Protestant groups have also oriented the unregistered churches on an organizational level towards more openness and more active social engagement.”
The desire of urban church leaders to respond to the social dilemmas facing China grows not only out of their own theological convictions and sense of cultural mandate, but is also rooted in the realization that, for the society to take the church seriously, the church must be seen as caring about those issues that are of concern to society. Most people in China would agree that the lack of a coherent ideology during the past three and a half decades has left a huge void in terms of ethics, morality, and personal trust. China’s urban citizens are watching to see who will come forward to fill it.
For the church, stepping into this arena brings social as well as political legitimacy. It also moves Christianity, in the minds of many, from being still a foreign and somewhat suspect belief system, to being seen as more “Chinese” as it provides indigenous solutions to indigenous problems. Finally, urban church leaders see the church’s engagement with society as essential for keeping the church from becoming too inwardly focused.
 Li Ma and Jin Li, “Remaking the Civic Space: The Rise of Unregistered Protestantism and Civic Engagement in Urban China,” pp. 2-3. Published in Christianity and Public Life: Religion, Society and the Rule of Law (Palgrave Studies in Religion, Politics, and Policy), Joel Carpenter and Kevin den Dulk (eds.), Palgrave Pivot, January 2014.
Photo Credit: Old Church, by Christopher, via Flickr
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