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Four Decades of Church Growth in China

From the series God at Work: How the Church Grows in China


When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, estimates of the total number of Protestant believers in China were around 700,000. By the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 some thought the church had completely disappeared due to decades of persecution. Since China’s opening to the world once Deng Xiaoping came into power, we have learned of the endurance of Christians and the emergence of the Chinese house churches.

Since 1979 when China began its reform and opening policies (改革开放) and churches began to re-open, the Christian community in China subsequently has seen remarkable growth. During this 40-year period, despite the changes and challenges Chinese Christians have faced over these years, God has continued to work among the church and society in China.

Alongside impressive economic development and secularization of society, the growth in the number of Christians in China has not only been recognized by those who are concerned about the development of Christianity in China but has also been noticed by political and academic circles. Due to the Communist ideological environment in China, scholars researching the development of contemporary Chinese Christianity have had difficulty getting beyond some limited and incomplete statistics plus estimates. This has created challenges in understanding the actual development of Christianity in contemporary China.

During these four decades, the energy and speed of the development of Christianity in China has far exceeded the expectations of scholars all around the world who have been observing that development. Although the church’s development has been uneven and the ruling party’s policies on religion have vacillated, Christianity has experienced a high-speed growth phase rarely seen in the history of the church in China.

In recent years, the growth of the Christian faith in China has not only been an issue for Christians, but is also becoming an issue for the whole of society. In the words of the current Chinese leader Xi Jinping:

Religious issues … have a bearing on the development of the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, the party’s flesh-and-blood relationship with the people, social harmony, ethnic harmony, and national security and the reunification of the motherland.1

Some scholars of Christianity from an official background even exclaimed that China should be alert to the emergence of “Christianity as the dominant religion.”2 For example, Mu Zhongjian has stated:

 Among the five major legal religions today, the proportion of foreign religions is far greater than that of traditional Chinese beliefs. Taoism and Buddhism combined make up no more than half, …. Christianity has grown in urban and rural areas at an unprecedented rapid rate in history (an annual increase of about 1 million believers) and has become the religion with the most formal believers. This has weakened the national subjectivity of Chinese religion and culture, and drastically changing the original structure of Chinese religion. . . . the dual existence of the above-ground and underground religious groups, has broken the unified religious ecosystem, religious groups in the gray and black zones survive in an abnormal state. 3

He also stated: “The secret development of religion, or a dominant religion, or religious tensions, or constant external interference are not in line with the essential requirements of socialism.”4

During the four decades since 1979, the Communist Party Central Committee has convened two national religious conferences, notably the “National Conference on Religious Work” led by Jiang Zemin in December 2001 and the “National Conference on Religious Work” in April 2016 during the Xi Jinping era. Comparing the openly published news reports of the conferences we can see that Jiang Zemin emphasized the importance of the Communist Party doing its religious work well,5 but Xi Jinping proposed “the adherence to and development of socialist religion theory with Chinese characteristics.”6 From these two religious conference proceedings, you can see that the political leaders have had real concerns about the development of religion and were developing countermeasures to address their concerns.

Reports on the development of Christianity that are truly authoritative are two “white papers” on religious issues produced by the Chinese government. In October 1997, the “White Paper on the State of Freedom of Religious Belief in China” was published by the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China;7 twenty years later in April 2018 the same State Council Information Office issued the “White Paper on Policies and Practice of Guaranteeing Freedom of Religious Belief in China.”8

Comparing the two white papers that are 20 years apart, we can get a preliminary glimpse at the religious developments that the Chinese government has publicly acknowledged over these 20 years. First, in terms of total numbers, the 1997 white paper stated: “According to incomplete statistics, China now has more than 100 million religious believers and about 300,000 religious staff.” By 2018, the white paper acknowledged: “Nearly 200 million religious citizens and more than 380,000 religious staff.” It can be seen that in the past 20 years, with the slight increase in the total number of religious staff, religious believers in China have almost doubled.

However, considering that these data are of an estimated nature, the huge difference in the number of believers does not indicate the natural growth of the number of believers in China in the past two decades. After several investigations, the Chinese government has come closer to actual estimates of the current situation of religion in China. Specific to Christianity, the 1997 white paper stated: “There are currently about 10 million Christians in China, more than 18,000 pastoral ministers, more than 12,000 churches, and more than 25,000 simple venues (meeting points).” In 2018, the expression was: “more than 38 million Christians and about 57,000 religious clerics.” Obviously, the total number of Chinese Christians has more than doubled in the past two decades. No doubt this is a highlight of the white papers on Chinese religion.

During the time period covered by the two white papers, China’s religious population nearly doubled. The white papers maintained that 68% of the total religious population remained Buddhist or Taoist and the macro structure had not changed. However, the other numbers in the white papers skillfully and implicitly acknowledged the fact that the Christian population in China had increased significantly. See Figure 1 below:

Figure 1: Religious Believers in China / 中国信教人口

While accurate numbers are hard to verify, no one disagrees that there has been a large increase in the number of Christians, churches, and pastors in China during these decades. I conducted a survey to go beyond the focus on numbers and to understand from an individual believer level or a church level what the factors were that contributed to this unprecedented growth spurt.

The other blogs in this series will provide a snapshot taken via an extensive survey done during 2017 and 2018. This time period is also a time during which Christians in China began to face the most systematic, step-by-step, national political pressure in recent years. As a result, when churches in different regions responded to the survey, they had to consider adopting measures to continue the survey work while considering what the external environment allowed. The survey was completed in the presence of external interference and the degree of interference experienced by churches in different regions was not uniform.

Endnotes

  1. Xi Jinping: “Comprehensively Improve the Level of Religious Work in the New Situation”; Xinhua News Agency, 4/23/2016. http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2016-04/23/c_1118716540.htm (accessed 3/26/2019). (English summary at: http://www.china.org.cn/china/2016-04/24/content_38312410.htm).
  2. Mu Zhongjian: “The Theory of Religious Ecology” published in World Religious Culture, No. 1, 2012.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. China Communist Party of China News: National Conference of Religious Affairs (December 10-12, 2001). http://dangshi.people.com.cn/GB/151935/176588/176941/177530/10682798.html (Accessed 3/26/2019).
  6. Xi Jinping: “Comprehensively Improve Religious Work Under New Conditions,” Xinhua News Agency, 4/23/2016 posting, http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2016-04/23/c_1118716540.htm (accessed 3/26/2019).
  7. Reference: http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/ndhf/1997/Document/307974/307974.htm (Accessed 3/27/2019)
  8. Reference: http://www.scio.gov .cn / zfbps / 32832 / the Document / 1626514 / 1626514.htm (Accessed 3/27/2019).