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How Many Christians Are There in China? It’s Complicated

From the series How Many Christians in China?

In 2020, I wrote a series of posts titled How Many Christians Are There in China? Preferred Estimates. In that series, I suggested that there are no reliable statistics as to how many Christians there actually are in China. The best we can do is estimate, and every individual or organization has their preferred estimates.

To illustrate, I reached out to three individuals in the China academic and ministry communities and posed these two questions: 1) What is your preferred estimate on the number of Christians in China? 2) How do you arrive at that estimate?

Professor Fenggang Yang of Purdue University responded in Part 1. Dr. Carsten Vala of Loyola University responded in Part 2. Part 3 includes shorter responses from ministry practitioners Mike Falkenstine, Tabor Laughlin, and Brent Hoover.

Earlier this week, on August 30, the Pew Research Center released a report titled Measuring Religion in China.  The opening chapter of the report, rather than declaring a new, definitive number, focuses on why it is so difficult to accurately determine the number of religious believers in China:

By virtue of its huge population, China is important to any effort to assess global religious trends. But determining how many people in China are religious today, and whether their religious identities, beliefs, and practices have changed over the past decade, is difficult for many reasons. The challenges facing independent researchers include not just the Chinese government’s tight control of information and the Communist Party’s skepticism toward religion, but also linguistic and conceptual differences between religion in East Asia and other regions. […]  Depending on the source used, estimates of the share of Chinese people who can be described as religious in some way—because they identify with a religion, hold religious beliefs, or engage in practices that have a spiritual or religious component—range from less than 10% to more than 50%.”

Between 10% and 50%? That’s a big difference!

In an analysis article accompanying the piece, researcher Conrad Hacket delves into why the question “Is China a religious country?” is a tricky one to answer. He points out that while only 3% claim that religion is important in their daily life (no other nation reports a lower number), in fact, “most Chinese people engage in practices premised on belief in unseen forces and spirits. Chinese people, in other words, are more religious in their practices than in their identities or beliefs.”

The report takes a close look at the five approved religions, but our interest is mainly the section on Christianity (Protestant and Catholic). If you are looking for a tidy answer to the question of how many Christians there are in China (And why wouldn’t you? This is Pew!), then you will be disappointed. That’s because this is the first time Pew has (sort of) come out and admitted that they don’t really know and that it’s almost impossible to really know. For this report, they relied on various internal Chinese sources so every stat or chart comes with a caveat, meaning that the numbers themselves probably aren’t very helpful.

What is helpful in this report is their explanation of why it is so hard to get reliable data on religion and religious practice in China. There are political sensitivities that may (likely do) prevent people from openly answering survey questions. Terminology is another problem. People may deny being part of any religion, but still engage in a variety of religious practices.

Another problem is sampling. There are provinces that have greater concentrations of Protestants or Catholics; if those provinces are over (or under) sampled, the results will be skewed.

The report is definitely worth reading, so long as your goal is understanding the complexity of the question more than looking to find the definitive number.

Christianity Today reached out to a number of experts and scholars on China’s religious landscape, including ChinaSource founder Brent Fulton, to ask for their reactions to the report. Here’s what Brent had to say:

I’m surprised at the consistency across several surveys that found roughly 2-3 percent of respondents identified as Christians. At the same time, however, this figure must be treated with much caution. As the report points out, Protestant Christians tend to be concentrated in certain provinces and cities of China, and Catholic believers are even more geographically concentrated. We do not know the geographical distribution of the various survey respondents, but given the uneven distribution of Christians in China, they are likely underrepresented in the data. 

What is concerning is that while it is impossible to know the true number of Christians in China or gauge the growth or decline of the church in a comprehensive manner, anecdotal evidence would seem to support the observation that the church’s growth has plateaued. Of particular concern is the state of the church among young adults and youth. 

In the past fifty years, China’s church experienced two significant growth spurts: the explosion of the rural church in the 1970s and 1980s and the emergence of a vibrant urban movement in the 2000s. Those who grew up during the rural revival are now in their fifties and sixties. Many in the urban congregations are now middle-aged. In the years since these surveys were conducted, youth and student ministry, along with Christian-run schools and activities such as summer camps, have been severely curtailed due to the pandemic and to government restrictions on religious activities for children under 18. The survey data showing that Christians were the least likely to have grown up in homes with parents of the same faith also seem to suggest that Christianity is not being passed on generationally. How the church will meet the needs of its next generation remains a critical question.

What I find positive has less to do with the data itself and more to do with Pew’s transparency in acknowledging the formidable barriers to accurately quantifying religious believers in China. While considerable attention has been given over the past several decades to the question of how many Christians are in China, there is no way to answer this question definitively. When asked in the 1990s about the size of China’s church, veteran CIM missionary David Adeney responded, “As I recall, our Lord did not say ‘count my sheep,’ but ‘feed my sheep.’” Rather than fixating on statistics (as we in the West are prone to do), those who care about the church in China would do well to heed Adeney’s reminder.

Amen to that!

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Image credit: Joann Pittman.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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