Editor’s note: Be sure to read the 2023 update, “How Many Christians Are There in China? It’s Complicated.”
In parts one and two of this series, we heard from two members of the academic community about their current best estimates of the number of Christians in China. You can read those posts here and here.
In this final post, we will hear from three members of the ministry community.
By way of reminder, I asked these people to give me their current best estimate of the number of Christians and how they arrive at that number.
In posing the question, we are not looking to nail down the “definitive” number; rather we want to show that estimates vary and, for a variety of reasons, different people have their own best estimates.
At the end of the day, estimates are all we really have.
President of One Eight Catalyst, and author of The Chinese Puzzle: Putting the Pieces Together for a Deeper Understanding of China and Her Church.
I’ve always been in the 70 million range. I’ve never believed the 150 million estimates given how they were obtained. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been more and more convinced that we must be slowly approaching 100 million. In 2010 I was saying that it was 70 million. Since then, I think there has been growth, but at what rate? One thing we have to factor in as well, is that even as more and more Chinese come to Christ, there are many who were Christians and are now passing away. Spending a lot of time in rural Chinese churches tells me there are a lot of older people who are Christians, so a percentage of those people are passing away every year. So if the net growth would be 3% that’s an increase of two million Christians a year, or 20 million over the last 10 years, which would give us 90 million. To me this is a plausible number.
Tabor Laughlin (pseudonym)
President of a China ministry and author of Becoming Native to Win the Natives: Cross-Culturally Becoming All Things to All Men and In the Fiery Furnace of Suffering.
My assumption is that China’s Christian population is not as high as some writers estimate it to be, those who say 10% of the Chinese population (130-140 million) or more are Christians.
I’ve lived in eastern China, central China, and western China. And my experience has been coming across significantly fewer Christians in all of these places. If I teach 200 Chinese college students in a semester, only two to three of them would profess to be Christians or have any connection to a local church. Of course there are generally fewer Christians in NW China than there are in eastern or southern China. That being said, even when I first moved to China many years ago and lived in a city near Beijing (which has a relatively high number of well-educated Christians), I very rarely came across people at the college where I taught who had any connection to Christianity at all. I also recognize that some villages or counties in poor rural provinces in China (i.e. Anhui, Henan) have an incredibly high percentage of professed Christians.
All of this being the case, Lian Xi’s estimation of 50 million in his book Redeemed by Fire (pg. 2, 2010) seems like a more accurate count, though it is still higher than I think it really is. Because I’m a numbers guy (got my bachelor’s in aerospace engineering), it bothers me a bit when numbers I read in books seem exaggerated. Maybe I shouldn’t let it bother me so much. I do know that because of the status of house churches in China being illegal, underground, and secretive, and most Christians in China going to illegal house churches rather than legal government approved Three-Self churches, any estimation about the number of Christians in China is highly speculative and not necessarily reliable.
A cross-cultural worker who serves in the area of international leader development and cross-cultural consulting.
I think the number is 70 to 90 million, plus or minus 10 million either way!
In 2011 the Pew Research report put the number around 67 million, a number that is lower than some ministries report, but higher than official figures.
The question, then, is what is the rate of growth? Is it 3%? 5%? Even it is just 1% that would mark a big increase in terms of numbers. Keep in mind that the population growth for 2017 was 5%.
While the increase and current estimate may seem positive, it remains a sobering fact that there are now more non-Christians in China than ever before in history. In other words, the need and opportunities for evangelism remain staggering!
Regardless of what all the numbers are and whether they are knowable, this fact remains: we are living during one of God’s greatest miracles in history.
Thanks to Mike, Tabor, and Brent for sharing their thoughts.
Image credit: Joann Pittman via Flickr.
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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