In a recent blog series, several guest contributors responded to an invitation from Joann Pittman, ChinaSource’s Senior Vice President, to give their best estimate of the number of Christians in China. As was expected, the numbers varied greatly, yet all of the contributors offered solid reasons for the figures they put forward.
Given the definitional problems inherent in asking this question, not to mention the sheer impossibility of conducting comprehensive survey research on such a sensitive topic, there will never be one decisive answer.
Regardless which estimate one chooses to accept, however, they all invariably point to the same conclusion, namely, that China’s church has experienced remarkable growth. Since there is widespread agreement on this point, perhaps a more meaningful question would be to ask how this growth is taking place.
This is the approach taken by Steve Z, a pastor, writer, researcher, and specialist on church development who in 2017 and 2018 undertook a random sample survey of congregations in 18 Chinese provinces and municipalities. This summer ChinaSource will feature a blog series highlighting the results of his study, “A Survey of the Current Situation of Han Christian Churches and Christian Groups in Mainland China.”
“It is impossible to know the number of Christians in China,” Steve said in a recent interview. “People don’t tell what they know because of restrictions on religious freedom. It is a secret only God knows.”
Rather than attempting to tabulate numbers of believers in the churches he surveyed, Steve instead looked for patterns of church growth by asking about believers’ personal experiences as Christians. The resulting data provide an important foundation for further study on the basic model of Chinese Christian development from 1979 to 2018 and the challenges and opportunities facing churches.
Survey questions included:
- What are basic motivations for believers to convert to Christianity?
- How much time does this process take, and by what means and through whose influence do they become Christians?
- What is the basic understanding of the concept “believing in Jesus?”
- What is the basic understanding of the “Christian life?”
- In which activities do believers actually participate in church life, and to what extent?
- What is the nature of Christians’ relationships with other believers and non-believers?
Steve found that the Bible itself, along with the influence of personal relationships, especially among family members, were key factors in people coming to faith. Many respondents also reflected on the role that China’s moral and spiritual climate played in creating the conditions for their conversion.
“People in China feel very dry,” Steve remarked. “They are looking for spiritual answers.”
As the study’s title indicates, Steve limited the scope of his research to focus specifically on Han Chinese churches in the mainland, including both Three-Self and traditional house churches, urban emerging churches, and rural and migrant churches. While some ethnic minorities such as the Dai, Big Flower Miao, and Korean have higher percentages of Christians, Han Chinese believers still account for the majority of China’s Christian population. Of the 1,200 congregations in Steve’s initial sample, 120 ended up participating in the study, which entailed distributing a paper survey to members following the Sunday service, as well as a separate survey for pastors. Since congregations were required to have a response rate of at least 30 percent in order to be included, the final results were based on data from 84 churches.
A second follow-up phase of the study, consisting of qualitative interviews geared toward developing models of church growth in China, was initially planned for this year. Due to current travel restrictions this work has been postponed. When they are able to proceed with phase two at a later date, Steve and his team also plan to share the results from phase one with the churches surveyed and to dialog with church leaders about the findings.
Asked about his biggest takeaways from the research thus far, Steve responded, “The character of church growth; the feeling that God is working in China even in the midst of a difficult situation. The church is still alive. God is keeping his promise.”
Watch for the next installment in the series, an overview of 40 years of Chinese church development, coming soon.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio
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