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Reflections on the Pew Report

As I embark on this writing, it’s already 2024. Since 2023, the world has emerged out of the shadows of the pandemic, and we are returning to some semblance of normalcy. Yet, the past few years also revealed that we live in a world clouded by war and hatred. In China, the once-vibrant social confidence brought about by the country’s economic boom is fading. Industries like real estate and P2P (peer-to-peer) which were once the main attractions of capital influx now experience stagnation. Adding to the nation’s political instability (albeit not officially acknowledged), signs of a potential Chinese economic downturn are becoming more apparent. Social trends like (run), 躺平 (lying flat), and 内卷 (involution) have become prevalent in various corners of society. The rare appearance of groups of Chinese at the US-Mexico border also led many Americans to witness the contemporary Chinese trend known as 润学 (runology). “Runology” is a Chinese internet meme that expresses the desire to escape or run away from one’s country of residence.

As we know, religion has a significant role in maintaining social stability. Naturally, given the current atmosphere in China, many wonder about China’s current state of religion, especially given the rapid rise of Chinese Christianity in the past few decades. In the field of Chinese religious studies, the Pew research report published in August 2023 stands out as one of the most noteworthy. Comprehensive as it is, the results did not point to the much-anticipated new growth in Chinese Christianity. Instead, it presents a sobering counter question—has the once-flourishing Chinese Christianity ceased to grow?

It’s not surprising to have such concerns. In recent years, the Chinese government has tightly controlled the dissemination of key societal information while treating grassroots Christianity like a political opponent. This situation has left independent Christian researchers in a predicament as they struggle to access the necessary research materials while fearing unintentionally harming Chinese Christians, particularly well-known independent scholars.

Pew, known for its research rigor, is not allowed to conduct primary investigations independently in China. Instead, they rely on secondary data in their analysis, most of which is from five years ago. Thus, Pew’s research report does not include the far-reaching societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Chinese Christianity’s growth and operation. Nevertheless, the report still holds significant value for understanding Chinese society, especially for those involved in Chinese Christian research. To help us understand the factors that impacted the Pew study results, I want to bring attention to several distinct cultural and political contexts impacting contemporary Chinese Christianity.

Chinese People’s Cultural Awareness and Acknowledgment of Personal Beliefs

In this report, ordinary Chinese seem uneasy with key terms like 宗教 (religion) and 宗教信仰 (religious belief), making it difficult to establish firm conclusions in numerous surveys that utilized these terms. It is not just scholars who are sensitive to speaking of religious matters but an ongoing issue for everyday citizens. Based on my surveys and interview experiences, less than 10% of churches would allow outsiders to conduct a Christianity survey within churches. Even in churches willing to participate in such surveys, only around 10% of their members are willing to answer openly and honestly. There are even fewer participants if surveys are conducted on the streets or college campuses. The Chinese have developed a default skepticism toward strangers inquiring about their views on highly sensitive topics, including religion. Thus, asking direct questions using the aforementioned terms as part of how questionnaires are traditionally formatted may not accurately gauge the number of Christians in China.

Understanding Chinese Christians’ Way of Church Participation: Politics

Western societies often use the number and frequency of people attending church activities to measure engagement with faith. However, part of modern China’s culture is the politicization of different areas of life. Government officials discourage religious interests, and believers often need to find resourceful ways to circumvent government policies targeted at restricting regular service and worship. In the past few years, I observed that there has been a significant decrease in attendance at Three-Self Churches in Beijing, Shanghai, and other big cities, with a noticeable increase in older attendees, particularly elderly women. Volunteers at these church entrances reported that their church services prohibit the entry of children and youth below the age of 18. As a result, some parents would pivot and attend house churches or family churches that offer children’s ministry, which is most often underground and not documented in official databases. It seems that policies restricting religious activities did not decrease the Chinese’s desire and fervor to participate in Churches: instead, they flexibly adapted their way of participation, thus “disappearing” from the “surface” of observable religious activities.

Understanding Chinese Christians’ Way of Church Participation: COVID-19

Although it’s not possible to precisely measure how the COVID-19 outbreak and widespread lockdowns impacted governmental attempts to eliminate underground Christianity, there are signs that virtual gatherings provided new avenues for struggling house churches to thrive. A Chinese church pastor in North America who visited relatives in China after the end of lockdowns shared the following anecdote: a local authority came to his family gathering and introduced himself as part of the province’s Municipal Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs. He shared that before the pandemic, there were about a dozen half-open house churches in the district for which he took responsibility. Although these churches were not willing to register for church status, the provincial bureau knew they were churches, as the groups rented spaces for Sunday services. However, since the lockdown, the bureaus estimated around 40–50 house churches became fully “underground churches” with ever-increasing numbers of members in the same district. This has posed a dilemma for local authorities: Since political stability is the Party’s foremost priority, unless the central government sends a clear signal or message about curtailing or eliminating religious activity, the local government does not want to close down those house churches for fear of destabilizing the society in the region. At the same time, the invisibility of underground churches challenged the government’s control, which rendered them as potentially threatening political opponents. Besides enforcing compliance with government regulations to cut off house churches’ relationships with overseas affiliates, local authorities are navigating solutions to “surface” the underground churches.

From my understanding, this phenomenon is not a singular incident. Chinese Christianity, especially house churches, adapted itself to the pandemic and political pressures. Believers put more emphasis on personal salvation instead of the rituals and structure of weekly services and forgo ideals in developing mega-churches. It must have been to the Party’s surprise that the nation’s pandemic policy resulted in the flourishing and proliferation of house churches.

Bearing in mind the cultural and political contexts impacting Chinese Christianity, I want to call attention to three final key dimensions to be considered in future sociological surveys for Chinese religion and Chinese Christianity.

  1. Identifying the problem: Given the current political climate, unless political pressure lessens through the nation’s opening up, it is almost impossible to use traditional sociological methodologies to capture the state of Chinese Christianity accurately.
  2. Understanding the research subjects: To have a more accurate picture of how Chinese Christians live and experience their faith, research needs to rely less on surface-level quantitative questions and more on qualitative interviews in gatherings, services, and activities like group Bible study.
  3. Differentiating layers of church life across local cultures: Church life differences do not only exist between the binary category of official and underground churches; they also have intra-differences within the types, influenced by regional culture and practices. The context in which official or underground churches are established varies from traditional villages, migrant workers’ churches, traditional city house churches, and emerging churches. There are also significant differences between churches that emphasize personal salvation and mission-minded churches. Interpretation of these differences in Chinese Christianity needs to be viewed through a culturally sensitive lens instead of a Western denominational perspective.  

In conclusion, an objective understanding of contemporary Chinese Christianity amid the nation’s momentous social changes requires engineering new concepts and methodologies to obtain more accurate and comprehensive results.

Editor’s note: This article was originally written in Chinese and was translated by the ChinaSource team.

We invite you to also read Joann Pittman’s reflections on the Pew study in her blog post, “How Many Christians Are There in China? It’s Complicated” from September 2023.

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Image credit: Yifei Wong via UnSplash.

Steve Z.

Steve Z. (pseudonym) is a pastor, writer, researcher, and specialist on church development.View Full Bio

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