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Seeking to Understand Church Growth in China

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

Previous studies of religion in China in general, and Christianity in particular, have left a lot of unexplored and unanswered questions. Despite the impressive growth of the Chinese church over the last 40 years, researchers have had few chances to probe and understand the mechanisms and characteristics of that growth. There are many theories and explanations but few confirmed conclusions.

To try to remedy that, I wanted to conduct a random sample survey among ordinary people and leaders of different types of churches throughout China’s provinces. The overall purpose was to provide some credible answers for questions on the “reasons for the growth of the Chinese Christian community.”

During 2017 and 2018, I started a survey to better understand some fundamental questions about the state of the church and church members in today’s China. The scope of the research focused specifically on Han Chinese churches in the Chinese mainland including both Three-Self, traditional house churches, urban emerging churches, and rural and migrant churches. While some ethnic minorities such as the Lisu, Big Flower Miao, and Korean have higher percentages of Christians, Han Chinese believers still account for the majority of China’s Christian population and were the focus of the survey.

Survey Principles

The survey was conducted province by province in a random manner and was based on three principles:

Principle 1:  Survey by entering the church rather than entering the family.
This was a lesson learned from the failure of the official "household" investigation. We considered, although not all Christians are in the church, finding Christians requires entering the church.
Principle 2: Except for Xinjiang, Tibet, Guangxi, and Yunnan, invite all provinces rather than pre-selecting specific provinces to conduct surveys.
Principle 3: Use pre-set church categories, which include
    • Traditional house church
    • Urban emerging church
    • Rural church
    • Migrant church
    • Three-Self church

Survey Method

  1. Design two sets of questionnaires:  
    • Church leaders/co-workers (pastors) version
    • Church member version
  2. All responses are submitted as written questionnaires. Answering through electronic communication is not allowed.”

Investigation process

  1. Each church is allowed to choose a safe way to answer the questionnaire for security reasons, but is not allowed to change the questions.
  2. Pastors and church leaders are allowed to fill in a “member survey” as a “member,” but not allowed to fill out questionnaires on behalf of other church members.
  3. The survey can only be completed at the church or meeting place; the questionnaire is not allowed to leave the church or meeting place and be completed at a workplace or private space.

Sample Size Requirements

Unless for security reasons, in principle 30% of the members of the church and 50% of the pastoral staff are required to complete the questionnaire.

The survey was undertaken knowing that any survey work in China has an additional layer of complexity due to low trust, diverse populations, and information security concerns and controls. There is always a huge gap between what is most desirable and what can be done practically.

It is also necessary to consider that during the period 2017-2018, the development of Christianity in China began to face the most systematic and step-by-step national political pressure seen during the recent forty years. As a result, when churches in different regions responded to the investigation, they had to consider adopting measures to continue to cooperate with the investigation while considering what the external environment allowed. Although the data obtained in this survey shows the general outlook of “Chinese Christianity” from a macro perspective, many details, such as regional distribution and theological characteristics, etc. still need to be revealed through return visits and in-depth interviews.

After several experimental questionnaire surveys and revisions, it was finally determined that the survey would start in the spring of 2017 and end in the summer of 2018. I personally took the questionnaire and visited churches in various places. However, it was not necessary for me to be present in person for participating churches to do the survey. Instead, they completed the questionnaire on a specified day and time and immediately collected the surveys. The same church was not surveyed twice.

The final survey consisted of 24 questions (10 sections) for the member survey and 31 questions (9 sections) for the leaders/pastors survey. It would normally take someone about 15 minutes to complete the member survey and 20 minutes to complete the leader survey.

More than 1,000 churches were invited but because the survey took place at the same time that churches in various places began to experience different levels of attention and impact (for instance, the preachers were invited to “drink tea,”1 and so on) in the end, only about 10% of the churches—nearly 120 churches—agreed to take part in the survey. However, because of the deadline for submission, only about half of them were actually collected—that is, written questionnaires from nearly 70 churches in 18 provinces and municipalities, including some individual questionnaires of poor quality that could not meet the interpretation requirements. The distribution of these responding churches is shown in the map below:2

The distribution of questionnaires from these 18 provinces is:

  • A total of 1655 valid questionnaires for church members were collected;
  • A total of 110 valid questionnaires for church leaders and preachers were collected.3

These participating churches include:

  • 11 rural churches
  • 43 urban churches
  • 5 migrant worker churches
  • 6 traditional Three-Self churches
  • None of the churches was founded by overseas missionaries planting churches
  • Three of them have a long history and have been meeting since before 1979

The results of the surveys will be discussed in the coming blogs.


  1. “Drinking tea” is a Chinese euphemism for being invited to meet with government officials to answer their questions. Often this is to find out what is going on in the church or to deliver a warning or message.
  2. In addition to Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan, and Guangxi which were not invited, provinces and municipalities with no survey results are: Jilin, Hebei, Tianjin, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Fujian, Jiangxi, Ningxia, and Hainan. The main reason for the lack of survey papers was related to the actual situation of the local church at that time and the decisions of the church leadership.
  3. The total number of Christians is based on the total number of churches related to pastoral work. Due to increasingly urgent security considerations, the requirements of 30% members and 50% pastoral co-workers were not strictly enforced, and only nearly 20 churches met this requirement. Some pastoral workers and members only completed the member survey; some only allowed some of the main co-workers and main members to participate; there were 11 churches with 100% leadership surveys, but no member surveys. There is also a church that does not require members to fill in personal information.
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Image credit: w3ichen from Pixabay.

Steve Z.

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

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