Whether one is a busy international executive or simply a diligent observer of world events trying to stay informed, it is natural to look for "handles" to help grasp what is happening around the globe. This is no less true for China, particularly for China's church. In a desire to achieve some closure in understanding a complex situation, we grab onto a research statistic, the latest news report, the testimony of a church leader, or perhaps an anecdote from someone who has recently visited the country. Then we can say with at least some satisfaction, "So, this is how it is."
But not so fast.
Facts about the church in China may be more readily available than they were 10 or 15 years ago. But more information does not necessarily produce greater clarity. Often the opposite results.
What, then, can be said with any certainty about the church in China? Here are some observations, along with a few thoughts on why making sense of the church in China is so difficult.
The church in China is growing. All would agree that the church in China has grown dramatically from less than one million believers at the middle of the last century to its current number today. We just can't agree on the number; depending on who is counting, it may vary from less than 30 million to more than 100 million. The fact is that no one knows the true number, in part due to the diversity of the church and the larger political environment in which it operates, both of which are discussed below.
The church in China is diverse. Christians in China generally worship within one of three "streams." The officially recognized church operates under the auspices of the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), a political organization charged with overseeing the church on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. Traditional rural house church movements emerged during the Cultural Revolution when all religious worship (including that under the TSPM) was banned. They subsequently experienced revival and phenomenal growth. With the urbanization of China, the spiritual center of gravity appears to be shifting to a new stream, the unregistered urban church. This latter group, composed largely of first-generation believers, is not affiliated with either the TSPM or the rural house church movements.
Devoted Christians can be found within all three streams. All would agree that the church is struggling to keep up with the demand for trained leaders and other resources. Relations between the groups vary, depending on location, from open antagonism to mutual avoidance to generous cooperation. Not a few leaders within the emerging urban church came out of the TSPM, where they still maintain friendships and the hope of greater cooperation in the future.
Christianity is not illegal in China. While the foregoing discussion should have made this obvious by now, many outside reports on the Chinese church are still delivered sotto voce with a furtive glance as if to say "Shhh, don't tell anybody, but look what the Christians are doing." The Chinese government knows what the Christians are doing. Its opposition to Christianity is not ideological (as it was during the Cultural Revolution). Rather, it is the government's preoccupation with stability above all else that limits the growth and influence of any group that could possibly threaten the Party's grip on society (particularly if the group in question is perceived as having foreign ties). Hence the continued TSPM monopoly on official church activity; limits on the number of churches opened, pastors trained, and Bibles printed; exclusion of religion from the education system and the mainstream media; and great reluctance to grant a legal platform for Christians outside the TSPM umbrella to worship or to serve their society.
Policy doesn't change; practice does. The Party's religious policy, spelled out in 1982, has not changed substantially in 30 years. Yet there has been a sea change in the climate for Christian activity. The last decade in particular has seen the emergence of Christian bookstores, Christian publishers, Christian-run private schools, counseling centers, business conferences, Sunday school conferences, children's camps, and a plethora of Christian web sites emanating from within China all happening legally and, in most cases, unobstructed. As in most other areas of life in China, there is a large and growing gray area between what is legally protected and what, in actuality, is tolerated by authorities.
No matter what point one makes about China, or about the church in China, there will likely be more than enough facts to prove it. Getting a handle on the "facts about the facts" and why the facts by themselves can be so confusing may be in itself a helpful step toward better understanding the church in China.
President of ChinaSource. Follow Brent on Twitter - @BrentSFulton.
Image credit: Bell Tower, by Patrick He, via Flickr
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio