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The Many Faces of the Chinese Church

The Chinese church is incredibly diverse. It is both rural and urban, registered and unregistered, as well as protected and persecuted under the same religious laws. The people who make up the church come from every social class and work in all spheres of society from traditional full-time Christian ministry enterprises to the broader secular context including, even, the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Doctrinally there also exists significant variation. Some have strong Pentecostal leanings where others embrace Reform theology or another set of particular theological principles.

And if you have been keeping up with the Chinese church for any length of time this diversity likely comes as no surprise. What many do find surprising to learn, however, is that the Chinese church boasts extraordinary cultural diversity (and not because of the presence of international congregations).

The Chinese government officially recognizes fifty-six ethnic groups including the Han Chinese, who account for ­­­­around 90% of the overall Chinese population. At this point in God’s redemptive plan, the Han constitute the largest percentage of Christians in the Chinese church. The remaining fifty-five minority groups, while only representing a small percentage of the overall population, still amount to around 100 million people. It is within this segment of the Chinese population, within these fifty-five people groups, where the story of China’s people groups becomes truly intriguing. In other words, the number fifty-five does not tell the whole story.

According to Paul Hattaway in Operation China, a comprehensive profile of China’s various people groups, many of the fifty-five officially recognized minorities are actually broad ethnic classifications rather than specific people groups. The real number of people groups exceeds 400, which raises the question, why? [1] Why such discrepancy between government figures and those claimed by Hattaway?

A helpful comparison may be to consider Native American Indians, which is a broad ethnic classification and not a reference to specific tribes or people groups within that classification. Two people could presumably claim ethnic status as Native Americans, but have very different languages and cultural customs. This is the same in China for many of the officially recognized minority groups.

Today, given a diversity of factors, it is difficult to determine exactly how many Christians there are within each respective ethnic group in China. What is certain, however, are the words of Revelation 5:9 that tell us Jesus, by his blood, has ransomed people from every tribe, language, people and nation.

God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, has chosen to place many of these people groups in China, truly giving the Chinese church a great diversity of faces. Pray that God would be pleased to create more worshipers among the diverse peoples of China to fulfill the prophetic words of Revelation and bring greater glory to his name.


[1] For further explanation of how the number of people groups was established see: Hattaway, Paul, Operation China: Introducing all the Peoples of China. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2000, pp. 1-6.

Image Credit: Gaylan Yeung 

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Mark Totman

Mark Totman (pseudonym) is an expat with over a decade of experience living in China. He enjoys writing on a wide range of China-related subjects including language, culture and history, particularly as these subjects facilitate greater understanding of the Chinese context and encourage beneficial lives of cross-cultural service.View Full Bio

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