Surveying China’s extraordinary rise over the past decade, Graham Allison, in his book Destined for War, paraphrases former Czech President Vaclav Havel when he says, “It has happened so quickly, we have not yet had time to be astonished.”
Allison, a Harvard professor and security advisor to multiple US presidents, is referring primarily to China’s growing economic might, which, according to some statistics, put China over the top in 2014 as the world’s largest economy. Along with this growth has come a considerable rise in the standard of living for many, great gains in education, massive infrastructure improvements across China, and (the primary focus of Allison’s analysis), the ability to project military force beyond China’s borders.
As the title of Allison’s book suggests, China’s meteoric rise portends future conflict. Examining carefully the trend lines and fault lines of China’s current trajectory, he makes a convincing case that armed conflict, while not inevitable, is certainly more likely than most observers would care to admit.
While it has received considerably less attention than China’s economic miracle, the extraordinary rise of China’s church is, in a similar way, worthy of Havel’s description. Even those who have experienced the expansion of the church up close, or who have themselves been participants, may not fully grasp how much has changed in the course of just one generation.
Consider for example:
- With Chinese Bibles almost nonexistent in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, the church in the 1980s was desperate for the scriptures being smuggled into the country. Today China is the largest producer of Bibles in the world.
- While during the Deng Xiaoping era the pews of China’s government-sanctioned churches were filled primarily with congregants who fit the stereotypical profile of “elderly, female, and less educated,” these same churches today are crowded with young men and women, many of whom are attracted by English-language services and youth activities.
- China’s “house churches,” meanwhile, have undergone a transformation from rural, marginalized, peasant-run gatherings to increasingly sophisticated and influential urban movements.
- Once the target of concerted missionary activity from the West, China is now home to an emerging indigenous effort aimed at sending cross-cultural missionaries beyond China’s borders.
- While it is difficult to estimate reliably the number of Christians in China, all available statistics point to the exponential growth of the church in the past four decades. Some projections suggest China will have the world’s largest Christian population within another generation.
Like China’s economic rise, its spiritual awakening has happened too quickly for outside observers to fully appreciate the implications, either for China’s future or for the future of Christianity worldwide. A key question is how this remarkable spiritual growth might have a mitigating influence as China’s rise continues to reshape the world order.
Image credit: Shanghai, China by Lei Han via Flickr.
Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. 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... View Full Bio