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Unanswered Questions

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

Reviewing prior work on the growth of Christianity in China quickly leads to one major conclusion and many areas of confusion and uncertainty. No one disagrees that the church and number of Christians in China has grown remarkably in the last 40 years. This is the major conclusion. However, there has been little work focused on the means by which this growth occurred and this is where there is confusion and uncertainty.

In my previous blog I discussed prior national surveys and particularly the China Religion Report 2010 (“Religious Blue Book”) which focused on Christianity. There I highlighted some questions about its possible biases as seen from an academic point of view.

Regarding potential bias in the survey for the Religious Blue Book, another Chinese social scientist Liu Peng has raised questions more related to individual believers and pointed out:

In a society where religion, especially Christianity, is generally rejected or denied, a respondent faces a government investigation and must provide the government’s investigator with his real name and contact information. Under the premise of this method, it is not easy to publicly claim to be a Christian and answer questions about religious beliefs. Taking into account the results of answering questions by real names and surnames, it is important to consider the impact on joining the army, joining the party, getting promoted as cadres, working in the interpersonal environment and with individuals, or the negative impact that family social evaluation may bring. Respondents should not say that they are members of Christian house churches that are not recognized by the government; even those of the Three-Self churches recognized by the government. For their own safety and future development consideration, how many people can openly acknowledge their Christian faith to the government without any concern? Before Chinese society has yet to “desensitize” the political sensitivity of religion or Christianity, the government publicly conducted the “real-name system” with the purpose to understand whether individual citizens believe in Christianity you have to wonder how reliable the results are and be somewhat skeptical. After all, most people have to eat, to work, knowing the attitude of the Party and government toward Christianity; expecting them to candidly reveal themselves to the government as a Christian believer, will this be the average person’s normal choice?1

These questions highlight the sensitivity of questions about belief when asked in a Chinese context.

The author believes that because the 2010 report is too official and attempts to use its data as a basis to deny Yang Fenggang’s statement that more than 80% of Chinese people have religious tendencies, the report has little practical significance other than reaffirming that the number of Christians in China is indeed growing.2

However, this still leaves many important questions with no reliable answers. In studying contemporary Chinese Christianity we cannot ignore problems caused by the tension between Christian thought and the state ideology of the integration of government and authority, for example, differences in world views, attitudes to authority, and theological issues raised by family planning policies. In addition, for Christians, a major challenge is how to practice the requirements of their faith in the midst of a national ideology; examples include human relations and value systems. From the viewpoint of the national ideology, how should the challenges of non-materialism brought about by Christian thought be dealt with?3

With this background in mind, I undertook to answer some of these important questions. A survey was created and widely distributed to ask such questions as:

  • What are basic motivations for believers to convert to Christianity?
  • How much time does this process take, by what means and through whose influence do they become Christians?
  • What is the basic understanding of the concept “believing in Jesus?”
  • What is the basic understanding of the “Christian life?”
  • In which activities do believers actually participate in church life, and to what extent?
  • What is the nature of Christians’ relationships with other believers and non-believers?

Although the data obtained in prior surveys already show 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. The results of this survey will be discussed in subsequent blogs.


  1. Liu Peng: “China Has How Many Christians? – On the “2010 Report on Religious Blue Book” on the number of Chinese Christians” ; (accessed 3/29/2019).
  2. Regarding the fact that Chinese Christians are indeed growing, Wang Zuo’an, former director of the Chinese State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) and deputy head of the United Front Work Department, has publicly stated: “For the past two or three decades, the number of religious believers in our country has grown, and few people are skeptical. “
    Reference: Wang Zuoan: “New Changes in Our Country’s Religious Situation,” Central Institute of Socialism Reports, Vol. 3, 2008.
  3. Reference article: Zhuo Xinping: “Difficulties and Hopes of Understanding Chinese Religion”; Pu Fuzeng: “Challenges of Chinese Christian Academic Research in the Current Ideological Struggle”; Also see: He Guanghu and Zhuo Xinping, “Religious Studies in the Contemporary Chinese Social and Political Situation”, Published by The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press in early 2014.
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Image credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

Steve Z.

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

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