Along with the massive urbanization that has forever reshaped the social and cultural landscape of China, the church in China has itself undergone a major transformation. From a largely rural, peasant-led movement in the 1980s the church is now very much an urban phenomenon.
The relative social space and position afforded by the city are, for the church, a double-edged sword. The stature, influence and resources of the urban church, whether registered or unregistered, could be both a boon and a bane to the advance of the Gospel in an urbanized China.
Extensive use of the internet and social media, particularly involving believers who are well-known figures in the society, as well as ventures into areas such as education, social service, philanthropy, publishing, entrepreneurship, and community leadership will raise the profile of Christians and provide new avenues for outreach. Intellectual and financial resources will undergird the development of a new "Christian infrastructure," with associations, boards, specialty ministry organizations, quasi-denominational structures, andshould the political climate alloweven Christian-run parties and lobby groups.
On the other hand, the church's own success could become a liability if Christian leaders focus more on building institutions than building people. Competition for people, resources, and influence could fragment the church. Furthermore, should this growing Christian influence be seen as a threat by China's political and cultural elites there could come a backlash in the form of new restrictions aimed at limiting the church's penetration into the culture.
The children of China's first-generation migrants, meanwhile, will want a better life in the city than what their parents had. The "rural church in the city," as it is sometimes referred to, will need to adopt forms of worship and modes of ministry that are suited to this new generation. Since many of these second-generation migrants will find themselves frustrated by a lack of educational and employment opportunities, particularly as China's manufacturing sector shrinks, the church will be challenged to bring hope in practical ways to a generation facing a bleak future.
How, and whether, the more affluent urban churches and the second-generation migrant churches are able to work together in meeting these challenges will be key to the church's witness in the city. Should the church be seen as offering innovative solutions to the problems of a widening social gap, its ministry will likely be welcomed, but if the same polarizing divide between advantaged and disadvantaged is found within the body of Christ then its witness will be hindered.
Image credit: Rob Deutscher, 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