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When Counting Is Hard . . . in China (2)


From the series Research and the Indigenous Chinese Church

We continue our series on research and the indigenous Chinese church with part two of a two-part article on the challenges of determining the number of Christians in China. You can read part one on considerations here.

Why Is It So Hard to Estimate Congregation Size in China?

Church Attendance as an Indicator of Congregation Size

Recently, a group of researchers have done a small, pilot survey in an attempt to explore the issues and challenges of estimating church growth in China. A gap of about 20-30% was identified between church attendance and church membership. Further exploration of this issue with Chinese pastors reveals that the situations are entirely different for urban and rural churches. 

In urban churches, it is not surprising that church attendance is less than church membership as urban life is busy with irregular and over-time working hours, family commitments, children’s activities, and so on. For some traditional church groups, Chinese pastors have observed that church members attend communion Sunday service as often as possible, even with a busy schedule. It is the tradition of some Chinese churches that you must take communion at the church where you are a member. Hence, church attendance on communion Sunday would likely be close to the church membership recognized by church leaders.

In rural churches, attendance on communion Sunday is also higher because believers who have migrated to nearby towns or cities may intentionally go back to their home villages for communion and reunion, regularly or occasionally in particular during festival times. It is worth exploring whether such believers have settled down in urban churches in the places where they are residing.

Special Groups

In estimating congregational size and church growth, some special groups of believers may need attention. Examples would be older people who might not attend church for one reason or another, children and teenagers vulnerable to the challenges of a secular world, and internet congregations—still relatively small in size but constituting a trend that is growing.

Different Research Approaches

Researchers and scholars use varying approaches to conduct this research that has such a complicated nature.

1. Household surveys

This survey approach utilizes the definition of self-identification. The General Household Survey, conducted by universities in China, can provide a platform for collecting relevant data. Yet, under the restrictive environment in China, there is a concern that Chinese individuals might not be willing to reveal their Christian identity.

2. Church surveys 

As discussed earlier, church surveys have their limitations: Unavailability of church lists for sampling, lack of membership records, church growth by new converts/transfer, seasonal effect of communion Sunday, big festivals, and so on. Yet, church surveys can reveal the fascinating reality of Chinese churches and help to gain valuable insights in understanding church development.

3. Denomination surveys

While a number of local churches have denominational backgrounds (some used to belong to overseas denominations before the TSPM was founded in the 1950s and some belong to local church networks), many are independent churches. In recent years, there has been a growing trend for local churches to join certain denominations, but this is still a relatively small percentage. Classifying Chinese churches into denominations can be one dimension of analysis. Another is to classify local churches by either TSPM affiliation or as unregistered, and then by region. These two dimensions cannot be mixed together, and the second dimension seems closer to the identity generally reckoned by local churches.

4. Multiple, parallel approaches

Given the complicated nature of this research topic and the limitations of the different methods, it would be good to use a multiple, parallel approach—a combination of different, but coherently designed, research methods and indicators. It is not uncommon to use such an approach to address research topics that involve huge coverage without readily available church lists for sampling.

While counting the number of Christians in China is difficult, we need to make further efforts to dig deeper into the issues. At the same time, we must not forget the greater purpose of understanding how the church is developing in this new generation and the renewal of pastoral care and discipleship in the midst of the various contemporary challenges of today.

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Peony Tang

Peony Tang is an overseas Chinese experienced in managing research projects. She has been participating in China ministry in the areas of research and project management for ten years. View Full Bio

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