Blog Entries

Where Is the Church in China?

From the series Our China Stories

Who speaks for the church in China?

This has been a perennial question ever since the late 1970s, when China reopened to the outside world and Christians overseas began seeking to understand and to relate to China’s church.

While leaders in the newly resurrected TSPM were quick to reestablish ties with sympathetic foreign entities in an effort to establish themselves as the authoritative spokesmen for China’s church, news of a thriving Christian movement in the countryside suggested that there were other voices that also deserved a hearing. Eventually the “uncles” representing the five largest streams in this movement emerged as the go-to figures for overseas Christian leaders, journalists, and others who wanted to connect with China’s indigenous church apart from the TSPM. Decades later the spotlight would shift to China’s cities, where a new generation of urban leaders took the stage as the vanguard of gospel ministry in China.

Depending on where one lives or works in China, the stories one hears (and tells) may be widely divergent. From city to city and from year to year, the narratives change with the political winds, local conditions, developments within the church, and myriad other factors. Even in the same city, one church may be torn down while another is training seminarians and yet another is sending out missionaries. In some cases, it’s all happening in the same church!

China’s Church Goes Global

Several articles in the spring 2024 ChinaSource Quarterly add yet another layer of complexity to this decades-old question.

The voices of the church in China are not all in China.

Taking the global Chinese diaspora as its theme, this issue points to the many ways in which China’s church is finding its voice far from China’s shores. The current movement of millions exiting China is redrawing the map, not only of traditional Chinese diaspora communities but also the Chinese church. As I wrote about this “great repositioning:”

For many in Hong Kong and the PRC, political conditions have pushed them to consider relocating elsewhere, resulting in a historic influx of Chinese into the UK, Canada, Australia, and the United States. For others, the lure of economic opportunity beckons them to pull up roots and face the challenges of adapting to a new culture in search of a better life. As the data presented in this issue indicates, opportunities created by China’s Belt and Road Initiative have resulted in a significant increase in the Chinese populations of many African and Middle Eastern countries. Meanwhile, the number of Chinese attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States has skyrocketed.

Today it is difficult to talk about the church in China without referencing China’s church outside China. Many leaders operate with one foot on Chinese soil and the other abroad, either by virtue of their frequent international travel or via offshore organizations through which their voices are amplified, making them spokespersons for a movement that transcends China’s borders. Pastors, theologians, scholars, writers, and leaders in international organizations who are from China but who live overseas continue to serve constituencies in the mainland while also representing those believers to the global church. Whereas the Chinese Christian diaspora had traditionally been dominated by the voices of those from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, today its composition is changing rapidly.

Emerging Voices

Consider several ways in which China’s church is finding its voice outside China:

  • A congregation in Beijing follows a sizeable number of its members to Vancouver, where it plants a new church among the city’s thriving Chinese population.
  • Indigenous mission agencies based in China send hundreds of short- and long-term workers across the 10/40 Window, becoming part of the global mission force.
  • A group of theologians from China comes together to launch an international center for Chinese biblical scholarship.
  • A Wenzhou believer in Cordoba, Spain oversees more than 50 Spanish volunteers serving in a community charity run by the local Chinese church.
  • Believers from China play a key role in a prayer movement among New Zealand’s Chinese churches, where they now constitute the majority.
  • While thousands of Hong Kong Christians emigrate, many believers from the mainland are moving to the city, creating new expressions of China’s church in a unique cosmopolitan environment.

Hearing the voice of the church in China requires discernment, not only in terms of who to listen to, but also where to listen. Christians coming out of China bring a fresh and much-needed perspective on what it means to live as faithful members of Christ’s body. As China’s church continues to go global, it has much to say to those who have ears to hear.

Share to Social Media
Image credit: Joann Pittman
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio

Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.