Whether from a sociological, missiological, theological, or political perspective, overseas researchers have long found the church in China to be a rich subject of inquiry.
Much of this research has focused on the size of the church and on the relationship between church and state. These questions reflect two prevailing narratives often employed to make sense of the church in China.
The “Christian China” paradigm assumes that, as the church grows, so will its influence on society. Hence the fixation with the number of Christians in China (however “Christian” may be defined). The “Persecution” narrative, which assumes that the church’s biggest concern is its relationship to the state, seeks to elucidate the government’s strategies in dealing with the church and the survival tactics employed by Christians. Both narratives focus ultimately on the prospect of Christians in China bringing about political change, and, in so doing, say as much about the presuppositions of outside observers as they do about the Chinese church itself.
This week we began a series of blog posts on indigenous approaches to research on the church in China. Our working assumption is that the questions being asked by Chinese Christians themselves are different from those being posed from outside China.
Rather than asking how many Christians there are in China, for example, we find believers asking about the quality of church growth. Given the inherent difficulties in coming up with credible estimates of the church’s size, are there ways to measure the how and why of growth? These questions are of more immediate concern to indigenous Christian leaders. Despite the big numbers often cited in overseas discussions of the church in China, these leaders are asking whether the growth experienced in the past is sustainable in today’s environment.
Our guest writers will look both at the difficulties of arriving at accurate statistics as well as strategies for understanding the dynamics of growth. Using survey data collected by indigenous researchers, they will illustrate what these dynamics look like in various church settings.
While Chinese government organs are notoriously opaque, making it difficult to gather data on social and religious trends, a surprising amount of useful information is available through official sources—provided one knows where to look. Indigenous researchers have an edge in accessing this material. We’ll offer some thoughts on where to find it.
Looking ahead, we will examine the developing missiology of a church that is showing increasing commitment to sending cross-cultural missionaries beyond China’s borders. Comparing the historical role of mission researchers and field directors with the current realities of today’s Chinese church, we will make some observations about the need for a new generation of missiological thinkers in China and will suggest directions for further research.
Far from being the last word, the perspectives presented in this series are intended to stir further discussion regarding how Christians in China seek to understand the church in their midst and its role within the larger world. We trust you will find these perspectives helpful, and, as always, we welcome your feedback.
Image credit: Michael Porter 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
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