Whenever I speak somewhere about China, I invariably get asked how many Christians there are in China. I take a deep breath and wade in with a response that goes something like this:
The Chinese government says there are 38 million (Protestant) Christians. I’ve heard estimates from outsiders as high as 120 million. I think that 38 million is too low and 120 million is too high, so the number is somewhere between 38 and 120 million.
Which is just a convoluted way of saying “I don’t know.”
In the absence of actually knowing how many Christians there are in China, we are left with estimates.
Wanting to know how others in the China space answer the question, I reached out to a number of my friends in the China academic and ministry communities for their response to the following two questions:
What is your current best estimate of the number of Christians in China, and how do you arrive at that estimate?
I have compiled their responses into three blog posts. Today’s post is part one, with the respondent being Professor Yang Fenggang, Professor of Sociology at Purdue University and Director of the Center for Religion and Chinese Society. He is also the author of numerous books, including Atlas of Religion in China: Social and Geographical Contexts.
What follows is Professor Yang’s response in its entirety.
The best estimate based on released numbers in China’s official documents from 1982 to 2018, is that there could be over 43.75 million adult, baptized, and active Christians in Three-self churches in 2020.
The best estimate based on China’s official document published in 1982 and the Pew Research Center’s 2011 report, is that there could be 116 million Protestant Christians in mainland China in 2020. This includes Protestant Christians in Three-self churches and house churches, baptized and unbaptized but practicing believers.
The Chinese Communist Party Document #19 of 1982 admitted there were 3 million Protestants. The State Council’s White Paper on religion in 2018 admitted there were 38 million Protestants who were adult, baptized, and active in officially approved churches. From 3 million in 1982 to 38 million in 2018, the compound annual growth rate, which is the most reasonable rate for Christian growth because of the nature of person-to-person evangelism, is 7.3%. This means that when there were 3 million Christians, there would be 3.219 million in the following year, excluding those who died or otherwise left the church; and when there were 30 million Christians, there would be 32.19 million in the following year. Therefore, from 38 million in 2018, with the annual growth of 7.3%, there should be 43.75 million in 2020.
The Pew Research Center’s 2011 report on global Christianity estimated that there were 58 million Protestants in 2010. This means that the annual growth rate was over 10% from 3 million in 1982. Given the intensified suppression in recent years, it is reasonable to think that the growth must have slowed down in recent years, but not completely stopped, as there have been news of baptisms from both Three-self churches and house churches. To be prudent, I’d adopt the lower growth rate of 7.3%, just like the officially admitted growth rate in the officially approved churches. Applying this rate to the base number of 58 million in 2010, it is reasonable to believe that there are about 116 million Protestant Christians in mainland China in 2020.
For more on Professor Yang’s work, as well as the activities of the Center for Religion and Chinese Society, please visit their website. It is a fantastic resource. One of my favorite resources is the Online Spiritual Atlas of China.
Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio
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