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Speeding Up? Or Slowing Down?

A Study on the Current Church Growth Situation in China

From the series Research and the Indigenous Chinese Church


In recent years, there have been different perspectives on the topic of church growth and development in China. Some people, mainly from overseas, hold very positive views about church growth in China saying the annual growth rate is five percent, eight percent, or even ten percent. Moreover, it has been predicted that the number of Christians in China will reach two hundred and fifty million by the year 2030. Other people, however, take a different point of view, one that is not as optimistic. They believe that church growth in China is slowing down.

For those who are involved in China ministry, in order to do practical, strategic planning and to be good stewards of God’s resources, it is essential to find out exactly what changes are affecting church growth and development. Therefore, a research team formed by various organizations carried out a pilot research project, Church Development and Growth in China’s Mobile, Urban Context. One of the main purposes of this research is to explore the church growth situation in China, to study the developmental trends of the Chinese church, including numerical growth, stability, or reduction in attendance.

From March 6, 2017 to January 2, 2018, a survey was conducted in 263 churches[1] at different places in China. The samples were selected from traditional Bible-belt areas[2] where generally the Christian population density is higher than that of other places in China. We assume that if the growth rate of these areas is a certain percentage, then the whole country’s rate will not be higher than that figure.

Trying to discover the trend of church growth, among other questions, we put the following three indicators into the questionnaire:

  • The current number: number of people currently attending Sunday service in this church
  • Number from five years ago: number of people who attended Sunday service in this church five years ago
  • Number from previous week: the number of people who attended Sunday service the Sunday before the interview day

By analyzing the above indicators, we can roughly gain the following information about these selected areas: 

  • What percentage of local churches have positive growth, zero growth, or negative growth?
  • The average growth in congregation size of the sampled churches

First of all, let us compare the current reported size to the number of attendees five years ago.

Table 1: “Current Reported Number” VS “Number from Five Years Ago”
Sample Churches Current > Five Years Ago No Change Current < Five Years Ago Total
Municipality/Provincial Capital 69.0% 18.3% 12.7% 100.0%
City 83.7% 5.8% 10.5% 100.0%
County/Town 74.2% 12.9% 12.9% 100.0%
Village 41.7% 19.4% 8.9% 100.0%
Total 71.0% 12.9% 16.1% 100.0%

 

Accordingly, the growth rate of “current reported size” over that of five years ago is as below: We can see from Table 1 that 71% of the sample churches claim they have increased in attendance significantly over the past five years. Only 16.1% of them say the opposite, and 12.9% say there has been no change. This shows that most of the churches have had good growth.

Table 2: Growth Rate of “Current Reported Size” over “Five Years Ago” (%)
Sample Churches Growth Rate of Previous Five Years Average Annual Growth Reference: Sample Size
Municipality/Provincial Capital 43.5% 7.5% 71
City 70.1% 11.2% 86
County/town 42.7% 7.4% 31
Village -4.6% -0.9% 36
Total 49.7% 8.4% 224

 

Table 2 suggests that except for the rural churches, which reported a negative growth of -0.9%, the other respondents all showed considerable growth. The total average annual growth is 8.4%, quite a handsome figure and also in tune with those saying there is a growth rate of 8%.

During the time of visiting the various churches, we noticed a very interesting and also common phenomenon, the figures we heard from the church leaders indicating the current number at the church and the number from the week just previous to the interview were different. For instance, often times, especially in rural areas, when we asked the church leader what the size of the congregation was, they might say 200 or 300 people. Yet, when we asked how many people attended the previous week’s service, the answer might be only 20 or 30. Why was that? Later we learned that the current number included those who had already moved to other places.

Table 3: “Current Reported Number” VS “Previous Week’s Attendance”
Sample Churches Current > Previous Week No Change Current < Previous Week Total
Municipality/Provincial Capital 60.3% 30.1% 9.6% 100%
City 63.6% 30.3% 6.1% 100%
County/Town 81.3% 18.8% 0.0% 100%
Village 72.2% 22.2% 5.6% 100%
Total 66.3% 27.5% 6.3% 100%

 

From Table 3 we can see that most of the sample churches’ reported “current number” is higher than the ‘’number of previous week”.

This raises a question: Does the previous week’s attendance better represent the actual congregation size? If so, let us take the actual attendance of previous week as the current actual size, then see what would be the rate of growth over the past five years.From Table 3 we can see that most of the sample churches’ reported “current number” is higher than the ‘’number of previous week”.

Table 4 “Previous Week’s Attendance” VS “Five Years Ago”
Sample Churches Previous Week > Five Years Ago No Change Previous Week < Five Years Ago Total
Municipality/Provincial Capital 60.3% 17.6% 22.1% 100%
City 70.6% 5.9% 23.5% 100%
County/Town 54.8% 3.2% 41.9% 100%
Village 28.6% 5.7% 65.7% 100%
Total 58.4% 9.1% 32.4% 100%

 

Table 4 suggests that most of the urban churches have grown bigger over the past five years, and less than half of rural churches showed the same increase during the period.

Let’s look at the growth rate of “previous week’s attendance” over “number from five years ago,” and see what the situation is.Table 4 suggests that most of the urban churches have grown bigger over the past five years, and less than half of rural churches showed the same increase during the period.

Table 5: The Growth Rate of “Previous week” over “Five Years Ago” (%)
Sample Churches Five Years Growth Average Annual Growth Reference: Sample Size
Municipality/provincial capital 21.4% 4.0% 68
City 11.9% 2.3% 84
County/Town -13.5% -2.9% 31
Village -37.6% -8.5% 35
Total 4.3% 0.8% 218

 

It shows clearly in Table 5, if we consider “Previous week’s attendance” as more objective information, the growth rate shows a significant change compared with using “Current Reported Number” as the indicator. In municipality/provincial capital and city, the church number seems to be increasing by an average annual growth rate of 4.0% and of 2.3% over the last five years; meanwhile, for those churches at county-level and below show negative growth of -2.9% and of -8.5%. On the whole, the average annual growth rate is 0.8%, far less than the 5% or 8% in some studies.

Besides identifying the current growth trends, this study also has another purpose—to explore the contemporary growth/decline factors. We designed the related information in the questionnaire, information such as number being baptized, number remaining in church after being baptized, number of transfers to other churches, number of transfers in from other churches, believers who study/ work in other places, etc. However, after talking to the church leaders, we realized that it is very difficult to get such information, for most churches in China do not keep such records and the church leaders themselves have no idea at all about the figures.

In conclusion, based on the findings of this pilot research, it is difficult to say that church growth in the related areas increased significantly over the past five years. Compared with other places, the Christian population density in these areas is quite high. Therefore, in considering the situation for the whole of China, the average annual growth rate wouldn’t be greater than 0.8%.

Notes

  1. ^ Both government churches and house churches are included among the sample of churches. (note added on December 4, 2018) 
  2. ^ This refers to: 1) East China: Beijing, Shanghai, Shandong, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong 2) Central China: Henan, Anhui, Inner Mongolia 3) West China: Sichuan, Yunnan

Zoe Zhou

Dr. Zoe Zhou is an indigenous Chinese researcher with cross-cultural exposure, notably with overseas churches, for over ten years. She is passionate about sharing the current situation in China with overseas communities. View Full Bio


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