This two-part article continues our series on research and the indigenous Chinese church.
Why Is It So Hard to Estimate Congregation Size in China?
The church in China is recognized as a robust, driving force of global church development. Many have been astonished at God’s work in growing China’s church over the past decades—from almost dying during the Cultural Revolution to its current tens of millions. While increasingly the media reports that the church in China has been growing to over 100 million or even ten percent of China’s population (i.e. 140 million), Chinese church leaders tend to believe the number is much smaller and its growth is slower. Even with attempts to conduct research on church size and growth using a variety of methods, the results are still difficult to harmonize.
Definition of “Christian”
To study congregational size and church growth, the first issue is to define “Christian.” In Western Christian communities, it is widely accepted to use self-identification when defining “Christian.” However, a common definition for “Christian” would be helpful for international comparison as well as to study mission strategy. From my conversations with Chinese pastors, I have found that they tend to count the number of Christians based on the number of those baptized or even on church attendance. It is not surprising that a considerable gap exists between self-identified Christians and church attendance.
While Chinese pastors seem to adopt a different definition for “Christian,” we have to appreciate the rationale behind their counting methods. The church in China exists in a unique environment which causes it to be very mobile, so pastors attempt to count their flocks in any practical way that they can manage.
A Restrictive Environment
Hundreds of thousands of house churches (as opposed to government-sanctioned churches, namely TSPM churches) exist and flourish under the restrictive regime of the atheist Communist Party. This creates an unstable church structure as these churches can move from one meeting place to another occasionally or regularly. Some even restructure quickly whenever needed, particularly under tightening religious restrictions in recent years.
In addition, most house churches are not registered. Without church registration, research based on scientific samplings seems impossible. Since records are incomplete, proper membership statistics are not available. Although church registration and membership records are available for TSPM churches, it is an open secret that TSPM churches tend to report lower numbers to avoid too much attention from government authorities. Despite the existence of such under reporting, it does not seem to compensate for the double counting due to a mobile population arising from urbanization.
Due to urbanization, Chinese people move from rural to urban areas to make a better living. Many teenagers from villages have the opportunity to study in cities, and they then settle there after graduation. It is also common for young people to move from one city to another in order to climb social and economic ladders. Such a Christian, as part of the mobile population, would probably be double counted: the rural church attended since childhood and the urban church in the city where the individual regularly resides would both count this person. Some Christians might also be double counted by urban churches in different cities where they have resided. This implies that urban church growth is not entirely attributable to new converts but also to transfers from other churches. This is one reason that Chinese pastors count the congregation size based on the number of those baptized since Chinese churches generally do not baptize believers repeatedly.
Traditionally, rural churches in China have used the family unit to count their congregation size since Chinese converted to Christ family-by-family during the great house-church revival of the 1980s. Hence, church leaders count the number of believers based on the family unit. Even though younger generations and adults of these believing families have migrated to the cities, they still return to their home villages to meet relatives and attend Sunday services in their rural churches during major festivals like Chinese New Year. It is natural for rural church leaders to include these believers as part of their congregations.
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