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Space, Place, and Face

The Transformation of China’s Church

As urbanization has redrawn the landscape of China, its effects have been far reaching, altering not only the physical geography but also the social fabric in multiple dimensions.

China’s church is no exception. The same forces of urbanization that have driven widespread economic, cultural and demographic change have also left an indelible mark on Christianity in China.

In my efforts to unpack the church’s transformation for various audiences, I often look at change in three dimensions. Each of these contains a double meaning, as it refers both to a literal, physical change and to a conceptual change in the church’s relationship to the larger society.

Space refers to the obvious shift of the church’s “spiritual center of gravity” from the countryside, where it experienced massive revival during the past decades, to the cities. Migrant peasant Christians have brought new faith communities to the cities, while a spiritual movement among intellectuals spawned urban fellowships that are today taking their place at the forefront of the church’s development. Returnee Christians who have studied or worked overseas come back to major cities and augment the leadership of these emerging churches. Meanwhile, the church is occupying a new social space as urban Christians engage in media, education, business and other spheres, bringing the church from the margins of society into the mainstream.

The place of worship is being redefined by these emerging urban fellowships, many of which occupy rented commercial spaces, meeting in groups of several hundred or more. No longer confined to individual homes or secluded rural locations, these younger urban believers have, quite literally, put the unregistered “house” church on the map. The church’s “place” also refers to its changing place in society. The government’s organizational chart narrowly defines this place as within the four walls of churches under the Three Self Patriotic Movement. However, as Christians in both the unregistered and registered church take the lead in charity work and become philanthropic, the church moves beyond its physical boundaries, assuming a new place as an agent of change.

The face of the church is changing as the leadership of respected “uncles” in large rural church movements gives way to a new generation of younger urban pastors, many of them first-generation Christians who have not inherited the traditions of their predecessors. What was once a lay-led movement now assumes a new degree of professionalism, with many unregistered urban churches employing full-time leaders who have advanced degrees. Defined theological characteristics became clearer as these leaders explore denominational identities for their congregations. The church is also “gaining face” as these leaders participate in intellectual and media circles, giving the church a legitimate voice in the ongoing conversation about China’s future.

Urbanization has carried the church to a new place in its relationship to Chinese society. Yet the church is not simply a passive participant in this process. On the contrary, its place in the city gives the church an active role in shaping the contours of China’s new urban landscape.

Image Credit: Gaylan Yeung

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

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