Is Christianity still growing in China? This pastor in Anhui believes that church growth is slowing in China and that Chinese Christians must rethink how they witness to an unbelieving society. In this article from Gospel Times, Mu Xi highlights challenges to church growth and how to hasten the church’s transformation.
As Church Growth Slows, Where is Christianity’s Path to Development and Transformation?
It has been over 210 years since Protestant Christianity entered mainland China, brought by the British missionary Robert Morrison in 1807. During these 200 years in the river of history, the church has experienced a lot. In a word, church development has moved forward in a stumbling manner on a crooked path.
In these 200 years of history, there have been periods of slowly moving forward, and periods of rapid advancement. Of course, there have also been times of stagnation, and even shrinkage.
In general, the church has experienced three periods of highspeed growth in the 200 years of Protestant Christian history:
The first period was the late Qing Dynasty. At the end of the Opium War, the opening up of our country’s five port cities marked the end of Emperor Kangxi’s hundred-year ban on foreign religion. Foreign merchants, missionaries, and others were able to freely enter and exit China. This gave missionaries legal opportunities to evangelize everywhere, especially along coastal or river regions. At this time, there were tens of thousands of Chinese Christians.
The second period was during the Republican Era. With the victory of the Xinhai Revolution, the reign of 2,000 years of authoritarian feudal monarchy came to an end, and people welcomed in a new era and new waves of thought. Missionaries also began flexing their muscles, not only evangelizing, but also founding various charity works. At this time, mission work continued spreading from China’s coastal regions to the inland. Churches flourished all over the nation, and many affiliate organizations, such as mission hospitals and mission schools, were also founded. At the time, there were over million Chinese Christians.
The third period was the time just before and just after our country joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). After China implemented Reform and Opening Up, the old basic route was changed, and the new path of building a modernized socialist nation was implemented. Opening up to the outside accelerated, and various businesses and industries—including Christianity—received great motivation for development. Churches sprang up all over the nation like bamboo shoots after spring showers. Church development became even more rapid after our country joined the WTO, and the number of Christians soared to the tens of millions.
Churches in my area also experienced these three sweet periods of highspeed development. Especially in the third period, the number of Christians at church grew explosively, and almost every church benefitted. It did not take long for newly established churches to become fully settled. Some churches even had to hold multiple services to satisfy believers' needs for gathering. Churches appeared to be thriving, and it was inspiring.
However, these scenes were not entirely without change. In recent years, one can clearly feel church growth weaken and slowly lose its energy. Some churches are even showing signs of stagnation and shrinkage. Similar to what I have observed in the church I pastor, the sudden change in overall church direction—slower growth, or even stagnation and shrinkage—are primarily caused by the following difficulties:
First, most easily observable is the sharp increase in population outflow. Currently, population outflow does not just happen in villages and undeveloped areas, but in the past couple of years also in certain cities and developed areas. The church that I pastor is a church situated in a region with population inflow. Local residents and non-residents each make up about half the church. The number of believers in the church has doubled compared with the number in 2000. Things are lively, and we rejoice over the situation.
However, since about 2010, especially in the past two years, non-residents have begun to greatly decrease. Growth in church numbers has begun to weaken, and some churches are even stagnating or shrinking.
Moreover, it is undeniable that the makeup of the current church’s believers is mainly people above 50. There are few young people, and most of these are workers engaged in work in the lower ranks of society—including minor factory staff, vegetable growers, small businesses, etc. In recent years, as wealthy areas begin focusing on high quality development, urban environment optimization, and attracting high-level talent, those who engage in menial work lose their place of belonging. In such situations, how could it be easy for the church to think of highspeed development? And it is even more difficult to attract people of high-level talent into the church.
Second, winning the affirmation of local people is key to whether the church can enter the hearts of people and localize, which decides the future fate of the church.
In terms of culture, how Christianity—although a foreign culture—can integrate locally, be affirmed by local people, and even become an indispensable part of local life is a key topic every Christian needs to face. Such efforts have never ceased, but without question, the results are not obvious. Christianity is a word that has not yet lost its sensitivity in China.
The region I’m in is a typical region where Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, as well as some folk religions are syncretized. Basically, every family here has idols, and there are Buddhist, Taoist, folk temples, or shrines everywhere. Locals call people who believe in Jesus “those who believe in a religion.” Locals are both afraid and conflicted. They are afraid that Jesus might be much bigger than their gods, and the conflict is that they believe different religions from Christians. One can guess the result.
For over a hundred years, Christianity has not been affirmed or trusted by the locals, and is only spread among the non-residents. The result is that although Christianity has been here for over a hundred years, it has nothing to do with most locals. It is not accepted or affirmed. Some even stay as far away as they can from Christianity, only worried that they might not be far enough away.
However, looking at the big picture, the development of Christianity is closely tied to the development of the country. The fates are entwined.
In 2000, our country was in a period of highspeed development. The economic numbers remained high for consecutive years. Coincidentally, at the same time the number of Christians increased greatly, and was numbered in the tens of millions.
In recent years, following situational changes, China no longer simply looks to numbers, but has switched to increased focus on high quality and sustainable development. For the church, this seems to hint that we should begin transforming, no longer simply focusing on growth in numbers, but change to focus more on improving the Christian image to outsiders, improving Christian living, influence, etc.
After all, it appears very difficult and out-of-date to simply pursue growth in the number of Christians. We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
Some churches have now recognized the situation, and are changing to pursue an improvement in church quality, starting to put effort into Christianity’s social image, influence, and the life of believers, striving for breakthrough in terms of quality.
Specifically, we can start with the following aspects in terms of improving church quality:
First, work on the church’s outward image. It cannot be denied that in the eyes of many Chinese people, Christianity is still a sensitive religion. There are still a lot of misconceptions about Christianity. We have put a lot of effort into this, but we are still on the long march.
An incredibly urgent need and one we cannot avoid is how to tell our Christian story well and further eliminate people’s misunderstandings in order to create good impressions and make what we preach part of who we truly are.
Secondly, increase research on religious culture. We Chinese often say “the word carries the truth.” Then how can we carry the truth forth if there is no word? We know the truth of the Lord Jesus has spread throughout the world through his word. The incredible amount of talent in churches everywhere today, especially in urban churches, is so much more than in the past. It would be a beautiful thing if we can put more energy into research writing about the Bible, church history, traditional culture, novels, etc., and increase the quality of contents so that people from more classes can hear our various voices through different media channels. This can help us distill our thoughts, as well as broadly proclaim and glorify the Lord’s name.
Third, we must work hard to lift up the believer’s life and influence. We cannot deny that the main reason that cults are so popular in China is because of ourselves. Many of us Christians do not have a firm foundation in the truth, cannot discern clearly, and are easily taken captive or shaken by right and wrong. If we want to put a stop to the spread of this trend among Christians, the only way is to strengthen our teaching and do what we can to improve the quality of Christian living. Only in this way can believer’s spiritual lives improve and their influence increase so as to shine on more people with greater influence.
Image credit: James Forbes on Unsplash.
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