Chinese Church Voices

The Next Decade of the Church in China

Chinese Church Voices is an occasional column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.

“Is Christianity in China still growing, or has it already begun to decline or even shrink?” This has been one of the most discussed topics among those concerned about the church in China over the past decade.

In August and December 2023, the Pew Research Center, an international religious think tank, assessed the religious beliefs in China and presented their views, stating that:

  • Since 2010, the development of Christianity in China has tended to be stable, even showing signs of stagnation.
  • The number of Chinese Christians experienced rapid growth in the 1980s and 1990s but has seemingly stopped growing in the past decade.
  • The proportion of Christians in China between 2010 and 2018 was around 2%; due to the pandemic, the surveyed areas decreased, and the proportion dropped to 1% by 2021.

Although opinions on the Pew Research Center’s conclusions are divided, with both supporters and opponents, the question of whether the church in China is entering a bottleneck or decline period and how to face and respond to it has become a topic worthy of attention and discussion.

Recently, Pastor Li, who has served for many years, shared his reflections on the development of Christianity in China since the reform and opening up period, as well as his outlook and predictions for the next decade. He believes that Chinese Christianity is transitioning from a growth period to a bottleneck period; it is crucial for the church in China to shift its focus from external to internal. The church is beginning to enter a bottleneck period, and the next long phase will be one of consolidation, with the cultivation and nurturing of excellent church talent being a key priority.

Here is Pastor Li’s sharing:

The Development of Christianity over the Past 40 Years

In December 1978, China began its reform and opening up, and in 1979, the church in China started to resume gatherings, with the first one being the Ningbo Centennial Church; the official reopening ceremony was held at the Shanghai Moore Memorial Church. I still remember the scene of many 60 to 70 year old Christians bringing their stools and waiting outside the church door at 2-3 am.

From 1979 to 2023, the church in China went through several stages, including the revival of traditional churches in the 1980s, the active period of team based rural churches in the 1990s, and the expansion phase of emerging urban churches in the 2000s. Over the past 40 years, the church in China has indeed made significant progress in various aspects, with the number of Christians growing from less than one million in the 1950s to tens of millions today. It is observable that the rapid economic growth in China has coincided with those of rapid church growth, underscoring a close relationship between the church in China and broader society.

However, during the rapid development of the church in China, many problems have emerged, such as slogan-driven approaches, campaign-style initiatives like the church-planting movement, and a quantitative focus on the number of Christians. It can be said that rapid development may lead to the formation of speculative bubbles.

Regarding the statistics on the number of Christians, the Blue Book of Religion1 has previously reported figures ranging from 23 million (2010) to 37 million (2018), figures that have been met with skepticism by various observers. The actual number of Christians is likely not as inflated as some local and international estimates suggest. Additionally, accurately quantifying the number of Christians poses operational challenges, such as defining who qualifies as a Christian, since many who are baptized may leave the church and others may not maintain an active religious life. Furthermore, factors like population mobility and the internet complicate matters, making duplicate counts difficult to avoid.

Recently, data from international organizations like Gallup and Pew have shown that the proportion of Christians in China is around 2%. A survey by Renmin University about 10 to 20 years ago found that the proportion of Christians on campus was around 3%. Through various research and observations, I personally tend to believe that the number of Christians in China is between 3-5%.

The Challenges and Way Out for the Church in China in the Next Decade

Based on my own service experience, looking back at the past decade, I feel that the church in China has transitioned from growing rapidly to staying steady, with a declining trend.

From the Bubble Phase to the Consolidation Phase, Faith Begins to Internalize

During this period, the church in China faces many problems and challenges, but I also see the possibility of a positive trend, namely, the next ten years may be a decade of faith consolidation, transforming from a bubble phase to a consolidation phase, where faith begins to take root.

For example, during the rapid growth period, I knew a church that had seven gathering points in a city, but only one remains. If we were to investigate the reasons why people left, we might discover many things. Some people may have disappeared after baptism, while others may have had conflicts with the pastor and left, just like Jesus’ parable of the sower. Some may have been like the seeds that were eaten by birds, while others may have been like the seeds that fell on rocky or thorny ground, ultimately not taking root.

The next ten years will be a crucial phase for our faith to sediment and take root. If we want to welcome the next wave of revival, I believe this phase is unavoidable.

From Post-Denominational to Re-Denominational to Quasi-Denominational

In the future, I believe that the organizational state of the church in China will move from its current post-denominational phase to a re-denominational stage, where the definitions of ecclesiastical governance, history, and doctrine will be key. This will be followed by a quasi-denominational phase.

Post-denominational to re-denominational to quasi-denominational—these might not yet have been studied in the West, but some in China have already begun to discuss them. In my view, quasi-denominationalism is a trend. However, it is unlikely to lead to a well-established denominational structure like those seen in Western churches, such as the Baptist or Methodist denominations. This is partly due to the historical and temporal limitations of our era.

Key Focus in Reshaping the Church: Nurturing Talented Believers

The Three in One Model of Theology, Spirituality, and Service

The key focus for development over the next ten years is the cultivation of talent. The church must train capable individuals, emphasizing a three in one model of theology, spirituality, and service—integrating these three aspects into a unified approach. Currently, all three areas are significantly lacking, especially in the spiritual development of individuals, which is profoundly deficient.

Regarding theology, how do we reshape the church in China in the next phase? It relates to theological education. At this time, our approach to theological education and academia, influenced by the Confucian education we received from childhood, has led to a blind veneration, even to the point of superstition, affecting the church. This has resulted in a reality where many individuals who have read extensively or received extensive seminary training find it challenging to apply their knowledge effectively within the church.

Therefore, I believe theological education requires substantial reforms, especially in enhancing its practical aspects. A seminary professor once shared with me, “We recruit students, teach them theology and biblical studies, but they don’t know how to conduct church ministry.” Theological education, I think, has much in common with medical education. It’s not merely about mastering theory; significant practical training is essential. Medical students, for instance, must intern at hospitals for several years before they are qualified to practice. Similarly, theological education could follow this model, treating graduates as interns initially. What use is learning so much if you can’t apply it? In my view, three years in a Master of Divinity program is insufficient; it should be at least three years of theoretical study followed by three years of practical training, allowing students to work alongside experienced pastors and learn on the job.

In theology, I believe we need to emphasize theology of catholicity and biblical theology. These two theologies can provide a comprehensive understanding of Christian faith, a broad perspective on biblical teachings, and a balanced view of various Christian doctrines. Emphasizing these two theologies is crucial for the needs of pulpit ministry, as they can promote academic rigor and enhance the church’s preaching ministry.

The pulpit ministry in the church in China is extremely weak. The pulpit is where the Bible and theology are applied, where all your training is concentrated. The pulpit is like a doctor’s operating table, where you express what you’ve learned. This is crucial, but very weak, so pulpit ministry must be strengthened.

Spiritually, a solid foundation of spiritual discipline is necessary, which can be achieved by learning from the spiritual practices of Western and Eastern churches, as well as ancient church fathers, making it a key focus of church disciple training. Today’s disciple training emphasizes knowledge and practice but lacks spiritual nurturing.

We especially need to learn spiritual discipline from ancient church fathers; otherwise, you will find that your service lacks sustained power. Often, we find that we rely too much on our knowledge. Disciple training is often related to spiritual formation, which is why it’s so difficult in the church in China. Disciple training has become just another form of knowledge accumulation. The most important thing in disciple training is spiritual training, which should surpass knowledge.

Among the three, spirituality is the most lacking. We lack spiritual nourishment. Our faith is a spiritual life, but we often only have rational things, which can lead to many problems. We should learn more from Eastern Orthodox and Catholic church fathers.

The last aspect is service, which includes church pastoral care, evangelism, cultural mission, and many other areas of service. This cannot be separated from our comprehensive thinking about the Bible and Christianity. We need to think about church and theological issues from the perspective of service, such as how the church can dialogue with society and enter the world without being assimilated, how theology can dialogue with science, and how theology can be integrated with practice.

Cultivating Theological Talent: A Three-in-One Model

In terms of cultivating theological talent, I believe that exploring a three-in-one model, namely, a seminary-research institute-church model, is extremely important. Today, these three are disconnected, and you will find that seminaries and theological research are unrelated, and seminaries and churches are unrelated. How can we make these three more closely connected? Let’s look at the components of each institution:

  • Seminary: Teaching theology, Bible, and pastoral leadership.
  • Research Institute: Theological and biblical studies contextualization, and studies on church ministries.
  • Church: Applying research results and teaching in practice.

Cultivating Talent Is the Fundamental Solution

Although there are many challenges and crises, I personally believe that the solution lies in people—talent. If the church in China wants to make significant progress in the next stage or overcome a possible 10 to 20-year period of stagnation or decline, the key factor is to have the most talented people. A century ago, the Western church had talented scholars who dedicated themselves to studying theology. Today, they are gone, and the most talented people are engaged in gaming and finance. Excellence is not just about intellectual excellence, I’m not just talking about intellectual excellence, but also spiritual excellence, which requires a sacrificial spirit. You can’t achieve it without paying the price.

Regardless of how the environment changes or how the church form changes, I believe that if people are right, everything will be right; ultimately, it’s still about the church having the right people, so talent cultivation and nurturing are the most important.

This actually requires a patient, continuous, and nurturing process, and talent will slowly emerge. It may not be many at once, but it will eventually happen. If we don’t cultivate and nurture talent now, the church in China may still be poor and weak 50 or 500 years from now. But if we begin to nurture spiritual excellence now, we may produce great masters 500 years from now.

Excellent talent is not just limited to theologians, but also includes cultivating talent in different levels of the church in China, even those who lead small groups need talent whether it’s studying in a seminary or being a lay leader, we need excellent talent to emerge.


  1. The Blue Book of Religion is a periodic report published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that provides an analytical overview of the religious situation in China. It includes statistics on religious adherents, assessments of religious policies, and discussions of trends within various religious communities. These reports serve as an official source of data and are used to inform both the public and policymakers.
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Jonathan Li, 李洁人

Rev. Jonathan Li, ThD (University of Lund, Sweden) is an evangelical pastor who was educated in China and Europe, majoring first in economics and theology. He lived in the Nordic countries nearly 20 years before relocating to China in 2009. He was ordained as church minister in 2001 and is …View Full Bio

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