Churches in many urban areas in China are growing quickly. Yet, as this article from China Christian Daily notes, there are serious challenges facing the rural church in China today.
Rise and Decline of Rural Church in China
China once saw a fast growing rural church.
The country's 2010 Blue Book of Religions estimated Protestants in China number about 23 million, 80% of whom were scattered in the countryside. However, the rural church is mostly comprised of elderly people, women, and children. Church ministries are limited to worship services, Bible studies, and pastoral visitation. There has been a huge loss in the number of young preachers.
This article draws on observations primarily from places where Christianity has thrived, like northeastern and eastern China and the Central Plain, to present a representative model of the church in the countryside.
Brother Y works as a preacher in a historical rural church in a county-level city in central Jiangsu province. His church was founded during the Republican era of China (1912-1949). The members gathered in a rented warehouse, then built a church, and enlarged it. In 2012, the church building could hold more than 1,000 people.
Brother Y said growth occurred in the 1990s when new converts, mainly old people and women, believed in Jesus after they were healed. “The number of attendees on Christmas Day reached over 2,000.” Five new congregations were later planted in different villages and towns. But, church attendance is now just over 600 on Sundays, and ranges from 200 to 300 on weekdays. Women account for more than 60% of the churchgoers, most of whom are between 60 and 70 years old.
The bulk of church ministries are carried out by sisters in the church. In Y's church, seven co-workers make decisions about church affairs. Apart from the church head who is male, the rest of the staff are all female.
There are also young believers, most of whom are second- or third-generation Christians who accompanied their parents or grandparents to the church in their childhood. However, few young people join the rural church today. With urbanization, the young generation leaves their hometowns for job prospects and education opportunities in the cities, leaving behind the elderly, women, and children. This leads to a phenomenon known as, “left-behind elders and children.” Yet, the church still follows its old pattern in the face of change—holding services and Bible studies.
In Brother Y’s church, there are 100 women who stay at home to look after their children. Their husbands mainly work in Shanghai and return on weekends. “They are mostly construction workers or small-business men, but their work isn’t stable.”
“We have many seniors and single families. We want to launch a ministry for single families, but our church workers are not able to get it started,” lamented Brother Y.
The rural-urban migration also takes preachers away from the rural communities. As a third-generation Christian, Brother Y graduated from a seminary in 2010 and began to serve in a local church in 2015. A couple of years ago, the church's key staff were assigned to work in new congregations. New preachers enter the church, but gradually leave for cities to pursue higher theological education, to accompany their children who study in urban schools, or to make more money. “Rural Christians face big financial challenges. Recently, a sister who serves in the choir, in her fifties, told me that she wanted to be a nurse in a nursing home because of financial difficulties. The church had to let her go.”
At present, less than 30 believers are aged 15 to 18, six of whom are male. Only four male workers serve in the county and Brother Y is the only young male worker. “The grassroots churches need personnel but fail to maintain them. It is difficult to survive. I'm grateful that I don't feel lonely and have hope because of the Lord.”
In recent years, migrant workers return to their hometowns, but many of them are not as devout as before. It’s likely that they have become accustomed to urban life and are influenced by the age; their new lives are at odds with country life.
When it comes to the status of the rural church, Brother Y argues that the rural church should change its thinking to keep up with the times. “In the past, people followed Jesus because they wanted diseases healed and rescue from poor financial conditions. But things are not the same now. People say that it is difficult to share the gospel. I think that it's obviously not appropriate to preach the gospel the way we did in the 1980s.”
Brother Y noted existing issues like a rural aging population, the left-behind children issue, and the rising number of single parents. They need psychological and emotional support, which the church can offer in some of these areas by revealing the love of Christ.
Original article: “Rise and Decline of Rural Church in China,” (China Christian Daily)
Edited, and reposted with permission.
Image credit: A photo supplied to China Christian Daily.
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