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China’s Church in an Age of Pluralism

In modern societies pluralism has the dual effect of both relativizing faith, forcing religious believers to acknowledge the presence of competing worldviews, and of fostering growth by creating new opportunities for them to live out their faith in the pluralist context.

The response of China’s church to the modernization that has characterized the past three-and-a-half decades provides a unique window into this process. The remarkable growth of the Protestant church in China that preceded the reform era has continued as China has experienced urbanization and economic development, both of which have brought new challenges as well as new opportunities to the church. Yet the expectation that Chinese Christians will have a transforming effect on their society is tempered by the constraints posed by China’s authoritarian government, limiting their ability to organize and to engage culturally and politically.

Urbanization has hastened the effects of modernization, uprooting hundreds of millions and casting them together into a marketplace of beliefs and conflicting worldviews, while also creating the interface for China’s connection to global trends and economic and cultural actors. At the same time, urbanization and the development of an educated middle class provide fertile ground for reflection among various groups, including religious believers, about their preferred futures.

China’s modernization has also featured stunning advances in technology, with China quickly becoming one of the most connected societies in the world. Within the “Great Firewall” the architects of China’s online world have erected an increasingly advanced digital ecosystem with applications that rival the capabilities of systems in use elsewhere.

For China’s Christians, pervasive cell phone coverage and the connectivity of the internet have fostered a new kind of community, enabling believers to communicate across geographical boundaries and to bypass limitations that had hitherto prevented large-scale interaction. These tools have also served to advance biblical knowledge, the availability of scripture and other materials, and the nurture of individuals and groups.

Understanding the Chinese church’s response to pluralism requires looking at two phases in the church’s development. While it is true that the church has experienced significant growth throughout the modernization process described above, it may be argued that the most remarkable growth took place during and immediately following a period of intense persecution from the late 1950s to the early 1980s.

It is thus possible to talk about two Christian responses to pluralism in China. The rural house church maintained a pietistic emphasis on the vertical relationship with God, focusing on preserving the integrity of the community while growing that community through evangelism. In so doing, it demonstrated many of the characteristics of a traditional religious body that has yet to come to grips with pluralism and tackle the process of contextualizing its faith in an increasingly complex society. Their next generation, however, finds itself in the midst of the fray, drawn by economic necessity to the cities where they are bombarded by conflicting belief systems.

Meanwhile, the independent urban churches that have emerged during the past two decades, as well as communities of younger believers within the official church in the cities, are largely populated by first-generation believers with no sense of a spiritual heritage that must be maintained in the face of pluralism. They are themselves products of the clash of worldviews that has characterized modern China.

While it is possible to maintain a privatized faith—pastors bemoan the phenomenon of “Sunday Christians” whose lives during the week exhibit scant evidence of a commitment to Christ—this generation of believers, unlike their rural predecessors, cannot ultimately be content to pursue a vertical faith that has no connection to the world around them. They increasingly find themselves compelled to make a case for their belief in ways that resonate with the society in which they live. As I suggested in a previous post, their example in doing so provides inspiration for Christians globally who also face the challenge of living out their faith in a pluralistic context.

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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