Counting Christians in China: A Cautionary Report

By Lambert, Tony | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Counting Christians in China: A Cautionary Report


Lambert, Tony, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


Recently I was attending a meeting in Europe at which a house church evangelist from China was speaking. The literature being distributed to raise funds stated that he represented more than 75 million house church believers. When this figure was queried, the Western sponsor retorted, "Well, this figure is not gospel truth--give or take a few million either way, it doesn't matter!" The publicity of a Hong Kong Christian ministry claims that "every year 8 million people come to Christ and are baptised in Mainland China." These statistics are impressive, but they simply cannot stand up under closer analysis, for they are backed by no reliable, documented evidence.

This problem is not new. In leafing through my newspaper clippings on the Chinese church, which date back more than thirty years, I came across the following report from 1983 which epitomizes rather succinctly the problem of counting the number of Christians in China accurately: "The number of Christians in China now exceeds 100 million, according to two former leaders of the Chinese house church movement now living in the USA. Their assessment of the situation is one of the highest in circulation. The official Chinese Three-Self Church says there are six million Christians (three million Protestants and three million Catholics) while some evangelical agencies take into account what they call 'secret believers' and put the figure at between 25 and 50 million." (1)

Though this clipping dates back to just a few years after Christian churches were allowed to reopen in 1979, the last two decades have seen no resolution to the problem posed by the yawning gulf between statistics issued by the Chinese government or state-approved church representatives, and those figures published by some Christian agencies elsewhere.

Counting Christians in China is notoriously difficult, but for years Christians, particularly evangelical and charismatic Christians, have seemed willing to accept very high figures without any real proof. Already inflated estimates have sometimes been extrapolated and exaggerated ("if in 1983 there were 100 million, then now in 2000 there must be 150 million or even 200 million" and so on). It is high time such castles in the air were brought down to earth! In this article I approach the problem by first reviewing the overall sociopolitical context, and then I assemble what reasonably reliable statistics there are from all sources: the Chinese government, the Three Self churches, and the house church movement. This study will concentrate on the Chinese Protestant churches. (2)

Inconsistent Statistics--a Widespread Problem

We must recognize at the outset that the problem of false statistics is not confined to the religious sphere in China. An article in the respected Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post some years ago stated: "The truth about the Chinese economy is that no-one really knows. Economists and analysts look at the same events and see different things. Adding to the problems, there are severe doubts about the quality of what the observers are looking at hardest--the economic statistics which flood out of the State Statistical Bureau and other organizations." (3) The article included a detailed table showing that sixteen economists working for sixteen international companies doing business with China--and, more glaringly, two of China's own most prestigious state organizations--could not agree on China's gross national product, rate of inflation, industrial production, trade balance, and other basic economic statistics.

More recently, we could cite the national census of November 2000, which reports a population of nearly 1.3 billion. This number is almost certainly too low, given the huge number of unemployed peasants flooding into the cities (the "floating population") and distortions stemming from the one-child policy as citizens seek to hide their extra children from official eyes, and cadres seek to hide their own incompetence from their superiors. …

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