Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Church Growth in China: Some Observations from an Ecumenical Perspective

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Church Growth in China: Some Observations from an Ecumenical Perspective

Article excerpt

Since the late 1970s--when China implemented a policy of opening followed by a limited religious freedom--Chinese Christianity has been growing rapidly. (1) While statistics offer only an outside description of this development, in this essay I will try to analyze the internal factors leading to this growth. For this purpose I will not only use theological and sociological studies of Chinese Christianity, but also refer to my personal experiences during the years 2007 to 2014 when I was teaching New Testament and related subjects at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. Based on this, I had the privilege of preaching at a variety of Chinese churches, meeting their members and staff, as well as traveling to other seminaries and institutions.

One of my eye-opening experiences occurred in a new church in the southern part of Nanjing that originally had been a so-called meeting point without a church building. In 2007, when I preached there for the first time, about 150 people attended the worship service. The church was about a quarter filled. Many of the worshipers were beaming at me, probably because it was the first time they heard and saw a foreigner preaching the gospel. Two years later, when I preached there again, the church had grown substantially. The sanctuary was filled to the last row and the last seat. I was amazed; I would have never expected such an increase.

In 2009 I participated, as I often do, in the English worship service at St Paul's Church in Nanjing. Usually about 250 people, mostly students, meet there. The total church attendance over time is about 2,000. On that day, 11 young people from the English congregation were baptized. Altogether, there were 56 baptisms in the church on that Sunday morning. Since there are two baptism services a year, this means that more than 100 people are baptized annually just in this congregation. I was impressed. I was not used to such numbers from the Western churches I attended before. Unfortunately, most Chinese churches do not have enough church workers to provide the young believers with adequate training and opportunity for fellowship.

Some Numbers

After 150 years of Protestant mission history, there was only moderate growth of Christianity in China. At the time of the so-called liberation--the takeover by the Communists in 1949--there were about 700,000 Protestant Chinese Christians in the country. The expulsion of the missionaries followed from 1950 to 1952. After the persecution during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Protestants in China surprisingly numbered 1.5 million; in 1982, they numbered 3 million; in 1986, 6.7 million; in 1992, 9.4 million; and in 1998,16.7 million. (2) The Chinese church has thus been growing at an exponential rate since the opening of China in 1978 and the implementation of a limited religious freedom in 1982.

Today (2014) China has a population of about 1.35 billion people, (3) of which 24 million belong to the official Protestant Church, according to the numbers of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). However, already in 2009, Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, estimated the number of Christians in the official Protestant church to be between 18 and 30 million, and those belonging to the so-called house churches to be between 45 and 60 million. (4) Similarly, in 2010 the World Christian Database assumed 50-70 million believers in about 300 unofficial house church networks. The numbers given for Catholic Christians in China range from the official 6 million to an estimated 12-14 million. A researcher from Renmin University in Beijing publicly gave the number of almost 90 million Christians in China including the house church members. These numbers agree quite well with those of Western observers who assume the total numbers of Christians in China to be between 80 and 100 million, (5) with some estimates going up to 130 million or 10% of the population. …

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