The Astonishing Popularity of Christian Faith in Today's China

Church built by missionaries in a Chinese style Church built by missionaries in a Chinese style
For those of us privileged to have some firsthand awareness of the situation and struggles of Christians in today’s People’s Republic of China, the way Christian faith has won the hearts of millions of people in a land so often considered by earlier missionary strategists to be one of the most difficult in the world, is nothing less than a revelation of the power and truth of God’s Holy Spirit.

This ‘wave’ of Christianity grew out of the total collapse and confusion (the film Farewell My Concubine remains a telling exposition of this) into which the ‘Cultural Revolution’ – now more often referred to inside China as the ‘ten wasted years’ – had plunged the entire nation from the mid-1970s onwards.[1] It began to take public shape with the restoration and re-opening of the first church building in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, on Easter Day 1979, soon followed by the first national gatherings of Catholic and Protestant leaders in the spring of 1980. Since then the growth has been noticeable in many different ways, sometimes by the quantity of new churches opening each week (in the earlier years one heard of two, later of at least three or four!), sometimes by highly varied numbers, almost always in millions (though the more careful will always say that one can only guess at actual figures), more often nowadays by the evident large number of people regularly attending Christian services in the hundreds of different cities and thousands of rural areas across this vast country.

Foreign Missionaries

This new growth contrasts startlingly with the earlier experiences of Christian ‘beginnings’:

o the Persian monk, Alopen, from the ‘Church of the East’, arriving along the ‘silk road’ in 635 AD at the court of the Tang Emperor Tai Zong in today’s city of Xi’an;

o the Catholic John of Montecorvino, sent by Pope Nicholas IV in 1289 to the court of the Mongol Emperor Khubilai Khan in Khanbaliq (today’s Beijing = ‘Northern Capital’);

o the Jesuit Matteo Ricci who found his way from Portuguese Macao in 1582 to the Imperial Court in Beijing in 1601 – possibly the most outstanding single story of missionary courage, perseverance and profound, intelligent and discerning faith in Christian history since those of the first disciples in Acts;

o the Protestant Robert Morrison, who worked from 1807 onwards as a translator in the office of the British East India Company in Canton/Guangzhou (the only place in China where foreigners were allowed to live) which led in 1819 to the publication of the first Bible in Chinese (after the ‘failure’ in one way or another – again see Bob Whyte's detailed stories in Unfinished Encounter – of the other three ‘beginnings’).

Morrison was followed during the rest of the 19th century by hundreds of other foreign missionaries, almost all from Europe and North America, both Catholic and Protestant, not least because of the ‘unequal treaties’ imposed on the failing Qing dynasty by the European powers, whose activities, taken overall, led to the hostile, but all too telling, slogan: ‘One more Christian, one less Chinese’.

The Boxer rebellion of 1900-1901 was one attempt to ‘overcome’ that manifold – if by no means convincingly ‘successful’ – missionary thrust, a rebellion dispersed by an invasion of the ‘western powers’ this time conquering the exhausted Qing dynasty.

The Rise of Mao

After the long years of power struggles between various ‘warlords’ until the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, Mao Tse-Tung’s Marxist victory and revolutionary programme from 1 October 1949 onwards was to some degree a political success, indeed a great relief for the majority of Chinese. Yet it, too, led to an extremely thorough ‘modernisation’, indeed even ‘westernisation’, of what was left of earlier Chinese culture and civilisation.

The new beginnings of Christian faith in China since the later 1970s represent the first purely and distinctively Chinese missionary initiatives that the country has ever known, and undoubtedly owe their astonishing success to this ‘home-grown’ character, with all the pain and suffering that lies behind it. It is vital to recall this background in order to understand how startlingly different is the scene today.

Visit to China in 2007

From my last visit to China, in December 2007, I can point to two very different moments, both joyous and entirely typical of today. On my first Sunday I went to the morning service, as my wife and I had done in 1986, at the ‘Community Church’ on the southwest side of central Shanghai. There I discovered that the small gallery in the handsome church, built by North Americans in the 1930s, was now reserved for people who needed earphones to follow the service through simultaneous translation into English, and that the worshippers were filling not only the body of the church down below me as I sat there, but also all three of the other main halls in the big building alongside. The crowd that emerged an hour or so later into the garden from all four gatherings was huge, to the point where the queues for tea or coffee were as daunting as the countless conversations flowing were lively!

Nearly two weeks later, as I arrived in Beijing, I learned from my host there, a teacher at the Beijing University of Languages and Culture, that he had that morning put up a hand-written poster on the campus inviting anyone interested to hear an address by me the next day. As a result I had an audience of some 60 people, the majority post-graduates, who not only had no difficulty listening to me and putting comments and questions in English but were unfailingly intelligent in their reactions and clearly deeply interested in the sorts of experiences I had been talking about. I have no way of knowing how many of them would have called themselves Christians – probably only a few in any formal sense – but they were one of the best audiences I have ever encountered.

Aspects of Church Life

Today’s picture, however, is not totally straightforward and hopeful. One hears not only of any number of independent and unregistered churches in provinces such as Henan (known for its ‘Christianity fever’), but also of downright false and dangerous teachings arising in rural areas where there are as good as no trained ordained ministers or further education available to local people. I have had little chance to investigate this kind of phenomenon – China is, after all, a vast and very diverse place – nor do I know how to appraise the article in the 11 October 2008 Guardian supplement which tells a horrific story about thousands of young Chinese girls trafficked as prostitutes into the UK: I was startled to read that the author of the article, on visiting the province of Fujien on the south coast, from which apparently the majority of these girls come, and driving out to villages named by at least some of them to UK immigration officers as their homes, had found these ‘dominated by new churches as large as ocean liners. We call in on one, the True Jesus Church, and ask the pastor, Chen Jin Yun, if she will help us find families whose children have gone missing in Britain. She laughs. “Many have got children working in the UK. They love it there, but keeping in contact is always a struggle”.’

In contrast, I can witness from a visit on Palm Sunday 2000 to what seemed at the time, and still does, the most impressive and memorable service of Christian worship I have ever attended, all the more so because I could not understand a single word! This was in the Catholic ‘Northern Cathedral’ (‘Bei-tang’) in Beijing, where a priest who had been an outstanding student of our English department in Selly Oak in the early 1990s, told me he would be leading the 8 a.m. Mass in the new Chinese liturgy which the Chinese Catholic Church had recently drawn up. From our taxi, stopping some 100 yards short of the Cathedral gate, because of the huge crowd coming out of the 7 a.m. service, we struggled through them and arrived inside shortly before 8 a.m. There were no seats left, and people were still crowding up to let in late-coming friends, so we had to stand with many others around the walls. There was an atmosphere of unusual quiet, yet at the same time of active and eager anticipation; I cannot find words for it, but one was unmistakably aware of a huge congregation, of some 3,000 or so, waiting but in no way at rest, rather sitting forward and communally willing the service to begin.

It then did, as the priest, my friend, in a simple black cassock and white stole, entered accompanied by a small boy with a censor. He arrived behind the altar, knelt a moment, and then stood up and sang an opening greeting to the congregation who, with evident thrill, sang back to him at full voice. The service proceeded entirely by the mutual singing of verses and responses which everybody clearly knew by heart since there was not a book in any hand. The only spoken part of the service (all was in Mandarin – totally unlike the Latin, if inaudible, liturgy that I had experienced in Catholic churches on earlier visits) was the sermon, with even the preceding readings chanted from the lectern by people coming out of the congregation to do so. The feeling of joy and delight in it all, clearly shared by virtually everyone I could observe, was unmistakable. To crown it, we then had to push our way out of the cathedral and down the path to the gate, through the weight and eagerness of the 9 a.m. congregation who were struggling to get in just as we had an hour earlier!

Some Explanations

What are the ‘reasons’ for this level of eager and joyful faith? It is above all the work of the Holy Spirit. No purely human agency could produce it, and it is no doubt closely bound up with the profound hurts and frustrations of earlier periods in modern Chinese history. It is also – forgive the massive generalisation – undoubtedly to do with the lack in today’s China of any alternative source for a central, profound, holistic and spiritually empowering meaning or purpose in life.

The ‘classic’ Chinese civilisations, invariably lived out by an upper class separated from the mass of Chinese people, have long since died out, even if gifted individuals can still produce many of the skills that brought them about in earlier centuries. ‘Modernity’ was struggling to make an impact in the ‘20s and ‘30s, exemplified by the Christian Sun Yat-Sen who managed to get himself elected as ‘President of the Provisional Republic of China’ in December 1911, to be overthrown by a warlord a matter of weeks later. Mao’s totalitarian Chinese Marxism then had its successes in the early years after his victory speech on 1 October 1949, saluting the fact that ‘the Chinese people have stood up’, but collapsed into a wholly inappropriate power struggle within the Party during the ‘Cultural Revolution’, and was succeeded, after some difficult years of uncertainty, by a reliance on economic policies that aimed to follow the most successful practices of the Western nations, while retaining power, nationally and at every other level, in the hands of the selfappointing and self-governing Party. China’s leaders have certainly learned a good deal over the last 20 years about the strengths and weaknesses of retaining total power, apart from over the economy, but are clearly unable – despite various attempts with one President’s ‘seven points’ or another’s ‘five maxims’ – to produce what the Chinese people are longing for in terms of a convincing and meaningful purpose in life.

Christian faith, through a wide diversity of channels, is now having an astonishing ‘success’ in motivating and guiding millions of Chinese people – this may be no more than a significant ‘minority’, possibly as many as 8% or 10% in all – but out of a population of some one and a half billion people, this is still a large crowd by European standards. These people are to be found in at least three very different constituencies: each will expect to find in their faith different ‘results’ and priorities, if only because of their different social and educational backgrounds.

Converted by Missionaries

The first of these constituencies includes the people who have managed to ‘retain’ the faith that they had learned from their parents and grandparents or others close to them, who in turn had accepted this ‘foreign faith’ from the witness of the missionaries. I remember in Fujian province, on our first visit, hearing about two elderly ladies who in 1980 had had the temerity to go to the communal authorities and ask whether they could re-open the church they had attended until 15 years earlier. This request, to their surprise, had been granted, and they began to hold a very simple weekly service based on the prayers which the two had prayed together in a back room each week during even the worst of the Cultural Revolution. These meetings had not been noticed at the time, and now bore remarkable fruit as many began to join in.

I have been privileged to meet, hear and get to know the man who, more than any single other, has supported, in his modest but always attractive way, the entire (Protestant) China Christian Council for the last 30 years and more, Bishop K. H. Ting.[2] Born in 1915 and ordained in and for the Anglican Church in China in 1942 after some years working as secretary of the student department of the Shanghai YMCA, he has had to struggle with many different principalities and powers over the 93 years of his life – so far! – but still serves as an icon of all that is best and most universal in the Christian faith, which he inherited from his family, and which he has practised and taught. He has undoubtedly been more important – both in his contacts with government, with other faith leaders, and then with the thousands of ministers he has helped to train in the Nanjing (= ‘Southern Capital’) United Theological College, let alone in his foreign travels and through his world-wide friendships with theologians and others active in circles such as the WCC – than any single other Chinese. He has probably been at least as surprised as anybody else by the enormous swell of interest in Christian faith in China during recent years.

This first constituency also includes the less sophisticated such as the congregation described in a charming anecdote by Rob Gifford.[3] When he found himself halfway across the centre of China in the Shaanxi provincial countryside on a Sunday morning, he entered a simple little village church, one of dozens in the area, which had ‘some pictures of Jesus on the walls, bare, low benches for pews, and an altar at the front with the Chinese character ai, meaning “love”, written large on it in bright red.’ Since the minister, who had several churches to look after, had not arrived, he found himself invited, indeed, as an ‘Ocean Person’ expected, to preach the sermon, and eventually did so, surprising himself by leading a prayer: ‘out loud, in Chinese. The congregation in turn starts praying out loud, one person after another, overlooking the rather poor sermon I have just preached and thanking God for this Ocean Person who has delivered the message, praying that God will bless him and them, and then saying simply, “Thank you God, for your love”.’

There was, he concluded: ‘a purity and intensity to Christian believers in China and it overflows in their prayers. [...] This is perhaps how it is meant to be, I think to myself, as the final “Amen” rises from the congregation.’

Rural Chinese Believers

The second constituency (clearly overlapping with the congregation in Gifford’s story) includes rural Chinese who have more recently come to Christian faith. Here I am relying on a carefully researched and remarkably persuasive paper by Caroline Fielder, the recent China Desk staff member of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, given at the 2007 AGM of the Friends of the Church in China (FCC), on ‘The Growth of the Protestant Church in Rural China’. She highlights first the attractive simplicity of the Protestant message and structures: ‘newcomers can be welcomed and cared for through the programmes. The witness of the church, and the warmth and support offered to the local community, can have a great impact ... never truer than in the rural context where previously tight-knit communities are coming away at the seams.’ That last point connects with her second ‘reason’ for the church’s growth: Chinese agriculture is changing fast as the amount of available land diminishes under the pressures of population growth and climate change; rural Chinese, who were the first to be ‘released’ into the reforms of Deng Xiao Ping in the late 1970s, and benefited greatly in their early years, have now found themselves reduced in wealth and satisfaction. Their younger men are pulled into the lowest paid and most menial jobs in the rapidly growing cities, while their women, already sidelined in rural life, are even less satisfied with their lot, but at least offered in the church a place where they can have a real voice, a sense of community, a new family and a social standing higher than they enjoy in the outside world.

Instances of faith healing are another factor which has led many rural people to Christian faith. These are often mentioned in discussions about the rural areas where ‘finances and lack of adequate medical provision rule out adequate medical care’: ‘According to Revd Xue Lianxi more than 50% of the members of the rural churches in Anhui province became Christians due to faith-healing experiences.’

Two surprises, revealing aspects of rural religious life, befell Bishop John Austin (suffragan bishop of Aston in the diocese of Birmingham who was invited by Archbishop George Carey to serve as his contact-bishop for China in the early 1990s) while he was driven into an area behind the ridge of hills, which divides Anhui province, where the China Christian Council (CCC) leaders in Nanjing had heard about newly created churches. He noticed a small house in one village with a cross on its roof beam, and learned, when his car stopped and he knocked on the door, that the cross was there because a son of the household, having gone to work as a building labourer in Shanghai some months earlier, had come home with a copy of the CCC hymnbook and had taught the family to sing from it. Several families in the village then joined them, leading them to build an outhouse in the garden for their Sunday singing sessions which gave them all such pleasure. They learned that they could signal their joy to the world around by this sign on the rooftop!

Later that same day, the bishop’s car was stopped by a blocked road in a village where a group of police were handling an evidently excited crowd. On asking what this was about the bishop and his interpreter were told that a disturbance had been caused by a crowd unhappy with a local healer. One part of the crowd had formed a circle round the healer’s house to prevent others going in and attacking him for charging too much for his healing services. When the police realised that the man in the car was a Christian bishop, they asked him if it was normal for a Christian healer (as the man in the house evidently presented himself) to ask for money in return for healing. The astonished bishop, struggling to recall exactly what he had once read in the Didache, responded, ‘No, healers have long been normally expected to offer their services free of charge,’ following which the police removed the man from the house for further questioning, to the evident delight of the majority of the crowd.

Caroline Fielder notes that healing often includes some elements of exorcism which involve age-old practices of ‘folk religion’: ‘In areas where this exercises a profound influence, demon possession is considered a reality, from which Christianity is increasingly seen as a means of escape, and thus a progressive force in traditional rural communities.’

‘Another example of spiritual manifestation that has turned people to faith is that of visions and dreams. Many rural Chinese Christians perceive dreams and visions as God’s way of communicating with them directly.

Several of those I spoke to stated quite emphatically that dreams and visions were key in drawing them to Christ and in sustaining them through difficult times.

[...] Those who recounted their dreams noted that they were unlike the dreams we normally have. They were often characterised by a special sense of clarity; people recounted an awareness of being momentarily moved into a new and different reality, and that those people or spirit beings that appeared to them were as tangible as you and I.’

Bible Reading

Another factor behind the growth of Christian faith within this second constituency is the impact of being able to read the Bible for oneself in one’s own language. A man who is now a doctor in Anhui explained to Caroline: ‘how studying the Bible in a young people’s fellowship helped him come to faith: “It took time to really understand the stories that were being told. During that time my life was a mess, I was gambling a lot, playing mah-jong and cards all the time, so that I was seriously in debt. I listened to the Gospel stories and liked them, but kept coming back to one thing.

Did Jesus really come back from the dead?

I felt that I needed an answer to this question, and read and read all I could, and asked lots of questions. [...] I knew that this was a significant thing – for me the most important thing. [...] I thought about it more and more and realised that even those who had been with Jesus had doubted Him, especially as he faced death, but then they saw Him again and again and they were changed ... they believed in Him so much they saw Him as the Son of God, and after that they would risk dying for Him. They knew He was truth; that all He had said was true, and for them it was worth risking everything for. Suddenly I realised that it was not just a story but that it was true, and that if it was true then there could be no half measures”.’

No doubt very similar experiences are happening to thousands of ordinary people in China today.

Of relevance here is the printing press, set up by the Amity Foundation (China's Protestantbased social development agency) with much help from the United Bible Societies, primarily to print Bibles in Mandarin and other Chinese languages, which celebrated in December 2007 its 50 millionth Bible. Since May 2008 it has acquired new machinery able to produce 12 million Bibles per year. Virtually all of these will be quickly snatched up for use from Amity's distribution centres all over China.

Academic Circles

The third constituency of Christian converts are university people, both teachers and students, who are searching, essentially in much the same way as the doctor in Anhui, for a truth that can last and empower life-long explorations into the common purpose of living in and for the larger world community, within which China now knows it is destined to work out its future. Already in the 1990s a Chinese professor of philosophy translated into Mandarin (‘Putonghua’ = the common speech) John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology, a noted but very solid, long book by a Scots academic teaching in Oxford. This was published in paperback by a commercial firm in 250,000 copies, almost certainly many more than the original had ever known, yet which were sold out in 18 months.

This same translator remarked a few years ago that ‘almost every university in China will now have someone who teaches “religious studies” regularly, not for any exam syllabus, but to large and attentive audiences.’

This third constituency is characterised by its distance from the actual churches, resulting from the way higher education in earlier centuries was a mark of social and political distinction, eagerly sought by the few who could hope to attain it, and carrying with it a sense of separation from ‘ordinary mortals’, who were thought to benefit from the action of the educated and privileged, but not seen as fellow-citizens. From my conversations with academics I have learnt that membership of a local church is seldom seen as the ‘natural’ consequence of discovering the truth in Jesus as told in the Bible. This is not to suggest that such people refuse to join any form of ‘church’ – they will very often have their own groups of friends and colleagues who meet regularly to share their explorations and findings – but rather to indicate the width of the gap they evidently feel between their academic lives and that of the churches, which they have probably hardly experienced.

I know of no estimate of how many people have ‘become Christians’ through academic contacts and programmes. Nevertheless, I feel there is a dynamic and remarkably wellsupported movement which is bound to make a huge difference to China in the generations ahead. I see evidence for this in the annual conferences in which the Chinese Academy of Social Studies’ Institute on World Religions draws together many of the leading figures in this whole movement; in my own experience of a one-off seminar such as I spoke at in the University of Languages and Culture in Beijing; and in the lists of names in the quarterly Journal of the Institute of Sino- Christian Studies (almost entirely theological) in Hong Kong, to and from which there appear to be significant numbers of professors and doctoral students moving to and from tens of different universities in mainland China.

This movement will become all the more important as and when the organised churches provide the space and energy for some of their best educated ministers to make contact and share in activities and projects with the academics. The Catholic priest (the former Selly Oak student) at the ‘Northern Cathedral’ in Beijing has for several years devoted part of his time to a Beijing Institute for Christianity and Culture Study, with a journal and the Sapientia book publishing house attached to it.

Among the Protestants, the Nanjing Seminary, which offers university-level qualifications, has just this year moved to a new set of buildings close to, if not directly part of, the Nanjing University campus, with a view to developing close contacts and interaction with leading figures there. So, hopefully, through both these initiatives, a great deal more contact and mutual encouragement will be generated.

Some Suggestions

How can I round off such a vast topic? What better way than to invite you to start discovering for yourselves the endlessly varied and interesting people about whom I have been writing. Join the Friends of the Church in China (FCC Secretary: Mrs Jean Gronset, 17 Rosetrees, Guildford, Surrey, GU1 2HS, The FCC has kindly provided all the photographs for this article) which concerns itself with both Protestants and Catholics in China;[4] make full use of the books page on its website (; ask one of the chaplains at your nearest university to introduce you to Chinese post-graduate students or academics on sabbatical there, and invite them to your home; and sooner or later go to China yourself, and visit whatever churches you can find. Above all, rejoice in the Lord! Give thanks to God for his unfinished but now active work in today's China, and pray for comparably lively and fascinating new beginnings among us in Europe.

Former President of Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham
Chairman of Friends of the Church in China
Martin Conway

Kestton Newslletttter, No. 8, 2009


[1] See Bob Whyte's Unfinished Encounter – China and Christianity, London: Collins Fount Paperbacks, 1988, p.305ff.

[2] There are now two large and full studies in English of the life-long witness of this great man: Philip Wickeri's Reconstructing Christianity in China – K. H. Ting and the Chinese Church (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2007, 516pp – American Society of Missiology Studies No. 41) and Jieren Li's In Search of the Via Media Between Christ and Marx – A Study of Bishop Ding Guanxun's Contextual Theology (Lund, Sweden: Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, 2008, 469pp – Studia Missionalia Svecana CVI).

[3] China Road – A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power, London: Bloomsbury, 2007, pp.136-140.

[4] I have deliberately not written about church-state relations within China, since that is another topic with a vast history, as well as both endlessly diverse and complicated, depending on many different aspects of the overall situation as well as on specific local personalities. For Keston readers, well accustomed to this topic in Russia and other parts of the former Eastern bloc, let me simply stress that while this aspect of the situation is in some sense ‘present’ everywhere in China, more remarkable is the way that normal church life can proceed without constantly throwing up reference to it.

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