Many moons ago, we had a conversation with a Chinese colleague that went something along the lines of the following:
Colleague: Are you a Christian?
Me: Uhhhhmmmm…. Not a very good one, not a very devout one, but yes I guess you could still say I’m one?
Colleague: Haha, I understand. I’m not a very good CCP member, and not a very bad one either, but you probably can’t say I’m a member anymore. I have not been paying my party membership fees for three years now, and haven’t been keeping up with the meetings, so they probably struck my name off the list.
In a government-sponsored survey on spirituality in China that was conducted earlier this year, officials were shocked to find that 31.4 percent of Chinese 16 or older are religious, putting the number of religious believers in China at approximately 400 million — way higher than initially thought. Over the last few years, as the government realised that perhaps religion was not such a fearful thing after all, people have gone in search for new value systems and spiritual beliefs to replace the communist doctrine which has been slowly jettisoned in China’s unstoppable quest for modernisation.
To the government’s credit, the status of religious freedom has been slowing and steadily improving. With churches bursting through the seams across the land, new ones are being built at an astounding rate like this ultra-modern and very expensive one in Beijing built for top dollar by German architects.
But the Chinese are not just coming to Jesus en masse, they are also turning to Allah, Buddha, and to many other religions (and cults). More schools in China are now opening their doors to religion, and China is also becoming the most unlikely birthplace of progressive Islam, with the establishment of female mosques (unheard of elsewhere) and one of the largest numbers of ordained female imams.
However, with only five major faiths recognised by the bureau in charge of religious affairs — Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam — there is no room for recognition if you subscribe to a faith that doesn’t fit into the neat little categories above like the Sikh, Baha’i, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Zoroastrian or Hare Krisha religions. And even if you profess to be a Christian, for instance, you are not really “allowed” to identify yourself as an Anglican, Lutheran or Pentecostal (as these are all “foreign influences”).
Nevertheless, that is not going to stop China from soon becoming home to the largest Christian population on the globe, says the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in an excellent and well-balanced article he recently wrote for the Great Britain-China Centre. He estimates the number of Protestants in China to be between 50-80 million at present count (and that’s greater than the population of the United Kingdom). In a trip to China last year (for which he was heavily criticised for failing to lobby China’s leaders hard on religious freedoms), the Archbishop was “astonished at the high level of sophistication with which the history of Western Christianity and its concepts were discussed.” Expressing great hope for the future of Christianity in China, he concluded:
Is this going to be just an accident, a contingent matter of demographics; is it going to be a bare fact that there are quite a lot of individuals who profess Christian principles; or are there ways in which the Christian witness can contribute to China’s rethinking of itself? A great deal of what we heard and saw in China suggested that there was considerable potential for the latter.
In an increasingly interconnected world, religious adherents in China will begin to look a lot like their counterparts elsewhere — thanks in part to the internet. The threat of the fundamentalist battle for Muslim minds will be as real here as it is in other parts of the world, and rising religious fervour among Chinese Christians will see them going out in ever larger numbers as missionaries to the ends of the world, as they have done before in times past. Among the more notable Chinese evangelists that have made some impact on Christian thought and spirituality worldwide in the last century are Watchman Nee, Witness Lee, Wang Mingdao, and John Sung.
The recent kidnapping of the group of Korean missionaries by the Taleban forced us to take a close hard look at Christianity in Korea, and the rise of the Asian missionary today. Korea is currently home to the world’s largest mega-church and the second greatest source of missionaries after the United States. Without a shadow of a doubt, Christianity’s next golden age will be in China.
Already Chinese missionaries have gone out to spread the gospel in such dangerous places as the Middle East. A group called the Back to Jerusalem movement (“回到耶路撒冷”) is beginning to hit the news for trying to “take the Gospel to the Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu nations of the world” — through Central Asia along the Silk Road across countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Syria all the way back to Jerusalem — a vision which they say “thousands of Chinese Christians are willing to die for”.
China is changing, and the world is changing.
Washington Post: Poll Finds Surge of Religion Among Chinese
IHT: A religious surge in China surprises leaders
China Daily: Schools open doors to diverse religions
Shanghaiist: The most unlikely birthplace of progressive Islam?
Rowan Williams: Christianity in the reinvention of China
The Times: Chinese Christians feel let down by Archbishop’s visit
Shanghaiist: Islamism in Asia, female politicians and maid executions
Newsweek: Onward, Christian Soldiers
Photo of students at an unnamed Bible School in rural China crying in prayer before bedtime from Bowen Liu.
Photo of students in Bible School having lunch from Bowen Liu.