American Christians tend to adopt a romanticized view of the Church in China. While we should be excited and encouraged by what God is doing in China, three common misconceptions often obscure a realistic assessment of the state of Christianity in China.
1. Chinese Christians Do Not Number 100 Million Strong
Some estimates place the number of Chinese Christians as high as 130 million, with many more placing the number around 100 million. These numbers become the basis for projections that their will be 200+ million Chinese Christians by mid-century and claims that within several decades Christians in China will outnumber Christians in America (Aikman). Some projections even suggest that China will contain more than half of all Protestant Christians in the world by the end of the 21st century.
Such estimates are simply inaccurate. At best they are grossly inflated due to poor census techniques (see Tony Lambert, “Counting Christians in China: A Cautionary Report,” IBMR 27.1 [Jan 2003]: 6-10). At worst they represent wild guesses. More realistic estimates place the number in the ballpark of 70 million. The Pew Forum estimates that there are approximately 67 million Christians in China. The CIA World Factbook estimates the number to be slightly less than the Pew Forum does, and other conservative estimates range as high as around 75 million.
When people challenge the 100+ million figures, they often get a response that calls their commitment to evangelism into question. One missionary in China put it this way,
By the way, doubting there’s over 130 million believers in China can make you missiological persona non grata. Never understood that – how does disbelieving in the existence of some Christians somewhere that there’s no evidence for mean you’re against Christians? I wish they were there, too – I also wish there was a pot of gold in my armoire.
We should definitely be encouraged at the many millions trusting Christ in China. However, embracing overblown statistics hardly proves a commitment to world evangelism. On the contrary, overestimating the number of Christians in China can blind us to China’s continuing need for the gospel.
2. Not All Professing Chinese Christians Are Genuine Believers
Whenever you deflate perceptions of the overall number of Christians in China, someone invariably concludes something to the effect: “Well, it doesn’t really matter how many millions of Chinese Christians there are. The important thing is that there are millions of Christians in China, and all their Christians are genuine, unlike in the United States.”
Indeed, it does make sense to assume that people who come to Christ in the midst of persecution would all be genuine converts. However, this is simply not the case. Chinese churches see false professions, and contrary to popular opinion, the problem is not limited to government agents trying to infiltrate the churches. In a review of Liao Yiwu’s God is Red, Jared Compton, a professor at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, writes:
Liao’s account also raises a troubling idea. The book is slightly unsettling, in an unexpected sort of way. Liao includes a handful of conversion narratives that sound—I’m not sure how else to say it—rather shallow. One man, e.g., summarizes his experience this way: “I felt inspired by God and was baptized.” Another, a then-barren women, tells how she stumbled upon Isa 54:1, was moved by its apparent relevance to her life, and, therefore, decided to go to a local church and say a “commitment prayer.” Mercifully, not all were like this, but enough were that I was left discouraged. I’ll admit, I want every single one of those 75 million Christians presently in China to be genuine believers. I’m looking for a simple storyline: Christianity has exploded in China despite Mao’s efforts. Period. What am I to do with this other storyline, this apparently conflicting subplot? Thinking about all this immediately brought to mind a pointed question Philip Jenkins once asked in a similar setting: how can Christians who are willing to face suffering and death be shallow?
The theological answer is that Satan sows tares in China just like anywhere else. Culturally, this phenomenon might be explained in terms of Christianity being altered to meet religious expectations in China’s very superstitious rural areas. Furthermore, unless someone has a promising career, decides to become a house church leader, or joins a church that likes to pull stunts to garner Western sympathy, it is highly unlikely that an average church member in China would suffer persecution, at least not directly. In any case, we need to pray for the many Chinese who are trusting false gospels.
3. The Doctrinal Positions Held by Chinese Christians Vary Widely and Are Neither Identical to Your Own Nor Arrived Upon by an Unaffected Reading of the Bible
This last point is a mouthful, but it expresses the three things Americans need to get about the doctrines taught in Chinese house churches. (1) Chinese Christians have significant disagreements with one another concerning doctrinal issues. (2) Chinese Christians hold doctrinal positions that probably diverge significantly from your own. (3) Chinese Christians did not arrive to their doctrinal conclusions in a vacuum based entirely on an unaffected reading of Scripture.
First, many (especially Chinese) descriptions of Christianity in China like to use the term “post-denominational” to indicate that Chinese Christians are not divided by doctrinal differences like their Western counterparts. While it is true that Chinese house churches do not have denominational labels to mark their collections of beliefs, each network does have distinctive doctrinal beliefs, traditions, and differences. We shouldn’t mistake this lack of vocabulary to indicate that doctrinal disagreement and debate are absent.
Second, it seems as though most Christian groups in America assume that Chinese house churches not only hold to a uniform doctrinal position but that they also hold a position identical (with perhaps one or two minor exceptions) as themselves. Thus the beliefs of Chinese Christians constantly get characterized in ways that at least boarder on misrepresentation. The likely motivation behind this is my final point.
Third, Americans need to stop thinking of the church in China as the ecclesiastical equivalent to the literary concept of the noble savage. The Chinese church did not arrive at their present doctrinal positions without any outside influence. While it is attractive to think of a group of Christians somewhere deriving a pure expression of Christian doctrine based solely upon an unbiased reading of Scripture (especially if they more or less agree with your admittedly biased interpretations), this simply is not an accurate explanation of what happened in China.
The story of Christianity in China is truly remarkable. American Christians should be inspired and encouraged by God’s surprising providence in this unlikely location. However, we must take care to neither sensationalize nor weaponize this story. The story is already amazing; we don’t need to exaggerate. The story is about what God is doing in China; let’s not make it all about us. As we recognize unpleasant realities about the church in China, we should be driven in prayer to God who has perhaps not finished His work in China.