Tony Lambert is a British researcher and author. A former diplomat to China, his work has been a great blessing to many who love that country. From the time he began to publish articles on the Chinese church in the 1980s, Lambert has been an advocate for caution. He has stressed that the bigger claims for the number of Christians in China are unsubstantiated and has suggested that it would be wise to propagate only figures for which there is firm proof. Some of his criticisms have been strongly worded—for example: “These statistics are impressive, but they simply cannot stand up under closer analysis, for they are backed by no reliable, documented evidence…. It is high time such castles in the air were brought down to earth!”
On the other hand, he has admitted, “Quantifying Christian belief in China is fraught with difficulty. The avowedly atheist authorities try to prevent surveys by foreign or Chinese researchers that might challenge the official view that Christianity is still a marginal phenomenon.”
At first sight, his insistence on documented evidence appears sound, but it is something of a nonsense in China’s current political and religious environment. At present, it is impossible for anyone to establish accurate figures for the Protestant house churches and underground Catholic churches, whose very existence is illegal. Furthermore, what “documentation” would be needed to satisfy such a requirement? Inevitably, most of the house churches conceal their operations from outside eyes, which means that the kind of evidence academics demand is simply impossible to obtain. As Lambert himself has said, “Counting Christians in China is notoriously difficult.”
Lambert has written two excellent books, as well as numerous articles on the Church in China. His own estimate of its size has grown. In 2000, for example, he wrote: “It seems safe to conclude that the total number of Protestants in China [both Three-Self and house churches] may be around 50 million.” Six years later, his revised and updated book China’s Christian Millions went further: “The real figure which includes the house-church believers may well be over 60 million.”
His caution in this matter has many merits, but in the opinion of some he takes it too far. Attempts to share with him information on church growth in various parts of China have sometimes met with frustration.
For some provinces, his statistics are substantially lower than other, reliable estimates. Whereas he has published a figure of just 50,000 Protestants on Hainan Island, house church leaders state 360,000. He is also adrift when it comes to the Beijing Municipality (which includes 14 counties in addition to the official city area). In 2006, he lamented: “It is a sobering thought that only some 130,000 people (40,000 TSPM + c. 90,000 house-church) meet as Protestant Christians in China’s capital—or just under 1 percent.” However, the leaders of several local house church networks agree on a figure of 500,000—around four times higher than Lambert’s estimate. (It should be pointed out that this still represents only about 4 percent of the Municipality’s population.)
In summary, Lambert has provided a tremendous service to the Body of Christ worldwide over many years. He is a meticulous researcher, but in trying to avoid any hint of sensationalism, he was too cautious. His reliance on published evidence would then fail to enumerate many low-profile house church networks, and this results in a considerable reduction in some provincial totals.Main Article