Werner Bürklin was born in China to German missionary parents. They were obliged to leave the country in 1950, but he returned to the land of his birth in 1981 and has worked with Christians in China ever since. He leads China Partner, an organization that does much good work among the registered churches in many parts of the country.
In 2007, Bürklin announced the results of a survey he and his colleagues had conducted into how many Christians lived in China. According to one report,
To get the facts, China Partner sent teams to every province, municipality and autonomous region in China—31 in all. The only region they did not survey was Tibet. Over a 13-month period, his team interviewed 5,430 people ranging in age from 16-92 from a wide variety of occupations. The surveys took place in parks, markets, subways, buses, on the streets, and in numerous other locales.
Based on their polling, Bürklin believes there are 39 million Protestant Christians in China, with a three percent margin of error. He estimates roughly half are in the underground church, and the other half are in government-approved churches…. ‘I’m very disappointed with evangelical leaders who readily accept numbers they want to be true without going into depth,’ Bürklin says.
The same article said that Bürklin “disputes” the much higher figure of 130 million Christians announced by Ye the previous year.
His survey impressed some people because the methodology employed seemed professional. However, in his 2005 book, Jesus Never Left China, he wrote, “I regret that I cannot speak for the many house churches that did not register with the local authorities.” This honest admission points out a fundamental flaw in Bürklin’s survey. Given his close relationship with the government’s religious institutions, it is difficult to see how Bürklin could have gained any accurate insight into the size and extent of China’s house churches. Other statements in his book reveal an extraordinary naivety regarding the situation of many of their members. For example, he confidently declared: “For most well-informed believers in China, it is not persecution but prosecution that Christians may experience. The state prosecutes people, including Christians, for breaking the laws of the land. They do not prosecute them for being followers of Jesus Christ.”
He even stated: “In my many years of ministry in China I have yet to find a Christian who has been incarcerated because of his or her beliefs. I do not say that this has never happened in China. Others insist that this has happened many times. If it is done, however, believers do have legal rights to defend themselves.”
These observations are astonishing. On many occasions I have been in meetings at which every house church leader present has experienced imprisonment, beating, torture and deprivation, all because of their faith in Jesus Christ. In 2002, the Fangcheng Church leader Zhang Rongliang told me: “In one leaders’ meeting a few years ago I joked before lunch that only those who had been in prison were allowed to eat. But then everyone sat down to eat! Every single person in the room (approximately 120 brothers and sisters) had spent time in prison.” Chinese house church Christians regard Bürklin’s assertion that they are not persecuted for their faith with incredulity. Persecution is not something from a bygone era but the contemporary experiences of many believers.
As for Bürklin’s survey, I believe his findings are sincerely derived from the information his colleagues were able to gather from their sources. Those sources, however, appear to have been, almost exclusively, Three-Self church leaders and others associated with the registered church. Moreover, house church leaders are notoriously reluctant to share information with outsiders, especially those who work closely with the government-sanctioned churches.
Ironically, just two years before his survey was completed, Bürklin had warned readers of his book: “Do not make unsubstantiated claims as to how many Christians live in China today. No one knows!” It is remarkable, then, that his survey claimed to have a margin of error of just 3 percent.
When he released the results of his survey, Bürklin also noted: “Many say there are more Christians in the rural areas than in the urban centres. We were surprised our research didn’t prove that to be true, but more research is needed.” This reveals another fundamental flaw in the survey. Every other researcher I am aware of agrees that the overwhelming majority of Christians in China live in the countryside—and this is still the case, even if the large-scale migration to the cities in recent years has evened the balance a little.
Finally, if there are indeed only 39 million Protestants in China today, one has to wonder why there should be more Bibles in that country than there are Christians. According to its latest figures, the Amity Press in Nanjing has printed and distributed 46 million Bibles since its launch in 1987. In addition to these, at least 10 million have been smuggled into the country by various foreign Christian groups, and millions more have been printed illicitly inside the country. And yet it is clear that multitudes of Chinese Christians living in rural areas are still without Bibles today. It does not make sense if there are only 39 million Protestants in the country.
Bürklin’s intentions appear to have been sincere, but the methods he used to reach his conclusions were seriously inadequate.
Indeed, the Communist government itself has contradicted Bürklin’s low figures. In 2009 the national China Daily newspaper stated there are at least 50 million house church Christians in China, in addition to the official number of 21 million registered believers who attend Three-Self churches.Main Article