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by Paul Hattaway
Any story sounds true until someone sets the record straight.
(Proverbs 18:17, NLT)
For centuries, people have been curious to know how many Christians live in China. When Marco Polo made his famous journey to that country 700 years ago, he documented the existence of Nestorian churches and monasteries in various places, to the fascination of the people of Europe.
Since I started travelling in China in the 1980s, I have found that Christians all around the world are eager to know how many believers there are there. Many people are aware that God is doing a remarkable work in the world’s most populous country, but little research has been done to put a figure on this phenomenon. In recent decades, simply estimating the number of Christians in China has become controversial. Wildly divergent figures have been published, ranging from 20 million to 230 million.
In this article, I have attempted to summarize the history of various estimates for the number of Christians in China. I examine some of the strengths and weaknesses of several of the better-known estimates of recent years, and explain the difficulties that attend this kind of research in China’s present political environment.
Only God Knows
The first thing anyone attempting to put a number on the church in China should do, I believe, is to issue a disclaimer. I would like to state at the outset, quite simply, that only God knows how many Christians there are, for “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’” (2 Timothy 2:19). While we can speculate about how many followers of Christ there are in China, I strongly advise the reader to disregard any figure that claims a high degree of precision. Quite simply, it is not possible to conduct an accurate nationwide survey of Christians in the present climate, and those who are looking for unquestionable, proven facts will be disappointed. I believe that the best anyone can do at the moment is offer an honest assessment based on the knowledge we do have, and give a frank account of the methodology they have used to come to their conclusions.
Challenges to Christian Research in China Today
There are several major challenges facing anyone who wishes to research the number of Christians in China today. Most of these relate to the house churches rather than the registered Protestant and Catholic churches. Obviously it has proven easier to enumerate the number of adherents within the legal churches in China than those among the unregistered house church networks. Political and social factors unique to China complicate attempts to gather accurate information on the church there.
I have included the children of believing parents in this study. In Asian societies, it is common for the whole family to practise one religion—it is practically unheard-of for Muslim parents to have Christian children or for Christian parents to have Buddhist children, and so on. My survey include estimates for Protestants in both the Three-Self Church and the house churches and for members of both the CPA and the underground Catholic churches.
A Summary of Past Surveys
Many surveys have been conducted since 1920 in an attempt to establish how many Christians there are in China. In the following pages, I would like to summarize some of the most significant ones. Please click on the below links to read summaries, comments and critique of some of the better-known surveys:
- 1920 – The China Continuation Committee’s 2.3 Million
- 1992 – Jonathan Chao’s 75 Million
- 1997 – Amity News Service’s 13.5 Million
- 2001 – Operation World’s 91 Million
- 2006 – Tony Lambert’s 60 Million
- 2006 – Ye Xiaowen’s 130 Million
- 2007 – Werner Bürklin’s 39 Million
In the following tables, I give my own estimates of the number of Christians in China. My interest in this subject started over 20 years ago, and I have been collecting data since. My survey provides figures for Christians of every description, in four main categories: the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the Protestant house churches, the Catholic Patriotic Association, and the Catholic house churches. I supply statistics for all 2,370 cities and counties in every province, municipality, and autonomous region of China.
I have gathered this information from a wide variety of sources. First, more than 2,000 published sources have been noted in the tables, including a multitude of books, journals, magazine articles and internet reports that I have been collating for years. Second, my coworkers and I have also conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with house church leaders from many different groups, responsible for work in practically every part of China. We have found that while some house church networks do not keep statistics on their congregations, other large networks do keep detailed records about numbers of fellowships and believers, which we have had the great privilege to access.
Before I started entering data into my tables, I decided to begin with this assumption: that in any given place in the country there are no Christians at all unless I have a figure from a documented source or can make an intelligent estimate of their number based on information gathered from Christian leaders in China. In other words, I wanted to put aside all pre-conceptions and expectations, input the information I had and see what the totals came to the end.
I hope that readers will acknowledge that my findings, though imperfect, have been reached with the sincere intention to draw as accurate a picture as possible of the Chinese church. You may not agree with my conclusions, but I hope you will sense that this survey has been conducted without any ulterior motive or hidden agenda. Ironically, some people who previewed my figures were exasperated to find that they were so high, while others were upset because they were “too low”.
These tables will be updated regularly as new information comes to hand. Although I have gone to every length to make this survey as complete as it can be, I acknowledge nonetheless that, owing to the difficulties of conducting such a survey in China today — not the least of which is the sheer size of the country — there is a margin of error of 20 percent. If errors are indeed found, I suspect that generally it will prove to be the case that my estimates were too low.
I am glad to receive feedback and input from anyone with knowledge about Christians in any part of China. I can be contacted by letter or email via the Asia Harvest website. All communications will be kept in strict confidence.
A Note about Security
Some people may ask whether it is appropriate to publish any estimates for the true number of Christians in China, if such information might lead to more persecution from the authorities. It is important to note the following points:
(a) None of the information provided in these tables will be new to the government. It has clearly already thoroughly researched the spread of Christianity in every part of the country, as is shown by Ye Xiaowen’s announcement in 2006 that there were then 130 million Christians in China. In December 2009 the national newspaper China Daily interviewed scholar Liu Peng who has spent years researching religion for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Liu claimed the "house churches...have at least 50 million followers nationwide." This figure is consistent with our research.
(b) The tables contain more than 2,000 references from numerous published sources, including various books and articles by Tony Lambert, Tianfeng, Amity News Service, and several Catholic publications. On the whole, I am merely collating information that is already in the public domain.
(c) I have consulted various house church leaders in China and all of them were content that this information should be published, as long as the survey focuses on statistics and avoids specific information such as the names and locations of Christian leaders, as it has. In fact, church leaders very glad for this study—albeit disappointed that my total figure came out lower than they expected.
Putting the Chinese Church into a Proper Perspective
We have seen that estimates for the number of Christians in China vary widely and that the issue is sometimes clouded by the personal prejudices of those conducting the survey. It is important to note, however, that even the lowest estimates confirm a tremendous growth rate for the church in China. It is generally agreed that there were 750,000 Protestant believers in the country in 1949, and so even if there are just 30 million now it would represent a 40-fold increase in the nearly six decades of Communist rule. This is extraordinary and should be the cause of much rejoicing and thanks to God. There are very few countries on earth that could claim a similar explosion of faith over a similar length of time.
All discussion of how many Christians there are in China should be tempered by the realization that more than 90 percent of its present population face a Christless eternity. Hundreds of millions of individuals have yet to hear the gospel. House church leaders in China often tell me how ashamed and burdened they feel that so many of their countrymen and women have yet to know Jesus Christ. This awareness motivates them to do whatever it takes to preach the gospel to every ethnic group and in every city, town and village—to every individual—in China, and to do whatever necessary to see Christ exalted throughout the land.
May we, too, have such a heart for the lost whenever we are tempted to bicker about how many Christians there are in China! God has done, and continues to do, an incredible thing in that country. May we humbly give thanks to him, and recognize that we are living in the days prophesied by the Prophet Habakkuk:
Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.
(Habakkuk 1:5, NIV)
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