Christianity Explodes in China

Christianity Explodes in China

Christianity Explodes in China

The World
Christian Database offers by far the largest
estimate of the number of Chinese Christians at 111 million, of
whom 90% are Protestant, mostly Pentecostals. Ten thousand
Chinese become Christians each day, according to a stunning
report by the National Catholic Reporter’s veteran
correspondent John Allen, and 200 million Chinese may comprise
the world’s largest concentration of Christians by
mid-century, and the largest missionary force in history.

I suspect that even the most enthusiastic accounts err on the
downside, and that Christianity will have become a Sino-centric
religion two generations from now. China may be for the 21st
century what Europe was during the 8th-11th centuries, and
America has been during the past 200 years: the natural ground
for mass evangelization. If this occurs, the world will change
beyond our capacity to recognize it. Islam might defeat the
western Europeans, simply by replacing their diminishing numbers
with immigrants, but it will crumble beneath the challenge from
the East.

China, devoured by hunger so many times in its history, now
feels a spiritual hunger beneath the neon exterior of its
suddenly great cities. Four hundred million Chinese on the
prosperous coast have moved from poverty to affluence in a single
generation, and 10 million to 15 million new migrants come from
the countryside each year, the greatest movement of people in
history.

Despite a government stance that hovers somewhere between
discouragement and persecution, more than 100 million of them
have embraced a faith that regards this life as mere preparation
for the next world. Given the immense effort the Chinese have
devoted to achieving a tolerable life in the present world, this
may seem anomalous. On the contrary - it is the great migration
of peoples that prepares the ground for Christianity, just as it
did during the barbarian invasions of Europe during the Middle
Ages.

Last month’s murder of Reverend Bae Hyung-kyu, the
leader of the missionaries still held hostage by Taliban
kidnappers in Afghanistan, drew world attention to the work of
South Korean Christians, who make up nearly 30% of that
nation’s population and send more evangelists to the world
than any country except the United States. This is only a first
tremor of the earthquake to come, as Chinese Christians turn
their attention outward. Years ago it was speculated that if
Mecca ever is razed, it will be by an African army marching
north; now the greatest danger to Islam is the prospect of a
Chinese army marching west.

People do not live in a spiritual vacuum. Where a spiritual
vacuum exists, as in western Europe and the former Soviet Empire,
people simply die, or fail to breed. In the traditional world,
people see themselves as part of nature, unchangeable and
constant, and worship their surroundings, their ancestors and
themselves. When war or economics tear people away from their
roots in traditional life, what once appeared constant now is
shown to be ephemeral. Christianity is the great liquidator of
traditional society, calling individuals out of their tribes and
nations to join the ekklesia, which transcends race and nation.
In China, communism levelled traditional society, and erased the
great Confucian idea of society as an extension of the loyalties
and responsibility of families. Children informing on their
parents during the Cultural Revolution put paid to that.

Now the great migrations throw into the urban melting pot a
half-dozen language groups who once lived isolated from one
another. Not for more than a thousand years have so many people
in the same place had such good reason to view as ephemeral all
that they long considered to be fixed, and to ask themselves:
"What is the purpose of my life?"

The 90% of Chinese Christians being Pentecostal is unique.
This is the world’s fastest-growing religious movement. In
contrast to Catholicism, which has a very long historic presence
in China but whose growth has been slow, charismatic
Protestantism has found its natural element in an atmosphere of
official suppression. Barred from churches, Chinese began
worshipping in homes, and five major "house church"
movements and countless smaller ones now minister to as many as
100 million Christians. This quasi-underground movement may now
exceed in adherents the 75 million members of the Chinese
Communist Party; in a generation it will be the most powerful
force in the country.

hinese Christians worshipping

Chinese Christians worshipping in a meeting of over 20,000

While the Catholic Church has worked patiently for
independence from the Chinese government, which sponsors a
"Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association" with
government appointed bishops, the evangelicals have no
infrastructure to suppress and no hierarchy to protect. In
contrast to Catholic caution, John Allen observes, "Most
Pentecostals would obviously welcome being arrested less
frequently, but in general they are not waiting for legal or
political reform before carrying out aggressive evangelization
programs."

Allen adds, "The most audacious even dream of carrying
the gospel beyond the borders of China, along the old Silk Road
into the Muslim world, in a campaign known as "Back to
Jerusalem". As Time correspondent, David Aikman explains,
some Chinese evangelicals and Pentecostals believe that the basic
movement of the gospel for the last 2,000 years has been
westward: from Jerusalem to Antioch, from Antioch to Europe, from
Europe to America, and from America to China. Now, they believe,
it’s their turn to complete the loop by carrying the gospel
to Muslim lands, eventually arriving in Jerusalem. Once that
happens, they believe, the gospel will have been preached to the
entire world.

Aikman reports that two Protestant seminaries secretly are
training missionaries for deployment in Muslim countries. Where
traditional society remains entrenched in China’s most
backward regions, Islam also is expanding. At the edge of the
Gobi Desert and on China’s western border with Central
Asia, Islam claims perhaps 30 million adherents. If Christianity
is the liquidator of traditional society, as argued in the past,
Islam is its defender against the encroachments of levelling
imperial expansion. But Islam in China remains the religion of
the economic losers, whose geographic remoteness isolates them
from the economic transformation on the coasts. Christianity, by
contrast, has burgeoned among the new middle class in
China’s cities, where the greatest wealth and productivity
are concentrated. Islam has a thousand-year presence in China and
has grown by natural increase rather than conversion; evangelical
Protestantism had almost no adherents in China a generation
ago.

China’s Protestants evangelized at the risk of liberty
and sometimes life, and possess a sort of fervor not seen in
Christian ranks for centuries. Their pastors have been beaten and
jailed, and they have had to create their own institutions
through the "house church" movement. Two years ago I
warned that China would have to wait for democracy. I wrote
– "For a people to govern itself, it first must want
to govern itself and want to do so with a passion. It also must
know how to do so."

Democracy requires an act of faith, or rather a whole set of
acts of faith. The individual citizen must believe that a
representative sitting far away in the capital will listen to his
views, and know how to band together with other citizens to make
their views known. That is why so-called civil society, the
capillary network of associations that manage the ordinary
affairs of life, is so essential to democracy. Americans elect
their local school boards, create volunteer fire brigades and
raise and spend tax dollars at the local level to provide parks
or sewers.

China’s network of house churches may turn out to be the
leaven of democracy, like the radical Puritans of England who
became the Congregationalists of New England. Freedom of worship
is the first precondition for democracy, for it makes possible
freedom of conscience. The fearless evangelists at the grassroots
of China will, in the fullness of time, do more to bring US-style
democracy to the world than all the nation-building bluster of
President George W Bush and his advisers.