China – Will It Become the World’s Largest Christian Nation?
Interview by author Martin Roth
Kody Kness is Vice President of China Aid, an international non-profit Christian human rights organization committed to promoting religious freedom and the rule of law in China. He kindly agreed to answer several questions about the outlook for Christians in China today.
There do not seem to be any particular benefits to becoming a Christian in China, yet the church is growing enormously. Why?
The number of Christians in China is on the rise, and scholars have predicted that the number of Chinese Christians today is close to 80 million, thus coming very close to rivaling the number of Communist Party members. In fact, sociologist Dr. Yang Fenggang has predicted that the number of Chinese Christians will reach nearly 245 million by the year 2030, thus making China the largest Christian nation in the world.
A number of faith seekers in China are encountering the word of God through a growing presence of Christian communities throughout China either in the house church movement or the official government-sanctioned “Three Self” church. Although there may not be socio-economic benefits to becoming a Christian in China, there are societal benefits, namely investing in a community that values human dignity and justice and refuses to adhere to the corruption and Communist ideology of the Chinese government. Chinese citizens are searching for alternatives to the government’s official propagation of Atheism and are looking to fill a void that neither Communism nor materialism can fill.
Why are the authorities cracking down on the church right now?
The Chinese government has engaged in a systematic campaign against the church in order to control or suppress the growth of Christianity. There have been reports of promotions of Chinese government officials from the province of Zhejiang, which many speculate are directly related to the perceived success of these recent crackdowns. Historically, the Chinese government has suppressed any people group that out-numbers the Communist Party, and thus threatens its power and control over society. The growth of Christianity has also brought increased scrutiny of a broken judicial system in China, as Christians are being educated in the rule of law and subsequently challenging the government’s persecution of their faith community through court proceedings, in many cases hiring Christian lawyers, whose numbers are also on the rise in China.
To be sure, President Xi’s administration continues to suppress not only religious freedom, but also freedom of speech, especially at Chinese universities. In a recent statement by China’s Minister of Education, any speech condemning the Chinese Communist Party or Socialism, or promoting “Western values,” is now forbidden in the classroom. Chinese government-sponsored campaigns against perceived “Western traditions” appeared this year in several provinces in China, including banning the celebration of Christmas, which is construed as a threat to maintaining Chinese culture. These bans are directly related to the government’s recent crackdown on Christianity.
Might the crack-down be counter-productive? Could it in fact – eventually – end up strengthening the church?
Yes. The persecution of Christians has also emboldened a new generation of believers who seek a higher authority and are willing to sacrifice their own safety and welfare for the right to worship freely. Historically, the Christian church has thrived during times of heightened persecution and China is no exception. In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the church in China almost tripled in size after churches were forcibly closed. A similar campaign against the church is under way today in numerous provinces throughout China and the end result could indeed end up strengthening the church, though that is dependent on how far the Chinese government is willing to go in its campaign against the rise of Chinese Christians and their response to that persecution.
Christianity has spread strongly in South Korea, and now South Koreans are a force in church and mission groups globally. Might Chinese Christianity one day exert an international influence?
I would suggest that the Chinese church will indeed become increasingly missional in its spiritual expression and identity, though perhaps more within a domestic context at first and then progressively more outside of China’s borders. That being said, I believe there are already instances of both, as Chinese Christians move throughout China sharing the gospel and training new believers in both spiritual disciplines and their rights under Chinese constitutional and international law to worship freely, and as Chinese professionals travel internationally and subsequently share their faith while abroad.
If Dr. Yang’s predictions are correct, and Christianity grows to make China the largest Christian nation in the world, and simultaneously the country opens its borders to information via the Internet and allows its citizens to travel internationally, there will undoubtedly be a Chinese strain of Christianity that will help spread the gospel throughout the world.
Kody, thank you very much.