Any Way You Look At It: The Church in China is Growing
Government Statistics Attest to Dramatic Growth
Totals for the number of Christians in China leaked from two Chinese government bodies reveal far larger estimates of the number of Protestants than official church leaders have previously admitted.
At a January Religious Affairs Bureau conference (the government body responsible for oversight of religions), delegates were told the number of Protestants in China was 25 million. A leaked report from China's security organization--the Public Security Bureau--put the total at 35 million.
Official spokesmen, such as China Christian Council Chairman Dr. Han Wenzao, have long denied the possibility that there are more than 15 million Christians in China. Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) statistics claim there are only 13.3 million Protestants. The TSPM is the official Protestant church organization in China.
"These leaks clearly show the Three Self leaders have been deliberately deceiving their Western audiences by pretending the total of Christians is far lower than their own government supervisory estimates, which they must have had access to," said a Hong Kong-based China watcher.
Many Western missions maintain that the true number of Christians in China is likely to be 60 million and up. An Open Doors spokesman said they estimate there are 60 to 80 million Christians.
Admittedly, statistics in China are notorious for being unreliable. First, it must be clarified that published statistics often differ significantly from those compiled for the government's own use and kept classified. Numbers of Christians published in government handbooks and by the state-controlled TSPM give very conservative (and often out-of-date) figures that are the bare minimum. They usually include only those Christians registered and baptized in an official TSPM church or meeting point, and they omit unregistered house church believers and children under the age of 18.
Figures released privately by TSPM pastors for their local area or province are usually significantly higher. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the TSPM is still claiming publicly that the total number of Protestant Christians in China is only 13-15 million while the government itself may have internal statistics estimating 25-35 million.
Foreign observers claim the government is still underestimating the number of Christians. And some house church leaders in China have stated their combined movements number 58 million, although they admit their estimates are not based on extensive data gathering.
Does this mean that all statistics emanating from China are totally unreliable? Not at all. There is plenty of evidence of church growth from both TSPM and house church sources reporting numbers attending local churches and those baptized in a particular locality each year. Careful collation of the available evidence down to the county level shows amazing church growth over the past two decades. The government's internal statistics of 25-35 million Protestants have only to be compared to the 700,000 Protestants in 1949 when the Communists took over for proof of the scale of the ongoing revival.
Merger of EFMA and ACMC brings Convergence to the Mission World
Convergence is a hot word in technology today. Everyone is hyping the apparatus that will bring together your phone, cell phone, pager, Palm Pilot, the Internet, TV and your refrigerator (if you want it to). We see a coming together in one small device the many different technologies that now make men and women look like gun fighters from the old West--with all the electronic holsters clipped to their belts.
Convergence, however, has turned out to be more difficult than people thought. It seems like everyone has their own standards, desiring convergence only if they can preside over the process and get the biggest cut from the new order. In the Church a similar struggle has been going on.
When I came into mission 40-plus years ago, convergence wasn't an issue. We were the missionaries and mission organizations had a virtual monopoly on the flow of information from distant and exotic places in the world. There was no CNN. My first trip to Brazil was by boat, not a jet plane. It took 21 days, not 14 hours. It was obvious where control had to be: the agency-- because they had the information and knowledge resources. All that changed as business and ministry people crisscrossed the globe and communication began to take place with the speed of light. The agency monopoly on mission knowledge was over.
The local church now had its own sources of information. The mediatory role of the mission agency was threatened. Indeed, many local churches thought that they should do the job that agencies had done--or at least that the agency should follow their lead. Agencies, meanwhile, just knew that if the churches would give them enough manpower and money (like the old days) and defer to their superior know how, then they could get the job done. Instead of convergence, the struggle to determine which inputs should or could control missions led to rivalry and confusion.
Over time the idea that convergence was an issue of control began to give way to a sense that we are one in Christ and He has commissioned all of us to disciple the nations. A growing recognition that He is really the one in control gave many to a renewed sense of optimism--that the local church and the mission agency could converge, resulting in common initiative. The struggle for individual control is giving way to a corporate quest to follow Christ's leading in mission.
One of the results of this common quest has been the strategic partnership between ACMC (Advancing Churches in Mission Commitment) with almost a thousand local church members and, EFMA (the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies) representing some 100 agencies. These two ministries, representing different specialties in the Body of Christ but owing allegiance to the same head, came together in November of 1999. We share the same offices. We work together at every level. The new board of ACMC is like a wonderful salad bowl of differing ministry structures. Though a majority represent local churches, also present are mobilization ministries, EFMA, IFMA, AIMS and the Antioch Network. We seek to listen to the Head of the Church together.
This July 20-22 the first conference born out of this new convergence will meet in Dallas. The theme is Making a World of Difference Together. You are invited to come and experience what God has brought about from the apparent chaos of rivalry and independence.