Understanding Three Decades of China’s Rapidly Growing Christian Church

A Chinese Christian woman sings during a prayer service at an underground Protestant church in Beijing.

Brent Fulton (no relation to me) is the founder of ChinaSource, a Christian organization that works to help the global church better understand China’s rapidly growing church. The author of China’s Urban Christians: A Light That Cannot Be Hidden, Fulton is no newcomer to China: He started working with China Ministries International in Hong Kong in 1985 and has been tracking the rise of China’s churches since then. He announced in September that he will step down as ChinaSource president.

What has surprised you most about the Chinese church in the past few decades? The rules that govern what Christians can and can’t do in China have been in place since the early 1980s, and haven’t changed much. Every time I’ve been to China in the past 15 years, I saw Christians doing something and thought, “You can’t do that in China”—but they’re doing it. Believers are creative despite the restrictions. They’ve moved into new areas, opening stand-alone urban house churches, publishing Christian books, and setting up Christian websites, counseling centers, and schools. Until now, the Chinese government has rarely quashed these things.

What’s the greatest change that you’ve seen in the Chinese church between the ’80s and today? When I first got involved in China, the church was primarily rural. It was very much a church in survival mode trying to meet immediate needs. Now we’ve seen a shift to a younger, more cosmopolitan church that has a very different outlook on life. There’s a very different sense of what’s possible because they didn’t grow up with all these government restrictions. No one has told them they are marginalized in society.

Is this more urban church facing its own set of challenges? The original challenges were very practical: There weren’t enough Bibles or trained pastors. They couldn’t meet because they were under government pressure. A lot of those needs have been met and the political situation has changed. Now the challenges are not too different from what we face in the West: How do we disciple the next generation, tempted by materialism? How do you nurture healthy marriages among first-generation Christians who have no frame of reference on what a Christian family should look like?

Because the church was previously in survival mode, there wasn’t much talk about the succession of leadership or how to run the church well. Nowadays they are discussing church structure, church growth, and denominations.

As the Chinese church undergoes these changes, does this shift how the Western church relates to it? In the ’80s and ’90s, the overseas church had a very significant role to play in providing theological training and materials. It also sent Christians to teach on university campuses or start businesses. You can find many Chinese Christians today who trace their faith journeys back to the witness of those Christians.

Today, China isn’t as welcoming of foreign teachers—and with the new ranking system for foreigners in China, it’s getting harder to get a visa into China. Foreigners used to be a real novelty in China, so if you went to teach, you would be considered an attraction. That’s changed. A Chinese church with foreign connections is becoming more of a liability as China continues to become more anti-foreign.

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SOURCE: WORLD Magazine, Angela Lu Fulton