Saturday, 3 August 2013

The Christian Explosion in China

                   No doubt many of you, as children, would have been given the following exercise. For a month's wages, would you prefer to be paid (a) $1,000 a day, or (b) one cent the first day, two cents the second, and so on, doubling the pay every day? If you chose the second option, you would receive only a paltry $5.12 on day 10, but for day 30 your wages would be more than half a million dollars. Such is the magic of exponential growth.
     Now, consider the one cent on the first day as the mustard seed of Matt. 13: 31-32. If a religion grows by just 50% per generation, relative to the population, then, from a baseline of a few hundred or few thousand followers, it will remain insignificant for a long time. But once it reaches one percent of the population, it is on track to reach five percent in 100 years, and 25% in 200. And in 300 years ...? And there is also evidence that, at specific times and places, Christianity have expanded much faster. In The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark has demonstrated that the history of the religion in the Roman Empire is consistent with a growth rate of 40% per decade. Thus it was that, by the third century, the Roman authorities discovered that a movement, originally no more than an irritant, was now too large to stop. Closer to our own times, in the 1980s, commentators began to notice that sub-Saharan Africa was rapidly turning Christian.
   Why do I mention this? Because it appears that exactly the same thing is being played out right now in the largest country on earth.
            No doubt many readers have heard about the progress in China, but it has seldom been placed in perspective. Not so long ago we were hearing estimates of 20 or 30 million believers. Now the numbers being bandied around are 70 million, 80 million, even 130 million – figures which appear to have been pulled out of thin air, and which possess the aura of sheer wishful thinking. Of course, the whole issue is shrouded in uncertainty, because it is all taking place under the radar - in proliferating underground house churches, unaccounted for by the government, and lacking any central church oversight. Another reason is that any accurate statistic will be quickly outdated, because the Kingdom of God is expanding exponentially. Persecution and harassment can hardly dent it. Should an illegal house church be closed, and its leader arrested, the congregation will scatter, and form the nuclei of several new churches. For the authorities, it is like playing Whac-a-Mole.
     So let us now attempt a sober assessment. The CIA estimates Chinese Christians at 3 to 4% of a population of 1,339 million. This equates to 40 to 53 million believers. This is in line with two detailed surveys in 2007, which came up with similar results. One by Liu Zhongyu of the East China Normal University of Shanghai estimated 40 million Protestants and 14 million Catholics. At the same time, China Partner came up with a figure of 39 million Protestants. Note that neither included children under 16. Ironically, the results were reported as indicating that the number of Christians was less than thought, meaning that the commentators had missed the big picture.
     The big picture is that all this growth has occurred during the political liberalisation introduced since the end of Maoism. Christianity has been seeking a foothold in China ever since it was first introduced in the early seventh century. During the twentieth century it was obstructed by constant warfare, and the subsequent ruthless repression under Mao zi Dong, when neighbourhood spying, and the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution made even catacomb churches almost impossible to maintain. The World Christian Encyclopedia of 1982 provided tentative estimates for 1980 of 1.8 million Christians in a population of 890 million, with the numbers slowly contracting.
     Now, 1.8 million to 54 million equates to a 30 fold increase in just 27 years, when natural increase was only 50%. This means that in China the Kingdom of God has been doubling every five and a half years. (And let's not forget that it is already six years since 2007) This is the real, seldom recognized aspect of the Christian explosion in China, and it sounds so fantastic that one wonders whether there is not something wrong with the data. The 1980 estimate is, of course, subject to much error in calculation. Nevertheless, no-one denies that the order of magnitude is correct. A figure in the low millions is the very outside possibility. As for the 2007 statistics, they all suffer from the problem of non-compliance ie not everyone is prepared to admit his religious affiliation to a stranger in an atmosphere of persecution. A more detailed survey by Horizon Ltd, also in 2007, came up with a more modest figure of 35.3 million (mainly by finding very few Catholics). However, a follow-up with the original informants in order to correct for non-compliance suggested that the real total is 64.3 million. And this is only for those over 16! No matter what our reservations, or how much we massage the figures, the implications are incredible.
     So, what comes next? God only knows! Continued growth at this rate would make a complete sweep of the country by 2040. Impossible, of course! (Yet most Polynesian countries became fully Christian within a single lifetime. So did Ireland. The conversion of England didn't take much longer.) Some have argued, based on the experience of the overseas Chinese, that it will peak, perhaps at ten percent. However, the proportion of Christians in Taiwan is already 4.5 %. In Hong Kong it is 12% (24.6% for university students), and in Singapore 17.5%, and in none of them has it peaked. In Singapore, in fact, it has been growing by 15 to 20% per decade. Thus, growth has been slower, but that is because it is more normal; it is the situation in China proper that is abnormal. Perhaps a closer parallel would be South Korea: 2% Christian in 1945, 26.3% in 1995, and 29.2% in 2005.
     In any society there will be people especially amenable to the gospel. In the geographic expansion phase – when the gospel moves from the centres to the provinces, and from the cities to the country – these are the ones who will be picked up. Once Christianity becomes spread out as a general substratum of the community, the task becomes to reach those less amenable. But historical experience shows that, at some stage, a tipping point is reached at which Christianity is seen as the thing to do, the wave of the future, and the question is no longer, “Why should I become a Christian?”, but “Why should I remain a heathen?” The final large cohort should be better defined as bandwagon joiners, rather than converts, but their affiliation and self-identification has changed. These are the people who would list their religion as “none” on the census. But because they have no allegiance to the old order, their influence is minimal once the tipping point is reached. The irreligious and indifferent believe less, not differently, but the culture is determined by the religious.
     Essentially, there are only two major barriers to the conversion of a nation. The first is severe persecution. (As mentioned before, low level persecution is ineffective.) The second is competition from a rival religion, or a serious difference between the national culture and the missionary culture. One would expect, for instance, that Chinese missionaries will meet passive resistance when they move into Tibet and Xinjiang. Historically, simple, primitive religions put up the least resistance to the gospel. One of the reasons, for example, why Christianity spread faster in the Roman Empire than in the Persian Empire is that the latter possessed a religion, Zoroastrianism which was both sophisticated and moral, while the Greco-Roman paganism was intellectually and morally bankrupt. Now, as it turns out, the Chinese folk religion is indeed one of these primitive polytheisms. In practice, the Chinese tend to regard their gods, not as holy, but as just another bureaucracy above the human one. More to the point, Mao's tyranny, while it crushed the church, did an even better job of crushing the native religions. A majority of the population has essentially no religion, and the gospel is effectively expanding into a vacuum. Added to this is the fact that, whereas among the overseas Chinese conversion is part of ongoing Westernisation, in China proper it has become a self-perpetuating indigenous movement. These two factors may explain the present day Christian explosion in China.
     Where will it all end? God only knows! The ways of the Spirit are ultimately opaque to mortals. However, if you are young right now, expect, by the time you are old, to see the spiritual and social life of the Far East transformed, because right now, under our noses, there is being played out a mass movement almost unprecedented in its magnitude. “This is the Lord's doing; it is marvellous in our eyes” (Ps. 118: 23).
     Addendum: We shouldn't assume that all this is unique to East Asia. The same thing appears to have started in Nepal since it became open to missionaries in 1950. In 2016 the Nepali newspaper, Nagarik quoted the following census figures for Christians.
1951 - zero
1961 - 458
2001 - 102,000
2011 - 375,000