Some scholars claim that Christianity in China has almost stagnated and even shown negative growth after its boom in the 1980s and 1990s. However, a large percentage of Chinese Christians strongly disagree with this claim and have turned indifferent to it.
At the 2018 Conference on the Study of Christianity held in Beijing on Oct. 20-21, a professor said that the number of Chinese Christians was estimated to be around 39.7 million. Some pastors said that as urbanization increased rapidly, the number of rural Christians in some areas has been reduced to one fourth while the number of urban Christians has grown by just one fourth. This means that nearly half of the rural congregation has been lost.
A pastor from Guangdong suggested that a jump in the number of Christians in Guangzhou resulted from immigration, from the inability to adjust to changes in society, and because of economic affluence. However, these three factors did not come into play once people's transformation to society became normal. Other scholars have put forward the idea that low pay for rural clergy was the main cause of the shrinkage in rural churches.
When faced with these statistics, Christians have taken two points of view.
One viewpoint strongly objected to the numbers, saying that the Chinese government used false data to restrict Christianity so as to leave the impression in society that Christianity was "dwindling".
The other viewpoint felt that Christians should just disregard the statistics and the scholars' interpretation because this was just "negging"--emotional manipulation by outsiders to keep the upper hand.
Hot debates about the conclusions took place on some Christian WeChat groups, but only few Christians paid attention to the source of the data, the statistical methods and dimensions to measure it, and the conclusions drawn from it.
The majority of Christians remained unconvinced and rejected this study about themselves.
It can be said that traditional Christianity was always alienated from Chinese society and thus declined largely due to its inward focus and emphasis on personal holiness. When the environment in the past forced traditional churches to defend themselves, they knew nothing about the study of Christianity and had no other knowledge except what came from the Bible and fundamental theology.
The two viewpoints agreed on the same essential idea that traditional fundamental Christianity had been expelled from social and historical development. Inside the church, to be on the defensive, a paternalistic structure existed that emphasized the obedience to authority, a rejection of independent thinking and the teaching that the world was an enemy of Christianity. As a result, Christianity's members were under great stress because of being at odds with society.
Today's Christianity, however, has been deeply involved in international relations and regional development. Therefore it's involvement is a key topic that scholars must explore. However, the academic study of Christianity is not equal to a study of the growth of the Chinese church. This can cause academia to become unfamiliar with the present situation of the church.
The "spike" period of Christianity was also the time of economic transformation and urbanization.
Economic transformation caused former workers under a planned economy to be unable to adapt to their identity and status under a new system. Out of discontent with new economic benefits, a large percentage of them joined in the church and were comforted by the faith and saw the great tension between church and society.
They, in turn, aggravated the tension between Christianity and society. During urbanization, migrant workers relied on the church and it became another form of an association of fellow townsmen and an avenue by which they could contact each other. Even so, urbanization did not contribute to an increase in the number of church members, but only shifted the population growth from rural churches to urban ones.
A declining Christianity is now confronted with the specific problem of the passing on of traditional Christianity to the next generation.
Generation X Christians find it difficult to pass down their faith to millennials who have expressed distrust and scorn of their parents' beliefs. The new generation does not approve of their parents' view of social development as degeneration.
They argue that modern society provides a larger space for them by respecting and allowing individuals to express their own individual values and gifts. Their parents, who follow traditional Christianity, don't have this expectation. Generation X Christians simply cannot accept that this traditional faith, as they see it, has various bondages.
Therefore, the tension between the traditional church system is first manifested in the second generation Christians' view of Christianity. As traditional Christianity is declining, a new Christian generation with a broader vision in the practice of Jesus' teachings and a more flexible organization will definitely rise up.
- Translated by Karen Luo