Christianity in Hong Kong

Hong Kong
Hong Kong (photo: pixabay)
By Wei ZhienApril 5th, 2019

The church in Hong Kong has a long history, albeit not as long as in Macau, the former Portuguese territory now a Chinese Special Administrative Region about an hour boat ride west of Hong Kong. Both Catholics and Protestant efforts began around 1841. This was at a time when Hong Kong began competing with Macau for prominence as having the superior trading port. As well, efforts by the Protestants in Macau had not been all that successful in Macau, even though Robert Morrison was the first Protestant missionary to China, focusing his work in Macau on Bible translation. Protestant groups wanting to send missionaries chose Hong Kong which was a British colony at the time and had no restrictions placed on them by the Catholics, unlike the situation in Macau.

The Chinese Methodist Church and the London Missionary Society were the first Protestant groups to establish churches in Hong Kong. They secured property and built several large churches. Dr. Sun Yat Sen, who was studying medicine in Hong Kong at the time, attended the To Tsai which had been founded by the London Missionary Society. Both Catholics and Protestants began establishing schools and set up medical facilities which later became hospitals. The Lutherans came at the turn of the 20th Century and also were involved in education. The Anglicans and Presbyterian denominations have also been in Hong Kong for a considerable length of time.

A few years after the communists established the People's Republic of China, missionaries in China were asked to leave.  Many denominational and non-denominational mission organizations moved their operations to Hong Kong.  Still being concerned about the mainland, they also began focusing on ministering to the large influx of refugees to Hong Kong fleeing the communist regime across the border. Many western denominations began social relief work with the newcomers, giving out rice and other staples as well as providing access to medical services.  

Two other large denominations in Hong Kong that have grown in numbers since their initial start in the 1950s are the Christian Missionary Alliance (基督教宣道会) and the Evangelical Free (基督教播道会 ). As well, during the 1970s, two Chinese denominations began and have grown quite large as well. These are the Shepherd Community Church (基督教牧邻教会) and 611 Church (611灵糧堂). 

The middle-class in Hong Kong makes up the majority of the membership in most Hong Kong churches. Because middle-class folk are more affluent and also more open to western ideas, the church has been able to grow to a larger percentage of the population as compared to other Chinese places such as Macau, Taiwan, or mainland China. Because of a larger middle-class in the church, Christians in Hong Kong have become involved in the larger community, even in politics. One of the recent Chief Executives of Hong Kong, Donald Tseng, was a devout Catholic and many members of Legco, Hong Kong's highest governing political body, are also Christians. Many of the leaders of the "umbrella movement" in Hong Kong were Christians, although the majority of church leaders in Hong Kong did not endorse their efforts.

As of this writing, Christianity makes up about 10% of Hong Kong's population, divided about equally between Catholic and Protestant. The larger church denominations founded some of the larger schools in Hong Kong, both at the primary and secondary levels. The Baptist also established the Baptist University, an important research university in Hong Kong. Several para-church organizations have ministries on university campuses and in some high schools.  In Hong Kong, about 25% of all university students are Christians. 

Catholics and Protestants carry on work on Hong Kong's prison, preaching the Gospel and holding Bible studies with inmates, through visitation as well as through correspondence courses.  Christian groups are involved in drug rehabilitation programs, the most famous being St. Stephen's society founded around 50 years ago by Jackie Pullinger, a British missionary who first started working with drug addicts in Hong Kong's infamous Walled City.   

Organizations such as Industrial Evangelical Fellowship IEF (工福) for many years ministered to factory workers, especially at the time in the 1960s and 1970s when there were still many factories in Hong Kong employing many factory workers from China. Now that many factories have relocated to the mainland, IEF focuses much of its ministry on gambling rehabilitation, an important need in Hong Kong. Chinese enjoy gambling and unfortunately many from Hong Kong make their way to Macau, China's Las Vegas, the only place in China where gambling is allowed. Some continue to gamble to excess and eventually become addicted. Because Macau could only, until recently, be gotten to from Hong Kong by boat, many churches in Macau have stories of Hong Kong individuals showing up on their doorstep asking for money because they had lost it all gambling and now had no money for a boat ticket back to Hong Kong. Therefore the Hong Kong government sees the need for this kind of gambling rehabilitation and is very appreciative of the church's ministry to problem gamblers.

Other Christian organizations focus on ministries to taxi-drivers, construction laborers, and other grass-roots groups. Although Hong Kong is an affluent, world-class city, these groups make up a considerable portion of society and they are the most difficult to reach in part because of their often long or erratic work schedules but also because of their more traditional Chinese mindset. Despite Hong Kong's openness to more western ideas, these groups see Christianity as a "western religion" and cling to their traditional beliefs and superstitions. Often their first response to Christianity is, "What can Jesus do for me?" Christianity in Hong Kong is also involved in other social concerns such as caring for the environment, workers' rights, elderly care, and social legislation for the betterment of Hong Kong. 

Real estate in Hong Kong is very expensive and rents are high so finding affordable meeting space is a real challenge for many churches. Those denominations that came to Hong Kong early (before the 1960s) had the advantage of purchasing a property at affordable prices and so were able to build their own church buildings. However, smaller denominations have struggled to find adequate space.  In the last decade or two, many have rented or purchased space in factory high-rise buildings. 

The importance of Christian para-church organizations cannot be underestimated. Hong Kong, along with Singapore and Taiwan, is one of the three hubs of Chinese Christian book publishing, and writing of all types of tracts and Sunday school materials, as well as video production. The Media Evangelism Limited (影音使团) organization produces many short Christian testimony videos as well as training videos and longer Christian movies. These are produced for the local churches and Christians as well as materials using simplified Chinese characters for the Chinese mainland.  Until recently, many churches and Christian organizations have had connections with Christian groups and house churches on the mainland.  

There are several indigenous mission agencies that send Hong Kong Christians to work both with overseas Chinese churches and fellowships in Europe, Latin America, Africa, other parts of Asia. A few agencies also send missionaries to work cross-culturally as business people or teachers, especially in areas such as the Middle East or Central Asia, places where westerners are not as welcome. Hong Kong churches also see Macau as significant in their efforts at preaching the Gospel to "ends of the earth" as commanded by Jesus in Matthew 28. Many Hong Kong churches use Macau as a place for short-term mission trips, in part of because of the similarity in language (both places use Cantonese as the language of the people) but also because of the Macau church's welcoming of these groups in helping the church there.

Hong Kong has several large denominational seminaries offering training for clergy, some up to the Ph.D. level. Many large churches also have their own in-house training programs including some that prepare their students for ministry. Because Hong Kong is the base for some ministries who focus on China, those who eventually become active in China can also receive training in Mandarin Chinese.   

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