Reflections on Contextualized Needs, Motivation of Conversions to Christianity

A rural church in China.
A rural church in China.
By CCD contributor: Li DaonanSeptember 10th, 2020

In his book Rural Churches in China since the Reform and Opening, Dr. Leung Ka Lun, former president of Alliance Bible Seminary in Hong Kong, holds that the majority of Christians in China are rural believers, based on the analysis of the data in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, some scholars disagree with this view. For example, Chen Cunfu and Wu Yubo think that the majority of Christians in China are urban residents. They express this opinion in their article Contemporary Rural Christianity in the Process of Urbanization. In urban development in Zhejiang, for example, the rural areas annexed by cities have changed the Christian population which had been dominated by rural areas in the past.

However, I do not agree with Chen and Wu’s statement because, during the urban expansion of coastal areas such as in Zhejiang, some rural areas were merged, bringing about the change of farmers' identity. Yet, the change of identity does not mean the change of their motivation for religious conversion and a change in values and beliefs. Urbanization itself is not only a change of addresses and administrative divisions but also a change of lifestyle and value identity. Moreover, the urbanization process along the coast does not mean that the same is true in the central and western regions. In addition, the samples provided by Chencun Fuwen are mainly Catholic, not Protestant Christians. Therefore, I agree with the assertion in Dr. Liang's book that the majority of Christians are still rural believers.

Scholar Duan Qi,  a researcher at the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, mentioned in her book, Endeavour: The Naturalization of Chinese Christianity, published in 2004, that the proportion of rural believers in Chinese Christianity is over 80%, and the statistical results of Chinese Christian authorities also show that this proportion is over 70%.

Undoubtedly, the majority of Christians in China have always been rural-oriented. In the process of urbanization, with the migrant workers going to work in cities, it has also brought about the transfer of rural Christianity to cities, forming a pattern of rural areas encircling cities. If we divide the area according to where meeting places are today, there is no doubt that urban churches have increased decisively, and their number and scale have developed greatly. However, if we carefully examine these churches, they are still mainly rural churches, most established by migrant workers. The churches, which are dominated by urban citizens, are still not the majority.

When Chinese Christianity looks inward, it often focuses on the number of Christians and the size of the church. How many people there are in a church, how many meeting places there are, and the level of contributions are the main criteria for measuring the success of a Christian church. This is the reason why there has always been a dispute over the total number of Christians.

Only a few churches focus on the motives and ways of conversion, so they cannot effectively analyze the sources of believers and the sustainable development of Christianity.

In overall age and gender structure, most Christians are elderly and women, which has been a concern for a long time. According to the survey data of the social status of Chinese women, conducted by the All-China Women's Federation and the National Bureau of Statistics in 2010, the proportion of elderly people, especially those aged between 65 and 75, is the highest, accounting for more than half of the elderly believers (Du Peng and Wang Wulin, "Research on Religious Belief of the Elderly in China and Influencing Factors", "Population Research", November 2014). The reasons why these elderly believers convert is related to dealing with diseases, and loneliness. Having a disease is the highest motivation for conversion. Every time a disease is part of the picture, the probability of converting to religion will be more than doubled. As people age, their children marry and the number of empty nesters increases, the need for companionship is also one of the main motives for the elderly to convert to a religion.

According to the above data and my personal experience, the main motivation for the conversion is related to felt needs, which has been the main source and channel of Christian development for a long time.

Needs-based conversion can refer to another concept of religious conversion—compensation theory. According to the theory of compensation, people will seek compensation in the religious world for what they lack in the secular world. For instance, a sick person will seek health from a religion and a lonely person will return to religion to seek attention.

I think that the following are the primary needs related to Christian conversion.

One of them is a disease. In the above survey, the first reason for conversion is that I or my family are sick and we are converted. In rural areas, after the reform and opening-up, in order to develop urban industries, an economic policy that subsidized industrial development at the expense of agriculture was implemented. Therefore, under the condition that social insurance and medical insurance did not benefit rural areas, farmers still bear heavy production and education burdens. If a farmer falls ill, this might cause financial ruin for the whole family. Seeking treatment and health in religion has become the main conversion mode.

When I was in junior high school, I attended church gatherings in town with my aunt. All the testimonies I heard every weekend were mainly about being cured from illnesses. At that time, a high school classmate of mine came to my church to seek healing after he suddenly fell mentally ill and all other religions failed to heal.

Secondly, there is the motivation of loneliness. With parents getting older, especially after their children are married, the chances of an empty nest increases, bringing a life crisis in old age. This kind of loneliness will attract the elderly to join and convert in the rural areas where there is little cultural life and old people belong to few social communities.

In addition, with the rise of the tide of migrant workers, rural young people move to work in cities. That makes the elderly even more lonely. In turn the loneliness also brought a Christian growth tide after the millennium.

In the article, "Needs Based Conversion and Acquired Conversion: Christian Conversion in Rural Acquaintance Society", we can see the motivation of daughters-in-law in converting to Christianity in the sample villages investigated in the article. Because of coming from the outside and their alienation from their husbands' families, they are easily persuaded by their neighbors or relatives to accept religious faith.

Thirdly, there is a need for a meaningful cultural and social life. After the disintegration of the collective system, the loss of individual identity in the collective coupled with the lack of public groups and public culture in rural areas brought about the crisis that there is no place for individual identity while Christianity can provide a collective order and collective identity at this time, thus attracting those who have experienced the collective system.

If one can seek health from a church and if the church can give the individual in need a kind of collective care, it can help tide him over the crisis of needs and bring hope to resist the attack of disease. This is also true if one comes to a church to seek comfort out of loneliness and if the church accepts him and brings him a sense of security and belonging. For those who come to a church to seek a personal identity, if the church can strengthen the collective identity in the above three aspects, the church can give care in a collective way according to the different needs of individuals. In this way the church can respond to the needs of believers, thus strengthening the church's sense of identity.

At present, the focus of Christianity is obviously not to respond to the needs of believers but to focus on increasing numbers and the dedication of believers. Based on the two aspects, various churches have ruled across the border guarding the territory and eliminating dissidents.

The church can't effectively respond to the needs of believers, which also brings a crisis in the development of Christianity. On the one hand, believers are lost; on the other hand, with the improvement of social security and the enrichment of rural public life, potential demand groups are diverted, which leads to a slow crisis in the development of Christianity.

-  Translated by Charlie Li

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