THE statistics in the Chinese government’s recent White Paper on Religious Freedom suggest that more Christians meet in China on a given Sunday than in the whole of Western Europe. Its massaged figures are likely to underestimate substantially the actual numbers of Chinese Christians.
Beneath the numbers, the character of Chinese Christianity is also changing rapidly. Once predominantly rural and elderly, Chinese Christians are now most often city-dwellers and represent all generations. Brent Fulton’s introduction to the context and challenges faced by China’s urban Christians, therefore, brings valuable insights into the fast-changing face of global Christianity today.
Fulton’s work confirms that the main challenge for today’s Chinese Christians is no longer political persecution but cultural conformity. Believers rarely face external pressure to renounce their faith unless they are members of the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese military. But finding an authentic expression of Christianity in Chinese urban culture presents new challenges, particularly as freedom of religious association remains restricted. Rapid economic growth, environmental degradation, and social change have also led to increasing consumerism and individualism.
Fulton is especially aware of the changing social matrix that confronts Chinese Christians. All urban Chinese below the age of 40 have been shaped by growing up as only children during the nation’s one-child policy. Most now have unprecedented access to global culture through the internet. Many are acutely aware of the environmental cost of China’s rapid development. Few have had any Christian role-models in shaping their attitudes towards raising their own child or caring for ageing parents and grandparents. Churches are having to address and provide Christian guidance on these issues for the first time.
There are some serious holes in Fulton’s short account. He largely ignores the experience and adaptation of China’s registered churches. These often have prominent city-centre locations and a longer experience of navigating the changing urban landscape than their “underground” counterparts have. While he commendably allows Chinese Christians to speak in their own words, he sometimes accepts their assessments at face value and without question. Nevertheless, this study presents a valuable introduction for anyone interested in an essential part of global Christian life today.
The Revd Lawrence Braschi is assistant curate of St Andrew’s, Plymouth, and formerly director of the China Desk at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.
China’s Urban Christians: A light that cannot be hidden
Lutterworth Press £15