Voice: Chinese Churches Should Continue Vibrant Urban Church Planting

The outer view of the Suzhou Shishan Church
The outer view of the Suzhou Shishan Church (photo: Suzhou Municipal CC&TSPM)
By Ruth WangNovember 2nd, 2023

“Is Christianity still growing in China, or has it begun to decline or even shrink?”

This has been one of the most talked-about topics at home and abroad over the past decade. Before that, when Christianity was at its prime, the hot topic was: how many Christians are there in China?

However, in 2023, Pew Research Center, one of the most authoritative religious think tanks in the world, made a comprehensive assessment of China’s religious beliefs, including Christianity, and came to the conclusion that since 2010, the development of Christianity in the country has stabilized and even started to stagnate.

In recent years, many Chinese pastors have a common feeling that, compared with the era from the 1980s to the 2010s, the growth of the church and the fervor of the followers are really not as good as before. In 2022, I heard a domestic scholar who shared that various data in the past few years show that the number growth of Christians in China is not as good as that of some other religions such as Buddhism, and Christianity is actually in a low state.

After two revivals, have the churches in China come to a bottleneck period or a trough period?

Looking back on the development history of Christianity in China since the reform and opening-up, the most striking thing was the two historical periods: the rural revival from the late 1970s to the 1990s and the rise of urban churches in the last decade around 2000. The background of the former was the re-implementation of the policy of religious freedom and the fact that most of China’s population was still distributed in rural areas, while the background of the latter was closely related to the vigorous urbanization process that China started with its entry into the WTO.

Although these two historical periods took place in different geographical locations, they both showed vitality. The common features were the establishment of many churches and the growth of many believers. According to an analysis of Christianity's rapid growth following reform and opening up in China in Renmin University's Report on Religious Investigation in China (2015), "Among the five major religions, Christianity is the one that adapts best to the social environment of contemporary China, which may be the fundamental reason for the rapid development of Christianity in the past 30 years."

It can be said that compared with the revival of Christianity in China mentioned above, it is true that the current decade  are an obvious trough, and the situation may continue in the next few years because the current urban churches are obviously growing weaker. It is not uncommon for pastors to give up. Many pastors conclude that the current state of churches in China is the “bottleneck period”.

How can the church revive and continue its vitality?

Of course, everything will go through different stages, such as novice, growth, climax, maturity, stability, and decline. Can vitality succeed after the primitive growth of Christianity in China seen in the past decades? Or how can vitality be renewed and sustained in the new era? This is the core issue that churches in China need to address urgently.

At present, how to develop and mature the church in China more healthily is the focus of many pastors, thus, different people hold different perspectives. For instance, some people point out that we should attach importance to the construction of the church system; others devote themselves to local theological research and education; some emphasize that joining in universal missionary work can be the driving force; and some begin to train and teach laymen. Some researchers think that the revival of rural and urban churches in China is closely related to the large population flow. Therefore, the population of China begins to flow back to new small and medium-sized cities or other urban areas. Others think that since the community population is increasingly condensed, whether a new round of community revival and the establishment of community-based churches are needed in the future should be considered.

However, I think that the urbanization process in China is still going on, but it is only after the period of rapid development that it begins to enter the period of adjustment and optimization, and the population of China will still flow and continue to increase in the cities for a long time to come. Therefore, how to continue the energetic planting and expansion in the urban agglomeration in the process of modernization is one of the core tasks of Christianity in China at present.

Judging from the development of Christianity in many Asian countries and regions, it often happens in the process of urbanization. If it is not cultivated and developed well during this period, the situation will basically solidify when the urbanization process ends in the future.

For example, from 1972 to 1986, the proportion of Christians increased from 10% to 25% in the process of urbanization in South Korea, while the increase in the proportion of Christians has not changed much in the following 40 years. In addition, although Christianity is not a traditional and mainstream religion in Singapore in Southeast Asia, it showed a rapid growth trend in the 30 years from 1980 to 2010, with the proportion reaching 20.1% from 10.9% (6.3% for Protestantism and 4.6% for Catholicism), while among the nearly 570,000 Christians in 2010, 470,000 were Chinese.

Japan's case is the opposite. In the process of post-WWII reconstruction, the population of Christians in Japan increased greatly during the five years from 1947 to 1952, and the number of believers reached 420,000, accounting for 0.5% of the 80 million populations at the time. Subsequently, with the rapid economic take-off and urbanization, Japan became rich rapidly, but the churches were not established in proportion, which has made Japan the first country in Asia to achieve modernization but with the smallest proportion of Christians in the world.

Over the years, I have learned from pastors in different parts of China that they all hold one common opinion: evangelism now is much more difficult than it was more than 10 or 20 years ago. One of the crucial reasons is that it will be more difficult for people to accept the gospel in a rich modern society.

Although now is a bottleneck or trough period, Chinese churches need to continue to tirelessly plant new and lively urban churches and make expansions in at least five to ten years in the future.

In fact, not only in China but also in Europe, where urbanization has been completed and secularism is prevalent, the local evangelical churches still believe that their primary task at present is to plant churches.

Why is it so important to plant churches in cities?

I recently read the book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, which is regarded as Timothy Keller’s masterpiece. The book talks about the urban church planting movement, which seems enlightening to me. From various angles, Keller elaborates on the multiple and far-reaching significance of urban planting.

Different from the current situation in China, the main situation in Europe and America is that there are many existing churches, but most of them are old and declining, and the pews are getting emptier. Therefore, many people think that the urgent task is not to build new churches but to “strengthen existing churches, fill them first, and then go out to explore more”. However, Keller’s response to these views is: “The main way to increase the number of believers in a city is not through church revival.”

Keller mentions that after World War I, especially in the mainstream Protestant churches, the number of churches planted dropped sharply. The old churches strongly resisted the invasion of the original community by any new churches. However, in the first one or two decades of its establishment, the new church achieved remarkable results in evangelizing, and their scale reached its peak before they started to be even or slowly declining. The competition that the new church brought at this time made the old church uneasy, which became the biggest obstacle to the development of the new church in the community. As a result, the mainstream church has obviously declined in the past twenty or thirty years.

A similar situation is actually happening in some cities in the old evangelical areas of China. I once visited a city in the south where the gospel began to flourish in the late 1970s. Some existing traditional churches in the area have a history of about 40 years. Not only was the overall environment prosperous, but new churches were born every ten or five years. Many new models and experiments were tried, which was seldom the case in many cities. However, a local pastor said in a helpless manner and regretted that the real situation is that at least 70% to 80% of churches are idle. Especially traditional churches of mid-aged membership are unable to attract young people and declined badly. Many local churches that used to accommodate thousands of people often embraces less than 78% attendance on Sundays. Thankfully, at least a wave of new church trends can stimulate traditional churches.

How do you meet the needs of your city?

“How many churches does your city need?” Keller asks in the book. His answer is that because many churches are declining or losing their vitality, at least one moderate church planting growth is needed to keep the Christian body in a city from declining continuously, and if the Christian body in the whole city is to keep growing, there must be an active church planting movement—every existing church needs to establish 10 to 20 new churches.

Moreover, the core is how we meet the needs of people around us. Pastor Timothy Keller and Rick Warren are both outstanding in the practice of urban church planting in this era. Both church planters mention that the most important people to attract when planting churches and establishing new churches in cities are the young generation and new residents, which is also consistent with the reality of the process of urbanization in China.

In the process of church planting, the key matter is that church planters themselves need to change their mentality—get rid of the conception of turf, clique, internal fight, sectarian strife, or taking the gospel as a tool for “my own use only”. A vision of God’s kingdom is needed.

In this process, it is natural to encounter such realities and needs, or the church has to continue to explore transformations while planting. Whether it is the trend of healthy churches rising in the past 10 years or the discussion of the missional church that just sprouted on the mainland of China, these are all manifestations.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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