Observation, Thoughts on Pressures for the Future Growth of Christianity

A church.
A church.
By CCD contributor: Li DaonanNovember 6th, 2020

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, Christianity in the country developed rapidly. The numbers of believers and churches increased greatly. This growth was mainly concentrated in the 1980s and 1990s. The number of converts increased faster than all other periods in history. In 2007, some scholars estimated that there were 60 or 70 million Christians in China.

In a short period of 20 or 30 years, the sharply increasing number of Christians was mainly because of the following reasons.

First, after reform and opening up, society underwent a drastic transformation, bringing sharp changes to the existing social structure. This transformation was not only political and economic but also cultural and rural-based. This transformation was not in tune with people's ideas, and the transformation of cultural and psychological ideas has been obviously slower than the transformation of social structure. In the face of this transformation, people are psychologically uncomfortable and anxious, thus increasing their "uncertainty" and anxiety about the future. People need to find an unchangeable and controllable safe area, which can only exist in religion. This is the inherent demand for Christian growth under the background of social transformation.

Secondly, the lack of balance in religious belief in China provides opportunities for Christianity. After the founding of the People's Republic of China, folk religions were almost wiped out, leaving only Christianity as a viable option. Therefore, Christianity hardly met any competition in the vast rural areas of China.

Thirdly, the original ethical norms and interpersonal relationships in rural areas were destroyed in the social movements of the opening up. For instance, original human ties were gradually replaced by economic demands, thus exposing individuals to society. At this time, people sought stability from Christianity to alleviate the discomfort caused by the collapse of the original order brought about by social changes.

Fourth, the lack of a rural social security safety net exposes individual farmers to greater physical risks. People turned to religion when they were sick or had serious illnesses, leading to the conversion of many. Some scholars have found that there is a correlation between Christian growth and the lack of a social security system.

The fifth is the demand of public culture. The lack of rural public culture draws farmers to new culture, entertainment, and public interaction that is provided by Christianity. Christianity became one of the few institutions providing entertainment in rural areas. The church choir and religious festivals were rare entertainment choices for people living in rural areas during a time when television and other media were not common or were even scarce.

Sixth, from the perspective of Christian doctrine itself, after Christianity entered China, it quickly adjusted its own structure and content, and gradually became a folk religion. It changed from emphasizing social service and social witness to emphasizing miracles and wonders, treating diseases and casting out demons, and gradually changed from an anti-superstitious rational religion to a local superstitious religion. For Christianity, which lacks religion and has few conflicts with local folk religions, it has become a choice without obstacles.

Seventh, from a macro policy point of view, the country's policy of religious freedom will not create policy obstacles for the development of Christianity and people becoming Christian.

It is for the above reasons that the growth of Christianity made a leap forward. However, from the perspective of motivations for conversion, most people who converted to Christianity were driven by their needs. These needs include a social security safety net, cultural opportunities and entertainment, a sense of belonging, and treating diseases, so the conversion for this purpose can only be produced in a specific context.

Secondly, conversion through ones social network is minimal. Perhaps Wenzhou is a remarkable and unique case. The area is a center for finance and local economic development, so the conversion of Christians in Wenzhou was also needs-driven.

The development of Christianity in the 1980s and 1990s was not driven by conversion through family. Most Christians' conversion is obviously needs-driven not because of the environment. Of course, becoming a Christian through family influence still exists, but the proportion of it is too small and does not have a significant impact on the overall growth of Christianity.

After passing through a wavy pattern, the wheel of history began to move towards another road in its own direction. Today's society, as a result of reform and opening-up, can be felt as different from that of the 1980s and 1990s.

With the acceleration of urbanization, the rural population is gradually shifting to cities, and there are many left-behind elderly people and children in rural areas. S the development of the church is under great pressure in rural areas. The lack of young people who represent fresh blood makes the church stagnate. The church has become boring and has decreased in numbers.

On the other hand, the integrated social security in urban and rural areas ensures that the rural population is no longer exposed to previous risks and thus no longer needs to rely on the church. The Church gradually has lost its attractiveness and does not have the advantage of replacing the government’s system of social security.

Thirdly, as other forms of entertainment have become more popular, the countryside is no longer a desert for cultural entertainment, and Christianity has lost its uniqueness in providing cultural entertainment. The entertainment value of Christianity is obviously inferior to secular culture because it is too serious and rigid.

Fourth, more importantly, social relations in rural areas have been rebuilt and the rural economy has greatly improved. With the improvement of the economy, farmers are more capable of dealing with interpersonal interactions. Therefore, the stable community function provided by Christianity gradually loses its uniqueness.

However, for rural areas, the background for the rapid development of Christianity in the 1980s and 1990s no longer exists. Only individual conversions are likely to be the case and it is rare to see a large tide of group conversion again. So are things better in the city?

Obviously so. Looking back at the development of Christianity in the past 40 years, its growth has been primarily in rural areas. In the book Chinese Rural Churches since Reform and Opening-up (Hong Kong Jiandao Publishing House, 1999), Dr. Liang Jialin, a Hong Kong scholar, thinks that rural Christianity is the mainstream of Chinese Christianity.

Obviously, cities are superior to rural areas in social security, recreational life, social system, and structure. Especially after the reform and opening up, priority was given to the development of cities, and construction in urban areas matured. In this context, cities do not have the same background as rural areas, so Christianity has not been the primary place where Christianity has grown and will not be in the future either.

Today, when we see the prosperity of urban churches, we mistakenly think that this provides a picture of the rise of urban churches. However, when we carefully examine these urban churches, we will find that they are still the same rural churches mentioned by Dr. Liang Jialin. They are the same rural churches that moved to cities along with the migrant workers. Churches dominated by urban citizens, intellectuals, and professionally skilled workers are rare and cannot be regarded as the mainstream of Christianity in China.

Today, the development of Christianity no longer has the background, social setting, and public service that it had in the past 80' s and 90' s, which made Christianity stagnant at the folk religious level no longer have advantages. In the past, with the development of social security, culture and public services, there was not the same number of conversions because Christianity no longer provided the advantages that it had in the past.

Looking at today's Christianity as a whole, it is still satisfying to see what was achieved in the 1980s and 1990s without much change in doctrine and theology, and without thinking about the future of its development. It is immersed in the fantasy of what it once was, and cannot face the challenges brought by the changes in the current environment.

If Christianity continues to be satisfied with the past and does not dare to face the challenges brought by the present world to the growth of Christianity, then Christianity can only gradually decline and shrink and inevitably be marginalized.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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