I came across a fascinating article the other day in the UK Daily Telegraph newspaper that I thought that I would share with you. In this article, the claim is made that soon China will be the largest Christian country in the world. That is, the country with the largest number of Christians:
“China’s Protestant community, which had just one million members in 1949, has already overtaken those of countries more commonly associated with an evangelical boom. In 2010 there were more than 58 million Protestants in China compared to 40 million in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa, according to the Pew Research Centre’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. Prof Yang [professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule], a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025…By 2030, China’s total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted.”
Apparently there are now more Chinese attending Sunday services than do Christians across the whole of Europe. For an avowedly atheist, communist country that is an incredible fact. But, as can be imagined, this does not mean that the Chinese government is quiescent. Many within the Chinese Communist Party worry that the religious changes in China will shape the political landscape and will have an impact on the Communist Party’s grip on power as people switch allegiance from it to a higher power. Consequentially, there is a close watch kept on churchgoers, and preachers are monitored to ensure that what they preach does not diverge from what is acceptable to the Party. For example, in a creepy Orwellian detail, the article mentions that in Luishi church (the largest mega-church in China) there is a closed circuit television camera that “hangs from the ceiling, directly in front of the lectern”.
One can see where the nervousness of the Party comes from in incidents such as this from last month when:
“…thousands flocked to defend a church in Wenzhou, a city known as the “Jerusalem of the East”, after government threats to demolish it. Faced with the congregation’s very public show of resistance, officials appear to have backed away from their plans, negotiating a compromise with church leaders.”
Not surprisingly, many Christians choose to worship underground, trying to escape the prying eyes of the party.
“Among China’s Protestants are also many millions who worship at illegal underground “house churches”, which hold unsupervised services – often in people’s homes… Such churches are mostly behind China’s embryonic missionary movement – a reversal of roles after the country was for centuries the target of foreign missionaries. Now it is starting to send its own missionaries abroad, notably into North Korea, in search of souls.”
A similar split between the official and unofficial exists in the Catholic Church in China as well. There is the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association which is approved by the state but does not recognise the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. Clergy who resist the CPCA and remain faithful to the primacy of the See of Rome have been subject to imprisonment, torture and even martyrdom over the last few decades.
Of course Christianity and Communism are incompatible – one either accepts the Party or God as the summum bonum. One cannot have both. In the clash between the Chinese Communist Party and Christianity, only one will survive (to have an educated guess at which one, have a look at the life of St John Paul II.) Unfortunately though, I do not think that the Party will go down without a fight. It seems likely that there will be many more martyrs for Christianity in the years ahead in China and more opportunities for Tertullian to be proved correct when he said that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”.
I am thankful to live in a country that, despite all its defects, allows people to worship without spying on what is being said or torturing me for my beliefs. (We can argue about the side-lining of religious thought from the public sphere in many Western countries, but we are lucky compared to Chinese Christians!) Perhaps the next time I “can’t be bothered” to duck into the nearest Church or chapel for a minute or two I should remember those places in the world where believers do not share the luxury I take for granted. Including the country that is likely to become the largest Christian nation in the world!