The Current State of Christianity in China: The Real Issue

Robert P. Menzies

According to the Pew Research Center, after a period of rapid growth “China’s Christian population appears to have leveled off.”[1] The numbers in the recent Pew survey are undoubtedly conservative because they come from government sources.  These sources do not appear to make a serious effort to count the Christians who worship outside the state-sanctioned TSPM churches (i.e., those in the unregistered “house church” movement). Since house church Christians often meet in more clandestine fashion (that is, in “underground” churches) and typically do not wish to identify openly as believers due to rampant discrimination and the threat of persecution, it is almost impossible to obtain accurate information concerning the size of this significant group of Christians. The level of difficultly in assessing the number of house church Christians actually rises when the Chinese government implements more restrictive policies. This is currently the case since new, more oppressive laws have been enacted since 2018. So, the key question today that we must ask and that is almost impossible for outside observers to answer is this: Does the recent data simply suggest that Chinese followers of Jesus are now more reluctant to openly identify as Christians than they were in the past or does it reflect slower or even stagnant growth in the churches (both registered and unregistered) due to widespread government opposition, discrimination, and, in some cases, persecution?

My own answer to this question is that the current reality in China is probably a mixture of both of these trends. On the one hand, after the relative openness of the “golden age” of the house church movement in China (1995-2015), the more recent intensification of threats, propaganda, and discrimination have had a winnowing effect on the church. The growth of the church has likely slowed in past years (2016 to the present) due to the fact that in today’s China it is much more apparent that one must count the cost of becoming a follower of Christ and attending a church than in the past. It is likely that today fewer Chinese are willing to “take up their cross” and follow Jesus (Mark 8:34). On the other hand, it is almost certain that many followers of Jesus in China today have simply chosen to be less open about their Christian commitment for fear of government reprisal. In other words, many Christians have been driven “underground” over the past few years, especially since the draconian laws of 2018 were enacted. The Pew survey numbers likely reflect this trend too.

Historical Perspective

When we look at these statistics it is helpful to remember that the past record of attempts to track the growth or decline of Christianity in China is not impressive. The dire, doomsday accounts of the annihilation of the church during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) turned out to be incredibly misleading. They missed the mark by a wide margin. It is also helpful to read these statistics against the backdrop of the description of church growth in the book of Acts. In Acts we read that persecution of the church led to its scattering and growth: “those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4, NIV). Persecution tends to encourage the church to recognize its need for and dependence on the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:31). This is in turn leads to further growth.  So, the book of Acts does not present the growth of the church as simply a linear phenomenon, a constantly upward trend. Rather, the record of Acts reveals a cyclical of process of opposition and hardship, followed by Spirit-enabled witness, which in turn leads to growth. The cycle is then repeated, for bold witness produces persecution.

I have often observed this process in China on the micro or local level and would suggest that this is what we see today on the macro-level. With respect to church growth, there are peaks and valley. The peak of 1995-2015 has been followed by a valley of opposition and persecution (2016 to the present). But I believe that, just as in the case of the early church in Acts, the current period of hardship and persecution will ultimately serve to strengthen the church in China. Many have drawn parallels between the repression of the Cultural Revolution and the climate of opposition that the church in China is facing today. As we look back on the Cultural Revolution, we can now see that the seeds of revival were planted during this difficult period.  I believe the same is true today. Yes, the church, in a sense, is being “scattered,” but I believe that this is the prelude to a period of great growth.

The Heart of the Matter

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a political ideology or an agenda for social justice.  It is the message of how we might be reconciled to God and to one another through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. At the heart of the gospel is the declaration that Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior of the world.  There is only one Lord and one Savior (Acts 2:36; 4:12). This is a message that cannot be co-opted by any political movement or governmental body. 

 Of course, totalitarian governments try to do this very thing. The Sinicization of Christianity, declares the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s five-year plan, “must be guided by the core values of socialism.” Since atheism is a core value of the CCP’s version of socialism, there is a glaring contradiction here. Equally startling are the CCP’s attempts to minimize access to and the influence of the Bible. So, the official five-year plan flatly states, “Contents of the Bible that are compatible with the core values of socialism should be deeply researched in order to write books that are popular and easy-to-understand.” At the same time, in early 2018 the CCP banned major retailers from selling the Bible.[2] It is evident that the CCP wants to co-opt the church and it knows that if it is to be successful in this task, it must alter the church’s message. The message that centers on Jesus, the risen Lord, challenges the CCP’s ultimate authority.

Thankfully, the Chinese church has a rich heritage of ministers who have been willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the gospel. From Wang Mingdao (arrested in 1955) to Wang Yi (arrested in 2018), countless Chinese ministers have not succumbed to intimidation and pressure.  They have remained firm in their call and mandate to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2), irrespective of the cost. I pray that Christians around the world, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, will exhibit similar courage in the face of opposition and the threat of persecution. May we too preach the word boldly (Acts 4:31). As one Chinese friend put it, “In the good times, we should be careful. But when we encounter persecution, we must be fearless.”

It all comes down to how we view the gospel and our mission. Today, I believe the key need, with respect to the gospel message, is three-fold: we need clarity, confidence, and courage. In the midst of post-modern, ahistorical readings of the Bible, we need to proclaim a clear message that centers on the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ (Luke 24:47, 46-49; Rom 1:16). In the midst of rampant relativism, we need confidence that we have been called and empowered to proclaim a message that connects others to the Author of Life (Acts 3:15), for salvation is found in no other name (Acts 4:12). Finally, in the midst of growing persecution, we need courage to respond to the threats around us. Our response will not mimic the methods of this world, rooted as they are in human power. On the contrary, our response will be animated by courage that comes from the Holy Spirit (Luke 12:11-12). It will be a response modeled after that of the apostles, who declared, “We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29), and it will flow from the same kind of passion that compelled Peter and John to bear witness about what they had “seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). That is the heart of a Spirit-empowered witness and I am confident that this heart is alive and well in China today.

My friends in China speak of “Lion-heart faith” (狮子心信心) and “Chicken-heart faith” (鸡心信心). Today, it takes “Lion-heart faith” to be a Christian in China. Although the current numbers might be less impressive than in the past, we should not under-estimate the future impact of the church. Indeed, I believe the Lion-heart faith of the church in China will turn “the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

[1] Conrad Hackett, “China’s Christian population appears to have stopped growing after rising rapidly in the 1980s and ’90s, posted on Dec 12, 2023,, accessed on Jan 10, 2024.

[2] Jackson Wu, “‘Sinicized Christianity’ is Not Christianity,” posted on March 20, 2019,, accessed on Jan 10, 2024.  Both quotes cited in this paragraph are from this source.

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