How To Count The Number Of Christians In China

Questions And Answers

There is a broad international controversy about the number of Protestant Christians in China. In an interview with former editor Claudia Währisch-Oblau, ANS tries to answer some of the questions most often asked below:

In many publications one can read that there are at least 65 million Protestant Christians in China, perhaps more. Is this figure accurate?

No, I don't think so. We have been working on statistics of the Protestant church in China for seven years and we do not find evidence of such large numbers. Our own statistics, updated this year, give a lower figure of around 9.8 million and a higher figure of around 13.5 million Protestant Christians. We provide lower and higher figures because we get different figures from various sources. Most of these figures, especially the higher ones, are estimates, some no better than informed guesses.

Where does the figure "65 million" come from?

This figure was originally published by the Chinese Church Research Centre (CCRC) in Hongkong. According to CCRC, it is based on a secret Chinese government report on the growth of Protestant Christianity within the country. CCRC has never published a copy of this document, and there has been no independent confirmation of its existence.

The statistics you publish only count Christians in the "registered churches". But aren't there millions of evangelicals meeting in "underground house churches"?

This question needs a longer answer, with some clarification of terms first:

1. Government registration for places of worship only became compulsory under the "Regulations Concerning Places Of Religious Worship", which were passed in January 1994. Prior to this, government registration of churches existed in only a few parts of China. The registration process under the new law has started slowly, therefore there are many congregations that are still not registered with the government, even though they are part of the China Christian Council (CCC) network.

2. The China Christian Council and provincial and local Christian Councils see themselves as an umbrella and support organization for all Protestant congregations in China. They organize the training of lay leaders and pastoral workers, the printing and distribution of the Bible and Christian literature, and help congregations in their dealings with local governments. In some areas, though, there are tensions between local churches and the local Christian Council, and some local churches prefer to remain separate from the local CC. But in most places, congregations, whether in or outside of the local CC network, know of one another. To speak of secret "underground" churches in China is inaccurate: Even those called "underground churches" in foreign press reports ususally function openly.

3. The vast majority of all Christians in China could be called "evangelical", including provincial and national church leaders, even if they prefer not to use this label themselves.

4. Most of the congregations organized under the Christian Councils on different levels are meeting in homes or meeting points. The CCC counts only about 8,000 churches in China, but tens of thousands of meeting points which may be private homes or simple halls where believers gather for worship.

To answer the question now: In our estimates we include all Christians in China, whether they worship in churches or homes, whether their congregations are part of a Christian Council or not. (The CCC's goal is to protect the rights of all Christian groups in China to practise their faith freely, including their right not to participate in the Three-Self Movement.) But as the large majority of congregations do not have membership lists - they aren't necessary for registration with the government - all figures can only be estimates.

Finally: Who should be counted as a Chinese Christian? Due to the lack of ordained pastors, in many rural areas less than 50% of the regular churchgoers are baptized. Should those who have not been baptized be counted? Similarly, there are many groups who use the name Christian but have limited understanding of the Christian faith, such as those who have only heard that prayer in the name of Jesus heals the sick. Should they be counted as Christians, or should one wait until they have a better knowledge of what Christian faith entails? Such problems of definition mean that any statistics must be used with care.

Don't the Provincial Christian Councils deliberately give very low numbers of Christians, because they are afraid of trouble with the government?

The Christian Councils certainly tend to make conservative estimates. Why should they be interested in inflating their figures? On the other hand, I suspect that foreign groups smuggling Bibles into China or organizing radio broadcasts tend to give rather high figures to prove the necessity of their work.

Haven't churches in China grown enormously over the last few decades?

Yes, of course. Just one example: According to the Religious Affairs Bureau of Jiangsu Province, the number of Christians in the province increased as follows:


In Jiangsu, the number of Christians has grown sevenfold in just ten years! But these figures are not representative for the whole of China. Even within Jiangsu, the growth of Christianity has been uneven. Similarly, while churches are growing fast in provinces such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui and Henan, there is much less or even no church growth in other areas.

Researchers agree that there were less than 1 million Christians in China in 1949, and that serious church growth did not start until the 1970s. To assume that the church in China has grown not tenfold, but sixty-fold in the last 50 years, seems rather fantastic. There has been no statistical proof for such a claim, not even a provincial breakdown by those who propagate such large figures. I believe that while our range of figures may be on the conservative side by as much as 50% in some cases, our figures give an order of magnitude that comes quite close to the truth.

September 1997