Like a Grain of Mustard Seed: The Chinese Church Today

Both BBC News and Aljazeera have written recently about the tremendous growth and increasing influence of the evangelical church in China. The news is no surprise, especially to those who have been observing and writing about it for a while; but the fact that it is making headlines internationally is a good reminder to the global church of our ongoing need to know the welfare of our own Body.

According to The Lausanne Movement’s recent analysis of five separate sources, the number of Christians in China (Protestant and Catholic) is somewhere around 100 million. Compare this to the estimated 2.3 million in 1920, and marvel at what the Lord has done.

Among today’s 100 million Chinese Christians, approximately 80% are Protestants. Within this group there are two primary movements: those in the government-registered “Three-Self” church, and those in the unofficial, often underground, house church.

The Chinese “Three-Self” Church

The Three-Self church refers to the government-approved organization of Protestant churches who, after the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, sought to remove themselves from any foreign influence by becoming self-governed, self-supported, and self-propagating.

Being government sanctioned has undoubtedly limited the Three-Self church’s message and mission in the past. But in recent years these limitations have eased significantly so that the whole gospel can be heard in many of the registered churches across China today.

It is at least worth noting that just last year the largest registered church in China hosted an event with Luis Palau, about which he stated, “I have had no restrictions placed on me concerning my message . . . . of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion, and his resurrection.” In 2008 Franklin Graham spoke at this same church, and then at the second largest registered church the following year, each time presenting a clear gospel message.

The size of the Three-Self church, according to their website’s June update, is 23 million.

The “House Church” Movement

The size of the Chinese house church is more difficult to determine, because house church believers are not included in official statistics and many congregations remain “underground.” Nevertheless, as indicated in the analysis above, it is believed to be significantly larger than any other segment of Christianity in China, approximately 60 million strong.

House churches began in the early 1950s among Christians who did not want to submit their worship to government supervision. This required them to meet secretly, usually in a house, thus giving them the designation “house churches.” The movement has seen substantial growth since that time, particularly in the countryside. However, in recent years, it has spread to China’s cities, so that now there is even talk of a specific “urban house church movement.” Some of these urban house church leaders and congregations have even made known their existence and their desire to worship publicly.

Do Good to Everyone, Especially the Church

Whether official or unofficial, the Body of Christ in China is already very large and, by all appearances, growing larger. Given the command to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), Christians throughout the world are due to ask again, if not for the first time, “How can we serve our Chinese brothers and sisters?”