The Emergence of Legal Christian Publishing in China

Article by

Professor, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Banner of Truth Magazine. Reprinted here by permission.

One of the more remarkable facts about the history of the church is that some of its most significant events were barely noticed at the time of their occurrence. Examples are not hard to find. In the early church, for instance, the attention of the most powerful inhabitants of the Roman Empire was focused on the political and military accomplishments of their day and they gave scant attention to the persecuted band of men called “apostles.” Yet two thousand years later it is clear that, by the grace of God, those twelve men had a far more powerful impact than anything the Roman Empire ever accomplished. Again, during the last eight years of Jonathan Edward’s life (1750–58), after he had been expelled from his church by a congregational vote, he labored in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which at the time was a lonely Indian outpost on the western frontier. Yet it was in Stockbridge that Edwards wrote some of the most important works in the history of the church. Yet again, the most remarkable preacher of the Victorian era, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–92), was converted in 1850, on a snowy morning, in a small Primitive Methodist chapel with only a handful of people in attendance. To this day, only God knows the name of the man who preached that bleak Sunday morning.

It was from these seemingly small, insignificant events that God worked good in mighty ways for untold millions in the generations to come. This should not surprise us. Did not Jesus say that the Kingdom of God starts out small—like a mustard seed—and over time becomes a tree of great and lasting significance (Luke 13:18–19)?

Recently, another event has occurred that has gone almost completely unnoticed within the Christian community but has the potential of becoming a major milestone in the history of the church. About the year 2003 it became possible to legally publish some forms of Christian literature in the People’s Republic of China. Ten years ago, legal Christian publishing was barely on the radar screen, but today the situation is far different. The demographic and publishing statistics are staggering:

  • In the year 1800, 90% of the Christians in the world lived in North America and Europe. Today, about 60% of Christians live in the so-called “two-thirds world” (Africa, Asia, the Middle East). However, Christian publishing in general, and Reformed publishing in particular, has made a weak transition at best to these new regions. The center of gravity for Reformed publishing is still the English-speaking world.
  • The church in China is 80 to 100 million in size and continues to grow at a rapid rate.
  • China’s adult literacy rate, between 2003 and 2008, is reckoned to stand at 93%.
  • There are 167,000 bookstores in China.
  • 6.3 billion domestically-published books were sold in China in 2007.
  • On average, the Chinese read 5 books a year and 1.7 magazines and 7.4 newspapers per month.
  • Over the past ten years, more than 200 Christian bookstores have opened throughout China.
  • Currently, the total number of Christian books in legal circulation in China is approximately 600, using a broad definition of “Christian.” About 50 to 60 new titles are being added each year.
  • Of that 600, only about 25 or 30 have a Reformed theme.
  • Many of the 600 titles now in print were published by one of the nine China-based Christian publishers that have emerged in the past ten years.

Yet, as amazing as these developments are, they have gone largely unnoticed in the Christian community around the world! Often, the general perception is that Christian publishing of any sort inside China is impossible and thus it is still necessary to smuggle Bibles and Christian literature into the country.  The reality, however, is that the situation today with regard to publishing is far different from even just ten years ago. To be sure, the door is not completely open and significant challenges do remain, but remarkable things can be done by working with the Chinese publishing houses.

It needs to be understood that books with foreign ISBN numbers cannot be published or distributed legally in China. However, a book with a Beijing issued International Standard Book Number (ISBN) can be sold to anyone, anywhere, in any quantity in China, without any fear of official reprisal. While this movement is still small in size, thirty or forty years down the road it has the potential of being a major milestone in the history of the church. We now have the opportunity to provide legal Christian resources in significant numbers to what may be the largest and fastest growing church in the world, but a church that currently exists in one of the biggest Christian literature publishing vacuums in the world. 

These changes have enormous implications for the future of the church in China and around the world. What would happen if an additional two or three hundred Reformed titles were added to the six hundred legally published books now in print? Adding this many titles would increase the total number of Christian books in print by approximately 33% to 50%.

A longstanding point of frustration within the church in China is the lack of quality Christian resources. Pastors, lay leaders, seminary teachers and students, and foreign missionaries have few books for evangelistic or discipleship purposes. One of the consequences is that the church tends to be “a mile wide and one inch deep,” leading to a theologically illiterate church plagued with heresies and immature believers. However, now it is possible to introduce God-honoring books in China that will provide valuable tools for local believers. Church history has shown that God-glorifying church growth often walks hand-in-hand with robust Christian publishing (think of the invention of the printing press and its influence on the Protestant Reformation).

Most amazing of all is that in comparison with traditional evangelical publishers, Reformed publishers have a significant advantage when publishing in China. Currently, the Chinese publishing houses—all under government oversight—tend to give approval more frequently to certain genres of Christian books than to others. The books most often approved are biographies, old books with historical value (Pilgrim’s Progress, Institutes of the Christian Religion, e.g.), and marriage and family books. The Reformed community will immediately see the significance of this. How many biographies and old historical books does the Banner of Truth have? How many does the Evangelical Press have? For the past thirty to forty years, Reformed publishers have been publishing these books in great numbers which gives them a very unique advantage in filling the publishing vacuum in China. We can be certain that the vacuum will be filled with something. The key question is: What will fill that vacuum? The cults are not without presence in China.

Over the past two to three years, several Reformed publishing companies have become aware of this opportunity and a few have been exploring various publishing options. Two have taken specific steps to legally publish their books. The most notable example is the Banner of Truth. In 2009, Banner signed a multi-book publishing contract to translate and publish their books in China. The biggest challenge for the Truth and the other companies is a lack of funding. While the authors are not privy to the financial details of each company it is clear that their financial resources are very limited. One of the authors has personally approached several Reformed publishers on more than one occasion and when they were informed of the opportunity in China this author repeatedly received the same reply: “We love what is going on in China. We want to be involved but we just do not have the money.” The result is that the number of contracts signed and the number of books entering circulation is occurring at a snail’s pace. At the same time, other evangelical publishers, some with significant financial resources from the sale of top-selling fiction and self-help titles, have been able to move ahead far more rapidly in China. In fact, they have been the main driving force behind the formation of the initial foundation of Christian publishing in China. This explains why, of the approximately six hundred titles now in circulation, only about twenty-five or thirty are Reformed.

The good news is that several publishers, such as Banner of Truth, Evangelical Press, and Solid Ground Christian Books each have at least 25 books that will likely pass government censorship in China (i.e. receive a Beijing issued ISBN). Other publishers such as Reformation Heritage Books, Shepherd Press, Inter Varsity Press (UK), P&R, and others, all have titles that will also likely pass censorship. Publishing contracts for these books could be signed tomorrow if funding were available.

For approximately $1 million USD, fifty to sixty Reformed titles can be translated and published in China. To some, this might sound like a very large amount of money, but when compared to what US churches are spending on building and renovation projects, this is actually a very modest figure. According to the U. S. Census Bureau: “Churches in the United States spent about $7 billion on church buildings in 2009.” One to two million dollar building projects are quite common. However, which is more strategic for the fulfillment of the Great Commission and the strengthening of the church worldwide: spending $1 million dollars building a new church gymnasium or Sunday School wing? Or, using that same million dollars to publish fifty to sixty books in a region that has one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the world, that exists in one of the biggest publishing vacuums of Christian books in the world?

The need of the hour is for men and women in the Reformed community to think globally, to think critically and make ministry and financial decisions in light of Scripture and the rapidly changing needs of the church worldwide. Christian publishing in China is still very much in its infancy and publishing quality titles now, while the number of legally published books is still quite low, can have an enormous impact on the future direction of the Chinese church. However, if we sit still and do nothing, the non-Reformed titles—which now largely define the market—will continue to shape the future of the church in China. What direction Christian publishing in China ultimately takes remains to be seen. Either way, we can be sure that it will have a decisive impact of some sort in the days to come.

Happily, concerned Christians around the world can get involved. In the past year, a new opportunity has emerged to help fill the publishing vacuum in China (which has 501(c)3 tax exempt status in the US):  The Robert Morrison Project.  Established in 2009, the Robert Morrison Project specifically aims to legally publish Reformed literature in China. Over the next five to ten years their goal is to publish 50 titles in China and the first 22 are all from the Banner of Truth Trust. Individuals and churches may sponsor the publication of specific titles. To learn more about this opportunity please visit their website or contact them by email.

is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.