A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China
This book “explores how and why this religion is growing at such a rapid rate and also speculates on its future growth. After all, if the religion keeps growing at its current pace, in a decade there will be more Christians in China than in any other country in the world.” (Location 69, Kindle edition; all numbers in notes hereafter indicate the Kindle edition location).
Chapter 1: The New Religious Awakening in China
Despite what appeared to be the near-extinction of religion during the Cultural Revolution, religious faith has been undergoing something of an explosion in the past few decades. Traditional faiths like Buddhism and popular religion (which are in fact hard to distinguish) have made a comeback, but the “rapid expansion of Christianity is something new in Chinese history. Thus it may be more appropriate to call what is going on in China today a religious ‘awakening,’” rather than a revival of traditional religion (93).
The authors support their claims about the expansion of Christianity in China by referring to two very large surveys, backed up by field reports. Strict statistical analyses, conducted according to recognized principles of sociological research, make this book much more authoritative than others before it.
The Decline in “Irreligion”
Two problems have made it difficult to track the real number of religious adherents in China. One is that people may be unwilling to reveal to interviewers that they have religious faith, because of government anti-religious policies. The other, more important one, is that most Chinese “define religion as belonging to an organized religious group, rather than consisting of practices, such as praying in temples, or of belief. Hence, some Chinese say that they believe in Jesus Christ while denying that they are Christians” (135). Recently, however, more and more Chinese have been willing to say that they have a religion.
Practicing Folk Religion: Chinese by the hundreds of millions practice folk religion, the “most basic form” of which “involves ancestral spirits” (150). We can say, therefore, that “traditional Chinese folk religion ‘has revived with great force’” (161).
The Revival of Buddhism: The number of people willing to admit that they are Buddhists has likewise risen, especially since the government has moved to legitimize this traditional faith in a variety of ways, despite its foreign origin.
Islam: Only two percent of China’s population are Muslim, and they live mostly in the border areas, including Inner Mongolia and Tibet. Many of them believe that they are discriminated against by Han Chinese and by the government, and more and more violent attacks against Chinese have been launched in recent years, exacerbating tensions further.
Christianity: By far the fastest growth has taken place among those who identify as Roman Catholic (RC) or Protestant, or who participate in overtly Christian practices. Most probably, the total came to about 60 million in 2007.
Chapter 2: Christian Missions to China: 1860-1950
This chapter recounts the familiar story of Western missions in China since the so-called “unequal treaties” made residence in China and evangelization in all parts of the country legal for foreigners, including missionaries.
The authors treat the usual topics, including early missionary efforts and results; the Taiping Rebellion; the roles of women missionaries; the Boxer Massacres; Christianity and Chinese nationalism; the effect of the Great Depression on missionary sending in the 1930s; and the impact of World War II and the civil war upon missionaries and Christians.
We learn some interesting facts, with supporting statistics, such as the preponderance of American and British missionaries; the high mortality and illness rate among missionaries before 1891; the much greater numbers of Christians in urban and coastal areas than in rural areas in 1918; the devastating effect of liberal theology on the number of missionaries sent out by “mainline” denominations in the twentieth century. ("Without the conviction that they were bringing priceless truths to those in need, the mission spirit quickly dissipated in liberal Protestant circles” 513.)
Chapter 3: Repression and Christian Resistance
After the Communists came to power, they moved to impose control upon religious groups, including Protestants and Roman Catholics. The authors claim that Roman Catholics, because of their loyalty to the Pope, endured much fiercer persecution from the beginning of Communist rule, while the government “tolerated many Protestant groups for a few years” (617). Then came the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), when all religious activities were banned and religious leaders and practitioners were brutally persecuted.
“Ironically, the persecution of Protestants may have been the single most beneficial event for the success of Christianity in China!” (617). The expulsion of missionaries made the church completely indigenous. “Gone too were the American liberal Protestant missionaries who weren’t sure why they had come to China” (617). And – to the authors this is crucial – “given that religious conversion is the result of close interpersonal relations, to deprive a religious movement of a public presence and the capacity to make mass appeals has very little significance” (617).
The rest of the chapter traces the remarkable growth of Protestant Christianity in China since the 1950s, despite repression and sometimes brutal persecution.
They attribute the spread Christianity to the dynamic of conversion: “People tend to convert to a religious group when their social ties to members outweigh their ties to outsiders who might oppose the conversion, and this often occurs before a convert even knows much about what the group believes” (701). “To convert someone, you must be or become a close and trusted friend. In turn, when someone converts to a new religion, then that person usually seeks to convert friends and relatives, and therefore conversion tends to proceed through social networks” (714).
That means that “the missionary enterprise consists of two essential stages or steps” (714). First, the missionary becomes the close friend with a local person, who may then eventually accept the new faith. That person then seeks to bring family and friends into the group of converts. The role of the missionary after that is to educate the converts in the tenets of their newfound faith.
“Because conversion spreads over networks of close personal relations, it is not a very visible phenomenon and, in the face of repression, can be conducted in secret. That makes it extremely difficult to detect or punish” (714).
Anti-Roman Catholic persecution was especially crippling, with the death or imprisonment of large numbers of priests and bishops creating a severe shortage in ordained clergy. Because of its hierarchical structure, Roman Catholicism in China was thus hampered, whereas “the Protestants would seem to have a nearly inexhaustible supply of preachers” (798). Their churches thus “not only survived underground, but grew” (811). Even the Little Flock Movement, though targeted by the government for extinction, survived and grew. Why? “They kept a very low profile and organized cell groups and home meetings at the grassroots level” (848).
Since Opening and Reform began in 1978, both official Protestant and Roman Catholic organizations have operated with relatively little interference (though since the book was published, cross removals and building demolitions in the Wenzhou area have made the atmosphere more tense). Even unregistered Protestants have enjoyed a great deal of freedom and space to worship and teach. By contrast, the underground Roman Catholics, who remain loyal to the Pope, have endured constant pressure and persecution. In both cases, believers hold to a conservative from of Christianity. “Why? Because persecution served as a potent selection mechanism” (1020). Furthermore, these groups have “high member intensity,” which fosters growth through conversion of friends and relatives of the believers.
The result: Protestants outnumber Roman Catholics by about ten-to-one now.
Chapter 4: Converting the Educated
This chapter shows that educated Chinese are more likely to convert to Christianity and turn from Buddhism than those with less education; “new religious movements nearly always are based on elites,” because of a sense of spiritual deprivation; modernization and globalization have produced in China a “crisis of cultural incongruity – a conflict between the cultural assumptions of modernity and those of traditional religious culture,” leading to a sense of spiritual deprivation that produces a tendency to turn away from Buddhism, the traditional faith, to Christianity (1058). This is true throughout East Asia.
Chapter 5: Converting Rural China
Confronting the fact that Christianity has also spread like wildfire in rural areas, the authors try to show that this has not been as a result of material or power deprivation, as many have assumed. First of all, the difference between rural and urban church growth are very slight. In other words, Christianity is growing fast everywhere in China. Second, it seems that “it is the more affluent rural Chinese who are most likely to convert” (1355). As for age, most rural Christians, like their urban counterparts, converted when they were young, not elderly. China does reflect the worldwide fact that more women are religiously active than men, but this has nothing to do with a sense of powerlessness. In short, the usual theory of material driving religious conversion does not seem to hold true.
What does emerge clearly from recent, and very rigorous, studies is the power of social networks in conversion. Most people become affiliated with a Christian church through the influence of someone whom they know well, and who has sought them out. Since social networks are stronger in rural areas, that explains why Christianity has grown slightly faster there, and why it appears to be more stable and vigorous.
Chapter 6: Future Prospects and Consequences
The final chapter seeks to address three questions:
"How large will the Chinese Christian community become?"
"Will Chinese Christians splinter into a variety of denominations differing in their intensity and doctrines?"
"If Christians become a major presence in China, what difference will it make?"
Here are their answers:
At current growth rates, in 2010 there will be 149.7 million Christians; by 2030, 294.6 million; by 2040, 579 million.
“Chinese Christianity is and will be separated into many denominations,” with different doctrines and different degrees of intensity in their commitment to the faith, to each other, and to evangelism.
As elsewhere, Christianity will make Chinese believers healthier and happier. The social impacts will include: greater material income, higher educational levels, lower child mortality rates. A free-market economy is not necessarily more likely to emerge, however. Nor is a more democratic society inevitable, unless the growing numbers of Christians in the Party exercise decisive influence in decades to come.
By and large, the authors do a very good job telling the story of Christianity in China since 1900 within the context of Chinese history. Their account is concise and largely accurate. Brief, vivid biographies of outstanding Chinese Christians, usually with photographs, fill out the narrative and highlight the major themes. Most of these are especially well written.
Aside from the basic helpfulness of its historical narrative, the great strengths of A Star in the East are three:
For the first time, we have solid statistical studies, yielding reliable numbers, for the history of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in China. This makes the book immensely valuable for researchers and historians.
Their sociological approach helps us to understand just how the church has grown so rapidly, through social networks, which can point towards effective practices in the future.
They specifically and persuasively refute the common notion held by some urban Chinese church leaders and many in the West who claim that Christians must have more public space and a more public witness in order to grow and to influence society. In particular, large congregations meeting in big buildings and engaging in public programs are not essential, or even helpful, for solid, lasting growth. Christianity expands, both in numbers and in societal influence, when believers meet in small groups, preferably in homes, where their transformed lives and relationship attract others and eventually leaven an entire culture.
A Star in the East provides a complement to Brent Fulton’s China’s Urban Christians (reviewed earlier in these pages) and, like Fulton’s book, is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Christianity in China.
No book is perfect, and this volume has some weaknesses. Some generalizations and even some specific statements appear to be incorrect, or at least to need careful qualification. For example: “Subsequent to the rise of Communist rule, [Roman] Catholicism has been the target of far more intense government opposition than has Protestantism” (251). “British General Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon commanded [the] imperial army” fighting the Taipings (306). “Often, buildings were sacked and burned and sometimes the missionaries were injured or even murdered” (334). Beginning in the 1920s, there was “endemic friction” between Chinese Protestant leaders and Protestant missionaries (483). “For several years after coming to power the Chinese Communist regime ignored the Protestant churches led by Chinese” (605).
In discussing attacks on missionaries and Christians in the nineteenth century, they do not make a distinction between the hostility against Roman Catholics and Protestants. The former were resented for holding property; gaining treaty rights that granted equal social status, and real political power, to priests and bishops; being too closely tied to, and supported by, the French government; and constant protection of Chinese converts from lawsuits. The Protestants in the coastal areas were also guilty of intervention in lawsuits, the so-called “religious cases” that so riled Chinese officials.
They correctly say that the foreign legation held out courageously against vastly superior Qing firepower, but fail to mention that the imperial forces, apparently deliberately, restrained their attacks, probably aware of the inevitable foreign victory and the consequences for China of a massacre of diplomatic personnel. (See A.J. Broomhall, The Shaping of Modern China, Volume Two, 687-688.)
Their interpretation of the relative “advantage” of RC missions in China because of its many similarities to popular religious practices and architecture would seem to be correct. Others would argue, however, that some of these similarities stem from non-biblical Roman Catholic customs, and that the resulting form of Christianity resembles folk religion so much that what we see comes close to Christo-paganism, not true Christianity. The same might be said of a great deal of rural Protestantism, however.
Like some others, they do not adequately distinguish between the policies and practices of the China Inland Mission (CIM) and most “mainline” mission organizations. For example, the CIM was quicker to turn control over to Chinese Christians, and experienced less conflict with their Chinese colleagues.
The biographical sketches of about Witness Lee, Watchman Nee, and John Sung gloss over some controversial questions. Though they state that Nee wrote many books, in fact he authored only one, The Spiritual Man. All other publications under his name consist of edited versions of his magazine articles and transcripts of his sermons.
More importantly, the authors deliberately downplay the role of “doctrine” in conversion, which they see as a sociological phenomenon. Though their case for conversions through social networks is powerful and convincing, we should not ignore that what we have seen in China is a vast movement of the Holy Spirit, working through the message of Christ and his Cross preached by courageous and dedicated men and women, often in a context of great suffering. The book does acknowledge the importance of healing miracles, but does not address the efficacy of prayer.
Their definition of “Christian,” likewise, seems limited to the social affiliation of individuals, rather than one’s personal relationship with God. This is appropriate, given the sociological approach of the authors, but does not reflect biblical usage. More than semantics is involved here because, as many have observed, Christianity in China is increasingly “a mile wide and an inch deep.” That is why church leaders now agree that their greatest challenge is to nurture true faith, genuine hope, and sincere love in those who claim to follow Christ.
For some implications of this book for Chinese Christians and those working with them, see the companion article at Reaching Chinese Worldwide.