By 2030 China Could Have 294.6 Million Christians--Nearly Equaling Population of U.S.!

This new book from Templeton Press tells the fascinating story of the explosion of Christianity in China. Credit: Templeton Press This new book from Templeton Press tells the fascinating story of the explosion of Christianity in China. Credit: Templeton Press

Are we seeing China transform from a mission field to a bastion of Christianity? Faith in Jesus Christ has spread like wildfire in the world's most populous country -- and A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China puts this remarkable trend in concrete numbers.

Missionary work in the Far East goes back over 1,000 years, but in the 1930s Americans thought it was a lost cause. Intellectuals mocked the reported millions of Chinese believers as “Rice Christians” - people desperate for the social services the Church provided, but likely to abandon faith in Jesus as soon as the missionaries left.

History tells a different story, however, and authors Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang have the data to prove it. As Stark told PJ Media in a phone interview, “When it became legal or safe to be revealed as a Christian, the ‘Rice Christians’ hadn’t quit, but had multiplied by a factor of three.” In another stunning twist, the more educated are more likely to become Christian.

Faith by the Numbers

Christianity -- and religion in general -- is still taboo in China. In the 1950s, the Communist government outlawed religion, persecuted faiths, and turned a blind eye when mobs destroyed churches and traditional temples. Because of this recent history, people are hesitant to declare their faith openly.

“Secularists love to brag that three quarters of Chinese are atheists,” Stark said, but a comprehensive 2007 study on religion in China showed that no less than 72 percent of Chinese had “venerated ancestral spirits by their graves” in the past year (p. 6). “You and I would say people who pray to the gods are engaged in religious activity,” Stark quipped.

In China, however, only official members of certain Buddhist temples or Christian churches are considered “religious.” Many Chinese express belief in Jesus but do not identify as religious or Christian in this institutional sense.

Christians, in particular, because of the threat of persecution, have a tendency to be wary of surveyors and claim that they are not Christian. Stark and Wang collected the names of house-church members across China, and gave them to the same company which performed the 2007 survey. 9 percent of these church members blatantly said they were not Christians. A full 62 percent refused to be interviewed (in the original study, only 38 percent of those polled declined to answer questions).

Since the results of such polls are “very much understated,” Stark and Wang had to estimate the number of Christians in China. Their work showed a 7 percent annual increase from 1980 to the present. In 1980, there were approximately 10 million Christians in China. In 2007, there were 61.1 million.

In China, dozens of churches open every week. By 2030, they estimated, there will be 294.6 million Christians -- nearly the entire population of the United States.

Purified by Fire

But the story of Christianity in China is hardly one of easy, steady growth. There was a great deal of persecution, and Stark compared it to the persecution under the Roman Empire.

Stark and Wang tell the story of Wang Zhiming, an ordained pastor who was brutally executed in a stadium in 1973. His death sparked a riot, but his suffering was not in vain. When he was arrested in 1969, there were an estimated 3,000 Christians in his native city, Wuding. By 1980, the number had reached 12,000 (p.60).

Peter Joseph Fan Xueyan was ordained in Rome and became bishop of Baoding. In 1958, he was arrested for remaining loyal to the Pope and sent to a forced labor camp. After a series of releases, re-arrests, and further torture, police dumped a plastic bag holding Bishop Fan’s frozen body in front of a family member’s home. Although officials said he died of pneumonia, the body had broken bones and other injuries which indicate extensive torture.

While the government imposed martial law to prevent people from attending Bishop Fan’s funeral, at least 10,000 paid their respects (p. 55).