Three things for your consideration:
It is hard even to guess at the number of Christians in China. Official surveys seek to play down the figures, ignoring the large number who worship in house churches. By contrast, overseas Christian groups often inflate them. There were perhaps 3m Catholics and 1m Protestants when the party came to power in 1949. Officials now say there are between 23m and 40m, all told. In 2010 the Pew Research Centre, an American polling organisation, estimated there were 58m Protestants and 9m Catholics. Many experts, foreign and Chinese, now accept that there are probably more Christians than there are members of the 87m-strong Communist Party. Most are evangelical Protestants.
Predicting Christianity’s growth is even harder. Yang Fenggang of Purdue University, in Indiana, says the Christian church in China has grown by an average of 10% a year since 1980. He reckons that on current trends there will be 250m Christians by around 2030, making China’s Christian population the largest in the world. Mr Yang says this speed of growth is similar to that seen in fourth-century Rome just before the conversion of Constantine, which paved the way for Christianity to become the religion of his empire.
Meanwhile, acts of defiance are increasing. A mid-ranking official in a big city was recently told that her Christian faith, which was well known in the office, was not compatible with her party membership and she would have to give it up. She politely told her superiors that she would not be able to do that, and that her freedom of belief was protected by the Chinese constitution. She was not fired, but sent on a remedial course at a party school. She is now back at her job, and says her colleagues often come to her asking for prayer.
Christians are becoming more socially (and sometimes politically) engaged, too. Wang Yi is a former law professor and prolific blogger who became a Christian in 2005. The next year he was one of three house-church Christians who met President George W. Bush at the White House. Mr Wang is now pastor of Early Rain, a house church in the south-western city of Chengdu. On June 1st this year, International Children’s Day, he and members of his congregation were detained for distributing leaflets opposing China’s one-child policy and the forced abortions it leads to.
… The paradox, as they all know, is that religious freedom, if it ever takes hold, might harm the Christian church in two ways. The church might become institutionalised, wealthy and hence corrupt, as happened in Rome in the high Middle Ages, and is already happening a little in the businessmen’s churches of Wenzhou. Alternatively the church, long strengthened by repression, may become a feebler part of society in a climate of toleration. As one Beijing house-church elder declared, with a nod to the erosion of Christian faith in western Europe: “If we get full religious freedom, then the church is finished.”
Yet, as Robert Moynihan describes in his article of 20 October, entitled “Light from the East”, there has been a spiritual resurrection in Russia as if, after a long nightmare, people have awoken to different, transcendent sense of reality. As he put it, “An East which, until 25 years ago, was officially atheist and unrelentingly radical in its vision of a ‘new Soviet man’ whose identity was rooted in his economic class”, is now experiencing a reconversion. According to Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church, who is quoted by Moynihan, this turning back towards Christianity began in 1988, during the celebrations for the 1000-year anniversary of the coming of Christianity to Russia.
“From that moment there began…the revival of the Church throughout the former Soviet Union.” By the start of the 1990s hundreds of people were regularly seeking baptism in towns and villages all over the country. In the last 26 years Metropolitan Hilarion says, 26,000 churches have either been restored or opened, as well as 800 monasteries, filled with young monks and nuns. He comments that “all this has taken place in the very same era which in the West some call post-Christian.”
What a strange irony there is in all this; the West, formerly seen as a bastion of civilized values, based on their deeply Christian origins, has slipped almost as fast into a moral wilderness at the same time as the vast country once dominated by Communism has rediscovered its Christian roots and the inner transformation that comes with conversion. Russia might have enormous problems, as Michelle Parsons’ book indicates, but denial of the existence of God is no longer one of them.
We ought to see the ongoing cultural shake-up in America as a liberation of sorts from a captivity we never even knew we were in. The closeness of American culture with the church caused many sectors of the American church to read the Bible as though the Bible were pointing us to America itself. That’s why endless recitations of 2 Chronicles 7:14 all focused on revival in the nation as a means to national blessing, without ever asking who the “my people” of this text actually are, and what it means, in light of the gospel, to be “blessed.”
And that’s why in the most culturally conservative parts of the country, Christianity often became a rite of passage to a place in the community, often without the self-crucifying power of regeneration. To be a good American in the Bible Belt meant one was born to be born again. In this context, the gospel seemed far less strange than it did to both the religious Jewish and pagan Greek contexts of the New Testament witness. We may now be forced, at last, to understand who “we” are, and to see that we can be Americans best if we are not Americans first.
The church now has the opportunity to bear witness in a culture that often does not even pretend to share our “values.” That is not a tragedy since we were never given a mission to promote “values” in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and of judgment, of Christ and his kingdom. We will now have to articulate concepts we previously assumed—concepts such as “marriage” and “family” and “faith” and “religion.” So much the better, since Jesus and the apostles do the same thing, defining these categories in terms of creation and of the gospel. We should have been doing this all along. Now we will be forced to, simply in order to be understood at all.
… [What is] evaporating in front of us are those structures of nominal, cultural Christianity. Good riddance.