Can China be Christian by 2035?Jun 3rd, 2011 | By Justin Long | | Print This Post |
I was struck recently by this statement, quoted by Lee Grady, the former editor of Charisma (whom I deeply respect):
“Missionary strategists have already predicted that by 2035 China will be a Christian nation. Then nations of Asia, including Singapore, are positioned to be 21st century Antiochs.”
(Disclosure: I’ve emailed Lee to ask for the original source of this quote. It’s in the context of a blog entry during his time in Singapore. I assume it’s something that he heard there from someone.)
What would it take to be a “Christian nation”? One would think it would be a nation where at least half of the population’s adults either professed to be Christians or were affiliated with a church. True, there might be a high degree of nominalism, but the bare minimum to be a “Christian” nation is for people to not be professedly non-Christian (e.g. atheist, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc). This is clearly not the case in China today. Not to denigrate the huge strides being made in China—there are perhaps more evangelicals in China than anywhere else in the world?—but China is by no stretch of the imagination Christian today. Total Christianity measures only 7% to 10%.
Is that really possible? Let’s dig into some math.
Statistics related to the population of Christians in China are of course difficult to come by, and there is some variety in the range of estimates. Paul Hattaway has estimated the total number of believers in China today to be roughly 105 million (84m Protestants & 21m Catholics). That’s about 7.6% of the country. The World Christian Encyclopedia estimated the 2000 population to be about 90 million, or 7%. So these numbers are fairly in line with each other. Operation World would be roughly similar to Paul’s figures as well.
Going back in time, the WCE estimated estimated Christianity in China in 1900 at 1.6 million (0.4%); in 1970, 1.5 million (0.2%); in 1990, 64 million (5.7%). Other estimates suggest that the total number of Christians would have been about 30 million by the end of the Cultural Revolution (1976). The range is fairly dramatic and the “start value” (in 1970) impacts the percentage annual growth rate. Consider the following table.
We probably will never know the exact annual growth rate. We do know that the period in the 1980s was absolutely explosive in the rural areas, as one China expert put it to me. Still, whatever the exact annual growth rate, we know that it was obviously “high.” After the tremendous growth in the 1980s, the church got to the point where it simply was too large to sustain that kind of growth rate. What happened then:
Remember that the growth rate for 1970-90 should be considered to be “very high.” The most conservative growth rate—if we start the 1970s with 30 million Christians in China—would be 5.67%. We see a fairly sharp decline down to a growth rate somewhere around 4 to 5% per annum. Don’t take the specific numbers as too accurate—in this example, I’m using a 2010 population a bit higher than even Paul Hattaway’s number, due to internal estimates I’ve heard from within China. Small changes in the start and end values can make some pretty significant changes in the individual percentages. The point is the point is that the growth rate for the period of 1990-2010 is around a fairly respectable 5%, but the growth rate for 1970-90 was far higher—probably at least in the 10 to 20 percent per annum area, if not far higher.
Now, we get to the crux of our question: would it be possible for China to become a Christian nation by 2035? One easy response is that with God, all things are possible. That said, let’s consider what’s probable given current trends. Here’s a general analysis of China’s secular statistics in 2035. It assumes a population of 1.49 billion. Assuming that to be considered a “Christian nation” the general population must be at least half Christian, we’re looking for a Christian population of about 750 million.
That population is over five times greater than the current population of Christians. It represents a growth of over 600 million new believers (not factoring in the death rate!). The time difference is about 24 years. The annual growth required would therefore be about 25 million new believers. That would lead to a percentage annual growth rate of 18 percent!
Is an 18% growth rate possible? Well, with God all things are possible—but I don’t think this is either realistic or probable. What the church would be aiming for is a growth rate that was achieved when it was far smaller, isolated from the West, under the pressure cooker of persecution. Yes, China’s harassment level is increasing again—but I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that China’s Christians will ever again be as isolated as they were during the 70s and 80s. There’s just too much global connectivity and openness, and too many Chinese are going abroad. Besides, it’s very doubtful that a church the size of China’s could scale to this kind of growth rate. It’s demonstrable that the larger a church gets, the slower the growth rate because the fewer potential converts there are within its lines of relationship.
Could it be done? Possibly. Here’s one mathematical scenario to watch for:
This would require the church to add another 50 million souls between 2010 and 2015, and then to roughly double in the 10 year period from 2015 to 2025, and double again from 2025 to 2035. Can it happen? I think it would be very difficult. Far more likely in my book is a scenario in which China’s Christians reach 300 million by 2035:
What do you think? I welcome your comments below.