What It’s Really Like for China’s Urban Christians

A Conversation with China Expert Brent Fulton

By the end of the 1970s, many predicted Christianity in China was over. Mao Zedong’s decade-long Cultural Revolution, they insisted, had effectively wiped out Chinese Christianity. 

They were wrong. 

Today, the most conservative estimates place the number of Christians in China around 70 million, with other estimates claiming tens of millions more. And, as Brent Fulton notes in his book China’s Urban Christians: A Light that Cannot Be Hidden, the 500 million who have flocked to China’s cities over the last three decades are partly responsible for the astounding growth of Christianity in the country’s cultural and political centers.

Fulton—president of ChinaSource, an organization dedicated to offering the Christian community knowledge for collaborating with and serving the Chinese church; and editor of ChinaSource Quarterly—traces the effect of rapid urbanization combined with Christianity’s surprising growth. Such massive change presents many challenges and opportunities for China’s urban Christians, and Fulton ably explores their response. His more than 30 years of experience watching the Chinese church corrects misunderstandings and gives a holistic picture of Christianity in the country.

To better understand some of these dynamics, I asked Fulton about life for Christians in China, what Western Christians can learn from their family there, and more.

In China’s Urban Christians you describe a far more nuanced picture regarding the persecution of Christians in China than is common, even describing a “large gray area” that’s emerged with regard to tolerated Christian practices. What exactly is going on? 

Religious policy hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. What has changed is the way the policy is enforced. Although much recent attention has been paid to the forced removal of crosses from Zhejiang Province churches (most of which, ironically, are officially registered), this situation is anomalous compared to what’s happening nationwide. The general trend has been to allow unregistered groups to function so long as they don’t get too big, don’t directly oppose the government (e.g., through public protest or other political action), and don’t have connections with any “anti-China” foreign groups. This is in contrast to the 1980s, when officials would actively seek to shut down unregistered groups and imprison their leaders. Today the approach is one of surveillance and indirect control through letting Christian leaders know where the lines are that shouldn’t be crossed.
Many Western Christians perceive house churches as small groups of believers meeting secretly and quietly in a members’ homes. What does a typical “house church” in one of China’s major cities actually look like in both environment and practice?
Urban house churches typically meet in a rented apartment or office space. Attendance might average from 100 to 200 on a Sunday, though some are considerably larger. Facilities generally consist of a sanctuary area with a podium, musical instruments, moveable chairs for flexibility, and smaller rooms used for Sunday school or other activities. Sometimes there’s a sign on the door identifying the church. The facility may be even used during the week for Bible studies, youth activities, or other meetings. There’s often little to no effort made to hide the church’s existence; local police are aware of it and will generally have regular contact with the leaders.
What’s the relationship between China’s registered churches and the numerous (but technically illegal) unregistered house churches?
Whereas in the past the relationship was quite antagonistic, the registered church today has toned down its anti-house-church rhetoric. Depending on local politics, the government may try to use the registered church to put pressure on the unregistered groups, but this isn’t the case everywhere. There can be a symbiotic relationship between the two groups, with the registered church providing access to Bibles, materials, and training available to all the believers, and the house church serving believers who may have come out of the registered church. On the other hand, there can be some rivalry as well, as one elderly Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) pastor noted when he said that young people come to Christ in the open church but then eventually end up joining the house church. 

You argue that while urbanization has brought many benefits to the church, these same benefits offer new, and perhaps spiritually dangerous, challenges. How is the urbanization of the Chinese church similar to challenges in the Western church? How is it different?
First, materialism, postmodernism, family breakdown, leadership failure, and the temptation to use secular techniques for kingdom work are problems common to the Western and Chinese church alike. The Chinese church is different in that most of these problems have arisen within the space of one generation, and there’s no previous generation to go to in order to ask how to deal with these things. Second, restrictions on the development of robust, independent Christian institutions prevent the church from facing these problems in a coordinated, holistic, and organized manner. 
How would you describe the belief system or worldview among Chinese people today? How has this proven to be problematic, and how are Chinese Christians, particularly in major cities, responding?
Beneath the veneers of Communist morality and Confucian ethics is a deeply pragmatic worldview that looks at relationships, family, morality, work, and community in terms of how these can further one’s quest for a better life, both individually and familially. Trust is a rare commodity in the culture at large, both because of past political struggles and also the Confucian idea that you’re indebted to those closest to you—with whom you already have a relationship—but that you needn’t be concerned with those outside your relationship circle. Given the relatively short time during which China has enjoyed its reform and open policy, there’s been an emphasis on pocketing whatever short-term gains you’re able to realize, as no one knows when the political winds may shift again.
All these dynamics have contributed to the rampant corruption and cutthroat competition evident in China today. As Gerda Wielander suggests in her book Christian Values in Communist China, the urban church has been able to create a new kind of “surrogate family” in which the circles of relationship are enlarged to include those who come into relationship with Christ. This provides a new basis for relational trust. As believers learn to embody this compelling community in their families, vocations, and churches, they stand in stark contrast to the society around them. 
“As new ways of relating to one another have become possible,” you observe, “China’s urban Christians have identified unity as a key concern.” In addition to biblical commands for unity, what has motivated such a high commitment to unity, and how can Western Christians learn from our Chinese brothers and sisters?
The church’s resources are thinly spread and unevenly distributed. No one group has everything it needs to function well in all areas of ministry; hence the keen awareness that believers must work together for the good of larger body of Christ. As the church has become more visible in recent years, there’s a concern that a fragmented church cannot present a coherent witness to the society. There’s also a political element, in that the Communist Party’s strategy toward any group outside its immediate control is to divide and conquer. So as the government moves to exert greater control over urban house churches (which church leaders expect will happen), they know they must stand together in their response.