How Many Chinese Christians Are There?

Estimates of the number of Christians in China vary from 16 million to 200 million. Because of the Chinese government’s often hostile approach to religion, getting a credible count has been nearly impossible. Now, in a recent First Things article (First Things, May 2011, pp. 14-16), three Baylor sociologists claim they have arrived at a reasonably accurate count, and they place the number at 70 million.

When the Communists came to power in 1949, there were about one million Chinese professing Christians at that time. Skeptics dismissed them as “rice Christians,” i.e. Chinese who cynically claimed to be Christian in order to receive some type of benefit from Westerners. The Communist government outlawed religion, so the fledgling Christian church was expected to disappear. However, by the last quarter of the 20th century it was clear that, rather than dissolving, Christianity was growing in China–and growing rapidly. The difficulty has been in determining the growth.

In 2007, the Horizon Ltd, “one of China’s largest and most respected polling firms,” conducted a national survey. Face-to-face interviews were conducted throughout the country with over 7000 respondents. The article goes into detail about how the survey was conducted, and how the results were assessed. Special attention is given to the problem of traditional Chinese reticence to participate in surveys in general and the reluctance (for obvious reasons) of Christians in particular.

Several findings are worthy of note. In terms of demographics, Christianity is spreading rather evenly among their society. Whether a respondent was from a rural area or urban area made no significant difference. In addition, professing Christians were well represented among all ages. But there were some differences. Women were nearly twice as likely as men to profess Christ. And those with higher education levels and higher incomes were more likely to be Christian. A jarring (but unsurprising) exception to that finding was among those who belong to the Communist Party (who generally enjoy higher incomes). No member of the Communist Party admitted to being a Christian.

What can we conclude about these findings? On the upside, there is the simple fact that the church in China has grown from one million to 70 million. A 70-fold increase in 60 years is remarkable by anyone’s reckoning. It also means that in China there are more professing Christians than there are members of the Communist Party. On the downside, 70 million is only 5% of the total population. In other words, 95% of China is lost and need to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The work in mainland China has just begun. What an exciting day to be a Great Commission Christian!

[A side note: The parents of Dan Heimbach, senior professor of ethics at SEBTS, were missionaries in China when Mao Zedong came to power. In fact, Dan was born during the Communist revolution. After a period of house arrest he and his family were deported from the country.]

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  1. Randy M.   •  

    I’ve lived in China for the past 15 years. In 1996 a book by Tony Lambert, “China’s Christian Millions” was published. At that time Lambert quoted 65 million Christians. His figures were based upon official government records of registered Christians and upon baptism records of a number of the largest house Christian networks in the country. Most missiologists working in Asia use Lambert’s figures as the low end number of believers in China. The current number is definitely higher than 70 million.

  2. Ken Keathley   •     Author

    Randy, as I said at the beginning, the estimates vary widely. Some missiologists, such as David Sills, question the results claimed by certain church planting movements. And I have had several Chinese church planters indicate to me that they thing the First Things article seemed correct to them. But until it is relatively safe in China to acknowledge that one is a Christian, an accurate count will be difficult. We have a tough time getting an accurate count in the USA, so we shouldn’t be surprised at the trouble we’re having counting believers in Asia.

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  5. Dr. Ronald Lee Cobb   •  

    There is an incredible spiritual renewal among Christians of all kinds in China. Wouldn’t it be interesting if China became more Christian in a few decades than the more decadent nations of Europe and the Western Hemisphere who had Christian foundations?

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