Mainland China and the Trend of Global Desecularization

Sa Zhong Zi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American living in China assisting with the support and strengthening of the Chinese house church.

In the middle of the 20th century, sociologists were nearly unanimous in their agreement that modernization and secularization were forces around the world that would continue to marginalize the plausibility of religious belief. Leading the charge was Peter Berger, a renowned sociologist. By the end of the 20th century the empirical evidence for the opposite was so overwhelming that sociologists were forced to abandon their previous conclusions. 

After re-examining this secularization theory and admitting his mistakes, Berger wrote about the global upsurge of conservative, orthodox religious belief. He stated that the evidence “taken together (provides) a massive falsification of the idea that modernization and secularization are cognate phenomena. At the very least they show that counter-secularization is at least as important a phenomenon in the contemporary world as secularization.” Modernization certainly carries with it unexpected consequences, and desecularization may arguably be one of the most unexpected of these.

Arguably the best example of a country experiencing both modernization and desecularization is the nation of China, particularly if we observe the number of converts to the Christian religion. This has been occurring in China despite vigorous efforts to control, repress, and even obliterate, religion. During the mid 1960s, the Chinese Communist Party sought to thoroughly secularize society at a level the likes of which have almost never been seen in history. This led to an aggressive eradication of religion.

Christianity is not new to China. Persian missionaries first entered China during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century. What is new is the rate of growth and the breadth of impact; Protestant Christianity is the fastest growing religion in China. Some statistics show that evangelical Christianity is growing fastest in countries like Brazil and China and it should be noted that while Brazil has a long history of embracing Christianity in the form of Roman Catholicism, China has no such track record. These developments in China have mostly occurred within the last several decades and with less than ideal circumstances. Despite factors such as religious repression, an aggressively atheistic Communist regime, secularization, and modernization, the growth of the church has been rather impressive. In the early years of the of the turn of the century, we see a Christian population of 50 to 70 million. 

All of this has caught the attention of not a few journalists, sociologists, and missionaries, all of whom have contributed to a healthy body of research aimed at understanding the social conditions that have brought about this phenomenon. It is my intention to explore “desecularization” in the Mainland Chinese context by first taking a brief look at the global trends in conservative religious belief, then at the context of Christianity in Mainland China, and finally narrowing in on a network of conservative Protestant Chinese urban churches that I have been associated with for the past eight years.

The global trend, termed here as “desecularization,” needs a bit of definition. Desecularization is here understood through the lens of Berger’s writings and is defined as those religious movements that have “rejected an aggiornamento (Vatican II language for ‘a bringing up to date’) with modernity as defined by progressive intellectuals.” This simple definition should suffice and will serve the purpose of providing a bit of clarity to what we mean when we use this word.

International Trends

Sociologically speaking, global modernization brings with it certain expected outcomes. One of these is a sense of instability or uncertainty through a questioning of the “old ways.” Desecularization is the force in traditional religious movements that address this instability with a solution in the form of a greater level of certainty. Through a faith that offers to recapture or establish a feeling of certainty and stability as a reaction against the effects of modernization this is a powerful antidote. This force is observable on a global scale and among many different religions.

The two largest religious movements that have demonstrated the marks of desecularization are evangelical Christianity and Islam. Both of these movements share a similar energy and global impact as well as the characteristics mentioned in the previous paragraph. They, for the most part, are a reaction to secularization and modernization. What is most interesting, however, is not what these two have in common but where they differ. Most notable among the areas where they differ are the ethnic and national makeup of these communities. The Muslim movement is nearly exclusively among the ethnic groups that have traditionally embraced Islam whereas much of the growth of evangelical Christianity is among people groups or nations where Christianity previously did not exist or existed in a marginal form.

As Philip Jenkins reminds us, it is worth noting that on a global scale, “The center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably away from Europe, southward, to Africa and Latin America, and eastward, toward Asia. Today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in those regions.”  Foremost among these nations is the People’s Republic of China. It is the “poster child” for what differentiates the two religious movements of Islam and Christianity. Both Islam and Christianity have been in China for over a millennium, but adherents to Islam have largely stayed within the boundaries of the 10 minority groups on the periphery of China who already have a history of embracing Islam and who identify with Islam as part of their ethnicity. Conversions of non-Muslims into Islam are usually not through proselytizing but through family ties, such as marriage. In addition, in some cases Islam in China is aligned with an anti-government position which also carries with it a marginalizing element.

How has desecularization has played a role in the growth of the urban Protestant house church? [1] 

Historical Perspective

Although Christianity has been in China for at least 14 centuries, up until the middle of the 20th century Christianity has mostly remained a marginal religion in China without much potential of really capturing the hearts of the masses. It has only been in the past several decades that we have seen a change. In this way we see China connecting with a global phenomenon, as Berger states, “Growing dramatically throughout the world in countries where (Christianity) was previously unknown or very marginal.”  

Over 2,000 years of church history affords us a vantage point of being able to look back and see what kinds of social factors have played a role in such a change. A helpful comparison has been made between the church in China today and that of the Christian church in the first few centuries of the Roman Empire. During the period of the early church when Christianity began to spring up in the Roman Empire there was persecution, heretical teachings, and a number of other societal forces that made for less than ideal conditions, yet growth in the Christian community occurred. Similarly, we have seen persecution, heresy, and other societal challenges in China that unexpectedly have brought about the results of church growth.  

On the other hand, there were other conditions that made the spread of the Christian faith ideal; namely, a common language (Greek), an advanced road system for transportation, and a political climate that provided social stability (Pax Romana). These are societal factors that both churches experienced. In the case of China, these factors are the direct product of modernization. While the central government did not intend for these factors to aid the church in the spread of the gospel, they have nevertheless done just that. 

A modern political system was a key factor in developing both a commonly shared spoken language and a transportation system. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 has provided a relative stability that did not exist in the early decades of the 20th century.  While this regime has not been known for its friendliness toward Christianity (or any religion), it has, nonetheless, been a key factor in growth of the church. 

A factor in addition to social stability is the large-scale system of education, a system that is virtually unlike any previous education system in the history of China, both in structure and in scale. China’s keju, or Imperial Examination education system, existed for centuries before being toppled in the late Qing Dynasty. The Communist Party took education to the next stage and nationalized a Soviet-style education system that provided basic education for the masses using one common language – putonghua, or Mandarin Chinese. This has also played a key factor in the spread of the gospel since prior to 1949 the presence of local dialects presented a formidable obstacle to those from the outside who were not conversant in the local language.

Transportation has also played a key role in the growth of Christianity in China. My first trip to China in 1986 was very eye opening. The cities had roads but very few cars, and there were virtually no suburban areas. Travel to rural areas was often very difficult. A national railway system made transportation much more available, but trains were often overcrowded, very slow, and tickets during peak travel times were nearly impossible to purchase without zou hou men, or going through the proverbial “back door” system of connections. Since then China has developed a national highway system, high speed rail, and air travel. The technological revolution, the internet, and mobile devices all have been a huge influence as well.

Many of these factors mirror, in some way, what was present in the ancient Roman Empire during the time of early church growth. These same societal changes have taken place in China and have brought about similar results. The one element that all of these factors have in common for modern China is that they have all been brought about by modernization.

Contextual Understanding of Conversion

These societal factors are examples of how modernization has brought about large-scale structural changes are significant and a critical part in understanding the conversion of so many.  They point to China going through a massive modernization such as has never been witnessed in its own history. It is in this context that the largest Christian movement in China has occurred.

While China has different religious traditions that are considered indigenous, such as Taoism and Buddhism, for many years Christianity has been viewed by Chinese as a foreign religion. Over the past millennia, Christianity has not penetrated deep into the soil of Chinese society and culture. The 20th century has been a turning point, however, in the way that the Christian faith has interacted with Chinese society and culture, and it is these social factors that have been pivotal in how Christianity has been received. The current growth trends in the church are unique and unprecedented. Therefore, the questions of what and why are highly relevant. What makes this generation different from previous generations? Why are individuals turning to Christianity?  

To answer these questions, we first need to take a look at a well-grounded sociological theory of conversion. What societal factors have provided the soil in which these seeds of faith have grown? It is the broader context of modernization, including urbanization and globalization in China, that we need to look at in order to make sense of these conversions. It is not only the elderly, the poor, and the marginalized that are converting to Christianity, as some sociologists had speculated in the past. It is the young, urban, middle class that we see populating the churches on Sunday. While it is certainly reasonable that the appeal of Christianity in China might be different for the uneducated peasant as opposed to the college educated urbanite, there are certainly common elements between them.  

Sometime in the late 1980s, the mass conversions that were taking place in the rural areas of China began to slow down and the number of urban converts began to increase, thus calling into question previous conversion theories that focused on individual psychology. China’s central government began developing urban centers throughout the nation as a part of the “Reform and Opening” that began in 1979, but it was only when they turned a little fishing village known as Shenzhen into a bustling city that we could see a significant change. This was to be a model of a new kind of economic theory that was termed “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Modernization and urbanization were seen as going hand-in-hand. 

This is the context in which conversions need to be properly understood. In the end it is impossible to understand a proper theory of conversions outside the context of a global market economy and the political climate of harassment and even repression.

This is an environment where there are opportunities and challenges. One pastor I recently interviewed described it this way:

All of society is in a state of flux, with a lot of uncertainty as things continuously change with people moving constantly and the structures of society changing, including the family. This represents a new challenge as well as a new opportunity. With the situation as I stated, the church can penetrate into this context by addressing things such as the migrant worker population in the city. This group has no roots in the city and the church can penetrate into their situation by constructing ministry that reaches them by doing things like organizing a weekly gathering…but from another perspective there is a sense in which the church doesn’t have the depth of experience or resources. 

Urbanization and globalization need more than just simple definitions. Urbanization is more than just the process of migration to the city. In a similar fashion, globalization is more than just an economic or political process from which China gets a seat at the table of the United Nations or a Global Summit.

Urbanization represents an “uprootedness” that goes beyond the forces of urbanization itself. It is a sense of being cut off from the past as well as a feeling of uncertainty about the future. Certain factors that play into this come from other influences, such as the political upheavals of China’s past that sought to destroy traditional culture, but the image of urbanization is one of change and flux. Similarly, globalization should be seen as representing an exposure to the outside world and all that that brings with it. It also represents a chance to hear new ideas and ways of thinking, meeting new people and having opportunities that were not possible in the past. With urbanization and globalization come both positive as well as negative ramifications.

Urbanization

According to a CCTV news source in China, 56% of China’s total population lived in China’s urban areas in 2015, an increase from the 26% in 1990. This massive migration has brought with it a huge array of societal challenges that present the church with both opportunities and risks. While much of what has been published about the Chinese church in the past few decades focused on repression and persecution from the authorities, it stands to reason the magnitude of the urbanization of China is and will continue to be one of the greatest challenges the church faces in the coming decades. It is certainly the case that the pastors in the network I know are aware of this challenge and take it seriously. However, just as is the case with the two-character Chinese word weiji (crisis), this challenging situation is a crisis that presents both danger (wei) and opportunity (ji).  

With respect to the ji, or opportunities, according to the pastors I know urbanization is part of what breaks down the barriers and “tribal loyalties” that have caused disunity in the church. One pastor from a large second-tier city in Southeast China has noted that “it is becoming less and less common for us to hear our local dialect spoken in daily life.” Part of the reason for this is that the city is now more and more populated by those from other provinces.   

They need to speak putonghua (Mandarin) to understand each other and are less likely to converse in the local dialect which, in this case, sounds very different from Mandarin and outsiders cannot understand. Certainly, one can also feel a sense of loss of local culture in this as well, but it is hard to ignore the positive potential for this to be a unifying factor.

Another factor noted as a positive force of urbanization relates to those who dwell in urban areas. The culture of the city is more diverse and often populated with younger, intellectual types. With this factor in mind one pastor I know had the following to say about urbanization:

Actually, up until the year 2000, urbanization began to become more pronounced and the younger generation began to emerge and create an atmosphere (in the church) more fitting for introducing the gospel into urban culture. The advantage of the urban church is that it favors intellectuals who have the ability to influence the countryside which, (at the same time as the urban church was growing) began to experience a period of decline. In addition, (the rural church) is incapable of producing literature that is suitable (for the educated population), such as media, in the public square, and little by little the rural churches have begun to vanish from the scene.

Within the words of this young urban church pastor/planter are both elements of a positive and negative nature, but they are factual statements. In his words we see the church’s response to urbanization. Educated Christians are responding to urbanization by creating intellectual property that addresses the life questions of the city dweller.

It should be noted that both “positive” and “negative” are sometimes a matter of interpretation. Often times the good and bad, the positive and negative, come in the same package (e.g. new jobs in the city also mean less young people to help work the farms in the countryside). In the above pastor’s quote, we see both aspects. The city churches are becoming more influential, but the countryside churches are experiencing a decline. In any case, the church experiences the wei and ji, the danger and opportunity. The question of whether the church is up to the task is on the minds of many of those I know.   

When it comes to forecasting the future there is a mixture of optimism and critical skepticism. Some feel the weight of Chinese culture presents a formidable foe. One pastor I spoke with has pointed out that China is a culture of idol worship. Leaders are immortalized and made into gods. Can the church avoid falling into this trap? “It will take a deeper understanding of the gospel then we currently possess,” he pointed out. Meanwhile, others are encouraged by the fact that China has experienced such a remarkable revival over the previous decades. The sentiment was that God is working and will continue to work.

Globalization

The attraction of Western things in China, whether English, fast food, or religion is not merely a thirst for modern things, although this certainly is one factor. Added to this is a sense of being part of the global community. China has a long history of being closed off, but the recent emphasis on globalization has exposed China to the world and has given it a feeling, perhaps more than ever before, of being a citizen of the world. 

According to Yang Fenggang, “China under the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is embracing globalization while traveling the road to a market economy. Christianity today is commonly perceived as modern, cosmopolitan, and universal.” It is also the case that many turn to Christianity for peace as a response to the “uprootedness” of urbanization and the frantic unrest of globalization.

For any given convert, there is a host of personal reasons one might have for embracing Christianity, but the overarching sense for many is that it is something fresh and new. In this way globalization has opened China up to experience something different in this religion. One pastor recently commented that it might make an interesting study to see whether communism, in some way, paved the way for Christian conversion. With communism, China became part of a global brotherhood of comrades that shared a similar political ideology (e.g. The Soviet Union, East Germany, Cuba). However, as the ideology of communism has become less and less plausible and has faded from the world stage, many in China have begun to turn instead to a global brotherhood with a much longer and richer history – the Christian brotherhood.

Most pastors I know comment on the negative effects in ways similar to each other. While globalization has provided new opportunities to connect with the world outside China, it has also brought about negative influences in society and the church. Things in the church such as spurious doctrine, individualism without the moorings of faith, and a superficial thirst for Western things and the Western way of life in society have led many adrift. One of my pastors friends recently said:

For some individuals (in China), they experienced (going) from being a very poor peasant to a billionaire. I think that will push people to think (about) what (life is) really. There is a positive (effect) but also some will think money is enough and will live for money and die for money. 

Once again, we see in these comments both sides of the coin. Some respond to prosperity by eventually recognizing the superficial nature of wealth, while others will continue to pursue their fortune long after they have accumulated what they need to simply live comfortably.

Conclusion

The global trend of desecularization has been recognized and is well documented. Many traditionalist religious movements are experiencing a new surge of vitality. Among these the two most influential and widespread are Christianity and Islam. While these two movements share some common features such as providing a sense of stability and peace in a world caught up in modernization, there are also significant differences. The biggest difference, perhaps, can be observed by surveying the people groups embracing these two religions. In the case of Islam, it is rare to see large scale conversion of non-Muslims into Islam, whereas with Protestant Christianity we see large scale conversions occurring among people groups and in nations where Christianity is considered a nontraditional religion.

In the case of China, we are witnessing these factors at work with large scale conversions among people groups that have not traditionally embraced Christianity. Urbanization and globalization are a critical piece for the context within which these conversions are taking place. 

China as a nation is emerging and influencing the world economy. The central government in China is actively pursuing influential, soft-power platforms. There is still a residual of the old, closed-off mentality, but more and more it seems the forces of modernization are forcing China to open its doors wider and wider. Through these modern forces the isolation of the past is slowing being peeled away. This is a golden opportunity for the church in China to make an impact both within and outside her borders. In the words of one pastor I know, “There is globalization… People (in China) are starting to have a world vision. Urbanization is the most important (factor). We’ve never had this in China. Now (through urbanization) it makes the church more diverse.” 


[1] The house church, or unregistered church, has also been referred to as the underground church and is distinct from the government approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement church. It has experienced times of severe repression and persecution over the last six or seven decades under the Communist Party rule and currently is still being harassed.