Volume 3.1 / Conversions to Christianity Among Highly Educated Chinese
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Conversions to Christianity Among Highly Educated Chinese

Niek M. Tramper
ABSTRACT
Chinese churches both in mainland China and in other parts of the world have demonstrated re- markable spiritual and numerical growth during the last three decades. Chinese intellectuals, in particular, show an interest in Christianity. This study highlights a variety of reasons for this. Christianity is seen as an important source for renewing values and ethics in order to build up society beyond communism and materialism. Other factors instrumental in the conversion of Chinese intellectuals to Christian faith include the unconditional love and forgiving attitude of Christian friends, the experience of miraculous healing or recovery, as well as the life-changing power of the Gospel encountered in the life of the church. However, young Chinese intellectuals who have become Christians abroad and return to China often experience a reverse culture shock and return to their previous convictions. This study explores main factors in conversions and in later relapses among highly educated Chinese. It underlines the need for a loving Christian community welcoming foreign students, researchers, and businesspeople. It also shows the need to prepare those who return to their country for reverse culture shock.

1. Introduction - Why this Study? 

1.1  Chinese Intellectuals Turning to Christian Faith

Both in my home country, the Netherlands, and in China many highly educated Chinese men and women with a non-Christian background are showing an interest in Christianity. I am referring to students at a master’s and PhD level, or young researchers and business professionals. Invited by colleagues, family members, or friends, they visit Christian congregations and take introductory courses in the faith. They often convert and are baptized. We do not have exact numbers, but the phenomenon cannot be denied.[1] I serve as a pastor of an international church in Delft, and there we saw ten Chinese students turn to Christianity between 2014 and 2015. The same number of Chinese students and researchers connected to Tilburg University became Christian in the last couple of years. In this study I explore initial answers to the following question: “What prevailing factors in the past ten years have caused the transition of highly educated Chinese from a lifestyle marked by all kinds of non-Christian beliefs to Christian faith and membership in a Christian church?”

I will first explore dominant factors mentioned in recent articles, news items, and reports about church growth in China. Then I will illustrate these factors with stories collected during a recent research trip to China and conversion stories of Chinese intellectuals in my own context of Delft.

1.2  Relapses

There are a growing number of reports about converted Chinese intellectuals who have relapsed, particularly among those who return from the West to Mainland China. That is why it’s necessary to answer an additional question in this study: “What signs do we have of a reverse movement: university students and highly educated professionals turning away from Christian faith and from the Christian church? What factors lead them to this step?”

This question is not easy to answer since the study is limited to the last ten years. Nevertheless, we look for indications that may encourage further research.

2. Influential Political, Economic and Cultural Changes in Chinese Society.

This paragraph describes changes in Chinese society that have contributed to a general interest in Christianity among Chinese intellectuals.

2.1 Remarkable Church Growth 

After the Chinese Communist Party allowed more openness for economic and social renewal in the beginning of the 1980s, Christian churches in China began to demonstrate remarkable growth. Since the Communists took over in 1949, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, as well as adherents of other religions have suffered from restrictions, discrimination, and persecution. This was especially heightened during the Cultural Revolution. Thirty years later, after Deng Xiaoping became the leader of the Communist Party, the government began to combine the Party’s socialist ideology with a pragmatic adoption of market economy practices. This allowed for more religious freedom. The term ‘Jidujiao Re,’ or ‘Christian Fever’ (both in the positive and negative connotation of the word), has been used to describe the exponential growth in the number of Christian believers in China since 1980.[2]

Giving a reliable indication of growth rates and of the total number of Chinese Christians today is a difficult task.[3] Estimations vary greatly, particularly because the membership of house churches is – understandably - neither recorded nor publicised openly. More conservative surveys estimate the Christian population in China today to be 60 million (including both Roman Catholics and Protestants), but others estimate over 120 million (8.5% of the total Chinese population). On an average Sunday more people visit a church in China than do in all of Europe.

2.2 The Spirit of Freedom in Business 

“Freedom” in the Chinese context is a complex concept, and is mostly related to the idea of independence from state interference. This is indicated in the Taoist concepts, Xiao Yao You (逍遥游). China has a long history in dealing with all kinds of rulers, emperors, and parties that limited personal freedom. Freedom of religious conviction, conscience, and speech has been limited greatly since the Communist takeover in 1949, as one’s loyalty to the communist party and one’s “patriotism” may be in question.[4] However, since the eighties, the communists have allowed a free market economy, more or less, and have stimulated free enterprise. China has since become a redoubtable player on the world economy. The one party system went together with a tamed spirit of freedom in business. This tense combination is also striking for other parts of society like religions, universities, and scientific research institutes. Although full freedom of conscience and speech is limited and often suppressed, the “spirit of freedom” is growing because many Chinese partake in a worldwide urban culture as young professionals, businessmen, artists, and researchers in university exchange programs.[5]

2.3 Businessmen Supporting the Church 

Many of these professionals consider Christianity as an ally in the development of individual and social freedom, as well as in other fundamental human values. Through work or study they come across societies greatly influenced by Christian thinking. Often they are instrumental in launching a type of free, charismatic, and untraditional urban church.[6] These churches present a different style compared to the more isolated and conservative rural independent churches, in that, they fully engage in the society around them. Since the nineties independent churches in urban areas have had the highest growth rate of Christians.[7] The so-called “Boss Christians” are one of the most remarkable phenomena in this development. Business professionals are taking leadership roles in the Chinese Protestant churches.[8] American journalist Evan Osnos shares the example of Zhen Shengtao from Wenzhou, the CEO of Shenli Group. He saw the immense spiritual gap in reclining communism and rising capitalism-without-morality,[9] so he launched a campaign for ethical awareness and to revive a “system of trust” among his colleagues. Besides pastors and evangelists, these businessmen appear to be the main players in the rapid growth of the church in China.[10] 

2.4 The Need of Moral Values 

Communist materialism arose from a defeated national confidence. Back in 1919 Chinese social elites, scholars, and students called for “Science” and “Democracy” in the 4th of May movement. However, the iconoclasm that accompanied Confucian and other religious and moral systems aided the rise of Communism. The concept of patriotism was not invented by the Communists. A history of Chinese humiliation continued from the late 19th century through the second World War, when China was invaded by several world powers from Europe and Japan. It provided a fruitful soil for the communists to synthesize both political and cultural ideas in one nation-state. But the Communist re-emphasis on patriotism didn’t provide the society with personal moral values. It paved the way for the violent elimination of thousands (or millions) of civilians, particularly during the Cultural Revolution.

When the Communist party released ways to allow for economic growth, the values of communism (e.g. work, building up community, and patriotism) were combined with marketplace values (e.g. utility, productivity, concurrence, and excellence). These factors caused enormous changes in Chinese society. There were huge building projects, fast growing cities, massive university compounds, and wide shopping areas with world famous fashion chains. These changes were and still are accompanied by growing social pressures. There is continuous pressure to achieve, to look after personal or family welfare, and to establish one’s personal share in the growing affluence of Chinese society. Many Chinese see themselves thrown into an inescapable rat race, driven by their own unrealistic expectations or those of their family members.

2.5 The ‘Cultural Christians’ 

A growing number of Chinese intellectuals and artists have demonstrated the bankruptcy of moral values in Chinese society. The communist party lost its authority as cases of corruption and scandals involving party leaders came to light. At the same time egocentric materialism and pragmatism seemed to fill the moral vacuum. Many thinkers agree that neither Confucianism nor Buddhism is able to provide a solid moral guide for modern society. They turn to Christian ethics as the answer to the “fatal weakness of contemporary Chinese culture” (unlimited materialism) because it includes integrity, freedom, unselfishness, and love.[11] The appearance of these “Cultural Christians” is remarkable. Many of them do not call themselves Christians in the strict sense of the word, though they simultaneously highlight and propagate Christian values.[12] For example, Professor You Xilin from Xi’an University argues that Christianity can be connected easily with the Chinese spirit of modernity. To him it is one of the main reasons for the rapid growth of the Christian church; it fills a collective moral gap. He believes modernity, humanism, and Christianity go easily together. The Christian value of unconditional love breaks through the “magic concept of retaliation.”[13] It promotes solidarity, equality for all people, justification not based on personal achievements, sanctification (including an inner moral compass), personal responsibility, and the priesthood of all believers.[14] During the past few decades even high-ranking party members have become Christians and strong supporters of the Church.

3. The Attractiveness of the Church

Next to changes in society that foster a general interest in Christianity as a source of responsible freedom and respectful moral values in society, different factors in the church itself play an important role in conversions to Christian faith. Caroline Fielder sees the growing dichotomy between the rural and the urban areas as a cause of the different rates of church growth in these areas. In the countryside different factors play a role in the conversion process: the intrinsically simple nature of Christian faith, individual guidance, the sense of corporate belonging, and the message of justice for the poor and the weak (in particular, women). She also mentions many other factors that pertain to both urban and rural contexts, like: miraculous healing, social activities of the church, a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness towards former persecutors, and a general impression of God’s power shining through the generous, peaceful, and helpful attitude of Christians.[15]

3.1 Radical Changes 

One of the indicators of change in Chinese converts is that they are ready to admit mistakes and failures and to ask for forgiveness[16], the very opposite of what is common in society. Also, the Christians’ forgiveness of their persecutors and their willingness to not cherish revenge makes an impression on others. In a society where bribery and corruption are widespread, albeit hidden, Christians advocate for righteousness and honesty, even if it is to their disadvantage. Bystanders notice that Christians often do not plead for their own cases but for justice and peace for all. The radical change in life convictions and behaviour draws the attention of non-Christian family members, colleagues, fellow students, and friends. 

3.2 Unconditional Love

In a stressful and demanding society heartfelt love is attractive for ordinary Chinese. Of course this kind of love is not completely new within close family and circles of friends, but the Christian love for strangers and outcasts is rather new and especially appealing. The way Christian groups and house churches welcome visitors also affects people.[17] 

3.3 The Social Dimension of the Gospel

Combined with a new lifestyle according to the Gospel, Christians show an increased awareness of needs in society and the longing to bring solutions to those needs. A splendid example of this is the Amity Foundation that has existed in China for nearly 30 years.[18] This foundation has established a wide range of programs, including capacity building in several segments of society, a social services network for cooperation in HIV/AIDS prevention, and relief programs after disasters. They show the disinterested and unconditional help of Chinese Christians to others, in contrast to the dominant “values” of the Self and the Nation[19]. 

3.4 Signs and Miracles

Quite a lot of people indicate that their interest in Christian faith started with the experience of something extraordinary that they could not explain in a rational or scientific way. There are different supernatural experiences, but miraculous healing is a very common one. University students and researchers, critical thinkers by trade, report the remarkable and sudden healings of people in their neighbourhood or in their own life on account of prayer by Christian friends. They then start to give up their scepticism toward the supernatural and begin to scrutinize Christian truth. This is not only in regards to physical diseases, but also to psychological and social problems like strong addiction to drugs or alcohol. In addition to that, many report extraordinary dreams that made them search for truth in Christian faith.[20]

3.5 The Role of the Bible

For most Chinese Christians the Bible is a holy book. They revere the Bible in a pre-critical way, and they spend a lot of time with the Bible. Chinese in general tend to treat books as holy. How people read the Bible today resembles how Chinese scholars read ancient Chinese classics. In short, they didn't take critical view toward those books, but rather believed that the ancient authors achieved a level of wisdom that their offspring could never surpass but only interpret. Non-Christian readers often like the “realism” of the Bible. They compare, for example, Ezekiel 24 (the passage in which the prophet is forbidden to mourn about his wife) with Taoist rituals.[21] Or they are struck by the stories in 1 and 2 Kings because these somehow mirror periods in China’s history with bloodshed by authorities.

3.6 Gospel Power 

In addition to that many students experience Gospel power, when they are invited to a youth group or a Christian church. Important for the pragmatic Chinese: the Gospel seems to work. They admit that Christian faith is not simply a new interesting teaching connected to a morally convincing life style, but that Christian faith has to deal with a real life. They acknowledge that the Gospel is light, which suddenly exposes all kinds of distorted thinking and behaving. The result is that they, unlike most Cultural Christians, feel provoked to give an answer to the critical light of the Gospel, to surrender to it, or to reject it.

4. Stories Underlining the Attractiveness of the Church

The number of stories illustrating the attractiveness of the Christian communities in China is uncountable. Here are a few of them.

4.1 Testimonies from Dali and Surroundings 

The Bible College of Dali in the South-West of China has over one hundred young people from over 18 tribes in the South-West of China who are preparing to serve their own people with the Gospel. Many students testify that through reading the Bible they began to understand that they were sinners and that God is love. They began to confess their guilt to their family members and friends face-to-face, thereby leaving a big impression.

The ministry of the Word and the spreading of Bibles are also accompanied by an impressive diaconal ministry: ministry among deaf people and lepers, house building projects, orphanages, AIDS centres, care for addicts, addiction prevention programs and general poverty reduction. Bai and Lisu churches bring remarkable stories of healing from addiction as well as from mental illness and physical diseases. They testify how these events were instrumental in bringing people to Christian faith, even among intellectuals.

4.2 Jiang Wan Church in Shanghai

The Jiang Wan Church in Shanghai is a “Three Self” church that started as a house group 30 years ago and numbers around 4000 attendees in three services on a Sunday now. Each year about 600 people are baptized. Young people in the church (often students) invite their non-Christian friends to the youth meeting on Saturday evening. These meetings deal with all kinds of life questions in which young people are interested. The youth leaders provide Biblical perspectives and the guests are impressed by their answers. Often they want to know more and show an interest in reading the Bible with their fellow-students. The parents notice changes in the lives of their children. Sometimes they oppose it and give their children a hard time, but more often than that they get interested by what is happening in the church, visit a service, and are impressed by the atmosphere and teaching. In this way many have found faith in Christ and have become members of the church.

4.3 Dushu Lake Church in Suzhou 

The Dushu Lake church is located in the midst of the modern university campus of Suzhou, harboring 5 universities and about 1000,000 students. The church focuses on young intellectuals by way of music ministry, film evenings, summer camps, English courses, Alpha courses, ministry for singles, leadership training programs, and an International Student Fellowship. Students are invited to Bible study and fellowship groups, are exposed to the Gospel truth, and discover its relevance to their life, their study, and their society.[22]

Although there are also critical notes about superficial conversions, one comes across moving stories like that of “Miss Worry,” the daughter of a family in the countryside who was despised by her family because she was a girl and didn’t meet the expectations of her parents. After a very difficult period emotionally as a teenager and young adult, she became a Christian during her study. She found a remarkable spiritual and moral renewal, did very well in her study and in her marriage, and most importantly she was able to forgive her parents for the emotional neglect that she suffered in her youth.

5. Experiences in Delft

In Delft we have witnessed the conversion of several Chinese intellectuals to Christianity recently. Around ten Chinese intellectuals were baptized in last two and a half years. The stories of three graduate students from Delft University illustrate the motives of young intellectuals for conversion. They are between 24 and 27 years of age.

5.1 Student 1 (Male)

After a period of indifference, one male student started searching for truth while still maintaining a lot of doubt. What convinced him was the experience of unconditional love, for the first time of his life, in the community of Christians to which he was invited. He couldn’t believe that such a kind of love existed. From the experience of this love, he concluded that God as the source of unconditional love must exist, and he started to search for this God.

5.2 Student 2 (female)

One female student had a lot of questions about the possible existence of a good God and the occurrence of evil. She was convinced of widespread evil in people and in society, and she learned that evil is something that cannot be avoided in our personal lives. She approached the question very intellectually, and was convinced through a Bible study that the suffering of Jesus was God’s solution; a solution so fully different from human solutions to evil. That convinced her in the end, and she decided to surrender her life to Christ.

5.3 Student 3 (male)

Another male student needed two years to overcome his doubts. He is a science student with a philosophical mind. He, like the first two, was educated in an atheistic home. He studied the ideas of Confucianism and Communism, and for a long period he embraced atheism, searching for personal independence. He indicated three conditions for a good life: to be rationally independent, to pursue material welfare, and to be unbound from any religious or philosophical system. However, because that threefold condition didn’t make him happy, he finally embraced Christian faith. He found in it real freedom (intellectually, psychologically and socially).

For most of these intellectuals the decision to become a Christian has far reaching consequences. They put the relationship with their family at risk, particularly with their parents. And often their colleagues don’t understand them and think that they have become “sectarians” and “anti-patriots.”

For students at the university, though, the social impact of Christian faith is less controversial. The clear change in the life of fellow students or colleagues, the experience of genuine love, and the new and profound answers of the Gospel to solve the problem of evil in persons and in society have drawn many to Christian faith.

6. Preliminary Definition Questions 

Three expressions frequently used in this study need more explanation before presenting conclusions and further implications.

6.1 ‘Highly Educated Chinese’ 

This study refers to a segment in Chinese society and among Chinese abroad that is studying in or has graduated from any form of higher education. Included are students and graduates from professional training colleges and universities, researchers, teachers and professors, as well as business professionals. Most people in this category are urban dwellers. And together they form a diffuse group of (in most cases) young urban professionals, people who have ambitions for study, a career, and enterprise. They move more and more on an international playing field, have a genuine interest for dynamics of development and growth, and cherish freedom of thinking and gathering.

6.2 ‘Conversion to Christianity’ 

The Biblical concept of conversion is first of all, “metanoia.” This Biblical Greek root word indicates a change in mindset, in basic convictions from where we think and act. Metanoia connotes that both presuppositions and goals in main life-choices are changed. In what measure it applies to Chinese intellectuals varies greatly. “Cultural Christians” have an interest in Christianity and want to advocate for its values and ethics. Their approach is mainly pragmatic or utilitarian: they see that Christian values and Christian morality can form a better basis for coexistence in society than Communism, Confucianism or Buddhism can. Cultural Christians can promote Christianity without becoming a devoted adherent of Christian faith themselves. On the other hand we see and hear many testimonies of radical conversions that include a fundamental change in thinking and in behaviour, leaving behind an “old life” and finding a new one by accepting Christ as Lord of life and death.[23] 

When dealing with conversions it is important to discern between mere cultural Christianity and personal Christian faith.[24] The signs of a “personal conversion” are: changes in the pattern of life-choices (including relationships, consumptive pattern, spending of time, etc.), being part of a Christian community, a new interest in the Bible and in prayer, and serious observation of the Christian practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

In this study we deal with the full range of the “scale of conversions,” but the main focus is on more radical personal changes.

6.3 ‘The Chinese Christian church’ 

The question of what or where the Chinese church actually is can be difficult to answer. Nobody seems to be able to give an adequate overview of the Chinese church. A satisfying description of the Chinese church is impossible for different reasons: (1) We are not able to discern something like a clearly defined Chinese church. The authorities even discern between “Christian churches” (alluding to the Protestant Three Self churches) and Roman Catholic churches, considering Roman Catholicism a separate religion. (2) The church as the body of Christ in China is divided, mainly between “official” and “non-official” churches. The rise of a “culturally adapted church” in China (a church that has lost its “independent spirit,” given up a “countercultural identity,” and become part of the dominant culture) is a main source of controversy between official Three Self churches and the unregistered “House churches.” (3) The occurrence of a multitude of sects and movements in China troubles the picture greatly. That caused the pastor-evangelist Nee To Sheng (Watchman Nee) to say that: “…the basis of division (if we can use that word at all) is a single one – that of locality alone.”[25] Nee sees geography as the only legitimate reason for division in the church. However true Nee’s observation might be, we still have to reckon with the multi-faceted diversity of the Christian church. Its shape varies now as much as was the case in the book of Acts: from a students’ Bible study and prayer group in the university campus, to a bigger group of people meeting in a house, to a group of employees meeting regularly in a hall in a company office in Shanghai.

7. Relapse of earlier converts

Not all conversions to Christian faith are lasting. A growing number of reports indicate a reverse movement: Chinese intellectuals turning back from their earlier conversion, or Christians who leave their conviction for agnosticism, atheism, or another religion. What factors are dominant in this process?

7.1. Challenges in Maintaining Faith 

Many Chinese intellectuals, who are converted to Christianity in the West seem to experience challenges in keeping their faith alive when they return to China. To illustrate some of these problems, I mention the case of a researcher who was baptized in the Netherlands and went back to China in 2014. I was able to meet him in 2015 in Central China. He shared the difficulties that he experienced to stay active and keep his faith alive: (1) Finding a good church. Somehow he had adopted a critical attitude to Three Self Churches; he felt that they were compromising too much. At the same time he was not able to get access to a house church, as he had no friends or colleagues to invite him. (2) He was very busy in his work, facing a lot of deadlines and working during the weekend frequently. He was tired from that “rat race,” he said, but he was not able to escape without facing dismissal by his boss and consequent unemployment. Besides that he really wanted to keep up a satisfying life standard for his family, including his daughter and sick mother in law, which caused him to work hard. (3) His family situation didn’t encourage the exercising of his faith. His wife and mother in law (the latter living with the family in their apartment) opposed it passively, and he had not told his father about his faith.

7.2. Reverse culture shock 

Many students or young graduates going back to China face a “reverse culture shock.” In a recent symposium in the United States about the challenges faced by Chinese intellectuals who convert to Christianity and return to China, one of the speakers argued that as many as 80% of those who profess Christ while abroad do not continue walking in their faith upon their return.[26] They nourish a critical mind regarding the Chinese culture that they left years ago. They don’t find the same freedom in the churches as they experienced in the West[27].

Dr. Bin Wang[28] mentioned three main problems of Chinese returning to Mainland China after they had become Christians in the West or joined a church in the West for a certain period. (1) Ignorance – they think for example that Three Self Churches are completely compromised. (2) Arrogance – they don’t like the Chinese churches, because they only want a Western type of church. (3) Secularization- they are immersed in their career, or they feed a vague type of spirituality, like New Age thinking. They prefer spirituality instead of religion.

Sometimes answers to the question, “Why do you want to be baptized?” included optimistic or wishful thinking: “Christianity is good”; “Christian faith gives me strength”; “Christianity will offer me mental and spiritual relief”; or, “Because I got healed.” So the real reasons for supposed conversion are often practical, going back to good feelings or positive experiences. Many intellectuals converted in the West and returning to China have some basic knowledge of Christianity, but not a profound knowledge of the Bible. Nor do they demonstrate clear changes in their lifestyle.

8. Conclusions and Discussion

8.1 Conclusions

  1. Chinese intellectuals show a general interest in Christianity because they consider the Bible and the teaching of the (Western) church based on it an important source for renewed values and ethics to build up society beyond communism and materialism.
  2. Highly educated people and business professionals demonstrate a general interest in Christian faith because they connect it with concepts of freedom and democracy –implicitly contrasting it with the one party system of CPC.
  3. There is a constant flow of reports and testimonies about (young) intellectuals who show a conversion toward Christian faith, including baptism and membership in a Christian community, because they become convinced of the truth of Christian faith for a variety of reasons: unconditional love and a forgiving attitude that Christian friends show to them, the experience of miraculous healing or recovery in their own life or the life of a person they know, and the visible life changing efficacy of the Gospel in the life of the church.
  4. Not all apparent conversions are lasting. Young Chinese intellectuals suffer from a “reverse culture shock” when they have become Christians abroad, developing a rather critical and free mindset before returning to their country. They often find it difficult to find a church to their satisfaction in China and give up gradually when they are thrown in the “rat race” of the Chinese society.
  5. So far we don’t have any idea of numbers. Noticing the rapid growth of the churches and the frequent testimonies we must conclude that many conversions occur, but how it relates to the total of population is difficult to say. That needs further research.

8.2 Discussion: Educated People an Exceptional Group? 

It is difficult to find a satisfying answer to the question whether intellectuals who turn to faith in Christ form an exceptional group.[29] Since 1949, when the communists came to power, the impression was that Christianity could maintain itself mainly in the countryside. The Western missionaries in the first half of the 20th century focused their efforts on reaching the smaller cities and villages in the provinces. Flourishing small churches were established in the countryside and among the many tribes in the mountainous area of Yunnan province. However, already in 1946, when the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students was established, the Chinese Inter Varsity Groups were already instrumental in spreading the Gospel in China among university cities.[30] The pressure, discrimination, and persecution since 1949 affected the ministry of Christian students greatly. Spontaneous meetings, house groups, and Bible study groups were strictly forbidden, as was Christian youth work in general. In the eighties, when more freedom was given, intellectuals and business people began to show a new interest in religion, and in Christianity in particular. They were searching for freedom of thinking, seeking out new moral values and an attitude in life that seemed more convincing and realistic to them than party politics, Confucianism, and many kinds of blended forms of Buddhism and Taoism.

Christianity seems to show a special attractiveness for young urban people, especially students and graduates from higher educational institutes and business professionals, because it encourages them in their search for intellectual freedom, democracy, and human values. Is the number of conversions among highly educated people bigger compared to those less educated? I am inclined to say “yes,” but this question needs further research, as does the question: How dominant in the conversion of non-intellectuals are the factors mentioned in this study? The studies of Caroline Fielder show that several factors, like the experience of healing and the social impact of the Gospel, don’t exclusively relate to intellectuals, but further comparative study is necessary to sort it out. 

9. Perspectives 

9.1 Practical Implications

This study might encourage churches and Christians in three ways: (1) It underlines the need for a great emphasis on being a loving community that welcomes foreigners; (2) It highlights the value of Christian truth as a source for freedom and living a morally good life; (3) It shows the need of a great(er) effort to prepare those who return to their country for a “reverse culture shock.”

9.2  Need for Further Research 

This initial study needs further research to find out more about why some supposed converts revert and others do not. The employment of more sociological instruments can help reveal a deeper insight in the quality and quantity of the conversions and how lasting they are.

9.3 Acknowledging the Work of the Holy Spirit 

We have tried to discern factors that are open for study and research. From the perspective of faith more should be said. As many Chinese Christians emphasize, the secret of the growth of the Chinese church is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). How He leads people to the acknowledgment of Christ and to surrender in faith is a hidden work that cannot be attributed merely to certain human, psychological, and cultural factors.

After the communist takeover and during the Cultural Revolution, the church needed to hide herself. The spirit of resistance and freedom was kept in hearts and in the houses where Christians met, despite persecution. Is the vibrant, growing church of China an answer to the many prayers of the suffering church in the last century? While including the reasons for conversion mentioned in this study, I am convinced that the continuous prayers and the steadfastness of God’s people everywhere in China prepared the way for the remarkable growth of the last thirty years.


[1] Caroline Fielder, “The Growth of the Protestant Church in China” (Paper presented at the 21st National Catholic China Conference, Seattle University, Seattle, June 24-26, 2006); Evan Osnos “Jesus in China: Christianity’s rapid rise” Tribune, June 22 (2008): 1-4. Osnos highlights the rapid growth of the Christian church in the urban setting, and the interest of students and academics in Christianity.

See also Christian Wollmann, “Patriotism and Nationalism. Implications for the Development of a Transcultural Theology” (internal Paper Hamburg-Xian-Beijing Consultation, August 2009). Wollmann mentions the general interest of students in European affairs and in Christian faith, and the fact that they are able to combine it with a fair sense of patriotism.

[2] Fielder, “The Growth of the Protestant Church in China,” 1.

[3] Estimates indicate a 9% yearly growth of the number of Christians, while total population in China shows a growth rate of 0.6%. See also Tony Lambert, “Counting Christians in China: A Cautionary Report,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 27/1 (2003), 6-10.

[4] For further study on the Chinese church in the context of a communist society, see also Aiming Wang, “Church in China, Faith, Ethics, Structure: The Heritage of the Reformation for the Future of the Church in China” (Ph.D diss., European University Studies 890, 2009).

[5] Evan Osnos, “Jesus in China: Christianity’s rapid rise”, 4. Osnos tells the story of pastor Jin Mingri, who founded Zion Church, Beijing. Most of the church members are highly educated – masters degree holders, PhD holders, and university professors. There are also executives, entrepreneurs and other professionals.

[6] Evan Osnos, Ibid., 6. See also Evan Osnos, “Jesus in China, Life on the edge”, Tribune, June 24 (2008): 2.

[7] For further research, see Kevin Xiyi Yao, “The Changing Face of the Protestant Church in China” Mission Focus, Annual Review, 13 (2005): 166-173. Yao states that urban house churches are the most dynamic sector in the Chinese church. They are characterized by their loyalty and respect of Biblical authority, with an emphasis on personal spiritual growth, and enthusiasm for mission.

[8] For this development also consult Chen Cunfu and Huang Tianhai, “The emergence of a new type of Christians in China today” Review of Religious Research 46, 2 (2004): 183-200.

[9] The affair of the poisoned milk powder is only one of the many cases.

[10] See the role of “Boss-Christians” in supporting democratic leadership in the churches and mediating between church, government, and other non-Christian communities in Cunfu and Tianhai, “The emergence…”, 195v.

[11] Evan Osnos (“Jesus in China: Christianity’s rapid rise”, 5) quotes professor Zhao Xiao, a 40 years old party member, who gained an interest in Christianity. He sees Christianity providing a solid moral foundation for China, by reducing corruption, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, promoting philanthropy, and preventing pollution. He even thinks that Christianity could help the CCP to survive.

[12] Cultural Christians plead for a modern and independent society with a high moral standard. See for further discussion in the Dutch language Bas Plaisier,”De ontwikkelingen van het Christendom in China” Kerk en Theologie 4 (2011): 337-349.

[13] You Xilin’s thoughts are summarized in unpublished lectures and papers of Christian Wollman. See Christian Wollmann, “Chinese Christianity – Christianity in the Public Sphere? You Xilin as an Example of Engaged Christianity (unpublished paper Free University Amsterdam, 15 June 2009). Also Kevin Xiyi Yao, “The Changing Face of the Protestant Church in China”, 171v.

[14] The Institute of Sino-Christian Studies (www.iscs.org.hk), established in 1995 in Hong Kong, is an interesting institute that is liaising with intellectuals in Mainland China who are interested in Christian faith.

[15] Caroline Fielder, “The Growth of the Protestant Church in Rural China”, China Online Study Centre (2010), http://www.chinaonlinestudycentre.org/churches/RuralChurches/PDFfile.

[16] “Generally non-believers think that Christian are first hypocrites, and secondly judgmental. But newly converted Christians show convincing signs to non-believers about their faith: 1. They are honest about their failures and sins and confess them. 2. They have clear moral principles, e.g. they do their best not to lie, they don’t take bribes.” (Quote from dr. Bin Wang, church worker of Dushu Lake Church, focusing on the ministry among students, in a personal encounter, October 21, 2015.)

[17] “Chinese society is stressful and hard, but in the fellowship of the church friendship and love can be experienced, and emotions can be shown.” (Quote from rev. Annet Mehldorf, pastor of the German speaking church in Shanghai, in a personal encounter, October 19, 2015).

[19] Although communism is new compared to 5000 years of total Chinese history, still many Chinese communist ideas are built upon old values and practices from imperial times. Even now people tend to compare the practices of the Qing Dynasty to what the Communist Party is doing in China.

[20] Plaisier (Ibid., 341) cites a study of the Chinese Academy of Social Science affirming that 69% of the people converted to Christianity in the last two decades indicated the healing of a family member or themselves. See also http://www.china.org.cn/china/2010-08/12/content_20690649.htm

[21] In Taoism, mourning is not forbidden, but it is regarded as unnecessary. It is related to the idea of “freedom,” meaning the rhythm of human life resembles that of nature. Living and dying are both a life-process. Death could also be a starting point of a new journey. Why should people mourn for it?

[22] Testimony of Dr. Bin Wang in a personal encounter (October 21, 2015).

[23] For different stages in conversion, from sympathising to becoming a devoted adherent, see for example the Scale of Engel as discussed in: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engel_Scale.

[24] Compare for example Hendrik Kraemer, Religion and the Christian Faith, London: Lutterwort Press (1956), 235v.

[25] Watchman Nee, What shall this man do? (Eastbourne: Victory Press, 1961), 132.

[26] Articles about “reverse culture shock” on: www.chinasource/home/blogs/going-home (February 2016). This site also refers to the ChinaSource Quarterly (December 2011), dealing with the challenges of returnees in China. Also interesting is Overseas Campus Ministries, OCM, founded in 1992. Their mission: “To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ among Mainland Chinese intellectuals through developing/delivering high-quality literature and educational resources and training, from overseas to Mainland China.” OCM publicizes The Overseas Campus Magazine and published a helpful guide for Chinese intellectuals planning to return to China: http://www.chinasource.org/ResourceLibrary/TheReturneeHandbook (December 2011).

[27] More literature on the phenomenon of “reverse culture shock,” see Nate Mirza, Home Again (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2000); Lisa Espineli Chinn, Think Home (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2011); John Eaves, “Putting Bible to Work in our Culture”, http://cms.intervarsity.org/ism/article/2044.

[28] Dr. Bin Wang, personal encounter (21st of October,  2016).

[29] For further discussion about ‘Christianity for intellectuals’, see: Plaisier, “De ontwikkelingen van het Christendom in China”, 399v.; the articles of Evan Osnos in Tribune (“Jesus in China”, June 2008) and Kevin Xiyi Yao, “The Changing Face of the Protestant Church in China”, 122v. Yao opposes the view of David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing (Washington:  Regnery Publishing, 2003). Aikman writes about the conversions among intellectuals in Beijing. Yao blames him to look at the Chinese churches through the lens of American Evangelical fundamentalism (Yao, Ibid., 8).

[30] P. Lowman, The Day of His Power (Leicester: IVP, 1983), 137v.

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