Church growth exciting but challenging too

Published June 1, 2005

Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, Rev. Ian Morrison (Presbyterian Church in Canada), and Rev. Carol Hancock (United Church of Canada) display colourful bags intricately woven by the Miao tribe in rural Kunming, which they received as gifts from Yunnan Theological Seminary. Behind them are other members of the Canadian delegation, seminary leaders and Bible translators.


An ecumenical delegation led by Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada ended a visit to China’s Protestant churches exhilarated by the continuing growth of Christianity in this predominantly atheist state but mindful of attendant challenges including a shortage of trained pastors and buildings to meet the mounting needs of the faithful.

Though the 12-day visit was not meant to evaluate the state of religious freedom in communist China, delegation members also inquired about the new religious regulations promulgated by the state, which came into force March 1. The consensus among Chinese religious leaders was that it was another step towards enforcing “the rule of law instead of the rule by law” in China. (Outside the country, religious and human rights groups have expressed mixed reactions to the regulations, which reiterate the requirement for religious bodies to register but which also guarantees some legal rights to religious groups.)

“The growth of China’s churches is almost like the Pentecost,” said Archbishop Hutchison, during a meeting with Bishop Michael Fu of the Patriotic Catholic church of China, which claims a membership of six million across the country. “Each church we’ve been to is full and there are more people outside or watching from video monitors. From one point of view it’s a great joy, and from another, a concern that there aren’t enough church leaders.”

The delegation, which visited China at the invitation of the China Christian Council (CCC), toured churches, seminaries, Bible schools, Bible translation centers, and rural indigenous minority church areas in Shanghai, Nanjing, Kunming and Beijing from April 7 to 18.

During meetings with leaders of officially-recognized churches under the CCC and Three Self-Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches in China (TSPM), discussions focused on the difficulties of coping with a Christian population that numbered only 700,000 during the communist takeover of 1949 and is now 16 million and growing. This figure does not include those who have joined “house churches,” sometimes referred to as “underground churches,” which refuse to officially register with government. Western scholars say they number between 20-40 million. However, Christians are still a minority (about 3 per cent) in this land of 1.3 billion people.

The CCC has about 50,000 church buildings and meeting points (temporary worship halls), about 27,000 pastors, associate pastors, elders and evangelists, and 18 theological seminaries and Bible schools, which can barely keep up with the demand for educated clergy. Archbishop Hutchison noted that while in Canada the ratio between clergy and church members is 1:200, in most parts of China it is 1:7,000.

Because churches and seminaries were shut down and most clergy sent to labour camps during the Cultural Revolution, a majority of today’s church leaders are young, new graduates, many of whom have limited experience not only in interpreting the Gospel but of running a church.

Rev. Xinyi An, chairperson of the committee of Three Self-Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches in Jiangsu province and principal of the Jiangsu Bible School, said that when the government allowed churches to reopen in the early 1980s, “the main job was getting back our buildings” which had been confiscated during the Cultural Revolution. It was only in the 1990s that the Protestant churches focused on theological education and the development of doctrine, he said.

“We need to raise the quality of our faith,” said Rev. Cao Sheng-jie, CCC president in an interview. “Most of our Christians are in the countryside and they have a low level of education. Some have mixed concepts, superstitions and religious practices that deviate from the right faith.” She said the need is urgent not only to train more ministers but to raise the bar on those ordained following reports that many rural Christians have already fallen for “heretical cults,” including one that claims that Jesus Christ has returned in the form of a peasant woman.

The CCC is working at what it calls “theological reconstruction,” the idea of overcoming traditional theology introduced by Western Christian missionaries in the 13th and 19th centuries who were widely seen as collaborators of colonial rulers in China. The CCC is setting up “contextual theology” that is relevant to Chinese society.

“Our culture has been changing fast. People are looking for answers and churches are unable to answer right way,” said Rev. Kan Bao Ping, CCC associate general secretary. “We want to enable the church to retell the story of Jesus in the Chinese context.” Today’s Christians, he added, “have no experience of a particular denomination but they study traditions and ecumenical experiences. We don’t want them to have a Bible-only, fundamentalist thinking … We have courses on church and society because we have to be among the people. We have to be a bridge between church and society.”

The concept of “theological reconstruction,” introduced by Bishop K.H. Ting, the last Anglican bishop in what is now post-denominational Christian China, has not been without its critics among seminarians, particularly those who are evangelical.

“The idea has percolated but it doesn’t seem to have gone far,” observed Ron Wallace, the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s associate secretary for international ministries, after meeting faculty and students at seminaries in Shanghai and Nanjing.

Rev. Carol Hancock, the United Church of Canada’s general council minister for regional relations, called the visit “a wonderful opportunity for me to learn more about the Protestant Church in China.” She added: “Aware that I heard almost everything through a translator, I am cautious about first impressions, but I certainly was impressed by the commitment to discipleship that we heard from all our Christian sisters and brothers.”

Ms. Cao said the delegation’s visit was “very important and significant” since Chinese and Canadian churches have had a history of “mutual support and long-term friendship.”

Canadian Christian missionary presence in China dates back to 1888 (Anglican presence was established by Bishop William Charles White in 1910), and ended during the 1949 revolution. There was minimal contact between the Chinese and Canadian churches until 1972, when Protestant and Roman Catholic churches formed the China Working Group, which advocated for and encouraged the engagement process with China and sought to interpret the new China to Canadians. In 1978, the Presbyterian, United, Roman Catholic and Anglican churches formed the Canada China Program, which sought to develop formal links with Chinese churches. Relationships between Canadian and Chinese churches were re-established in 1981, with representatives of the Canadian Council of Churches being the first overseas ecumenical guests invited by the CCC.

The Anglican Church of Canada, which established a formal relationship with the CCC in the late 1980s, is currently funding – along with the United and Presbyterian churches – the education of a Chinese priest currently pursuing a master’s degree in theology in Toronto. In 2003 it hosted a visit by a CCC delegation to Toronto.

During its visit the delegation also:

  • Visited the Yunnan Theological Seminary where students come from 18 out of 26 indigenous minority groups in the province. Delegates from the Presbyterian Church in Canada promised to look for funds to help the seminary where hard times were visible in the bare-boned and cramped quarters shared by students and teachers. The seminary has been suffering from a shortage of teachers because it is unable to provide fixed salaries. Meanwhile, members of the seminary’s choir who were dressed in colourful indigenous costumes rendered powerful musical numbers. Ms. Hancock told them: “The beauty of your music brings tears to my eyes…I know we are all connected, we are united in Christ.” The delegation also shared the experience of Canada’s aboriginal Anglicans, particularly their struggle to create their own indigenous ministry.
  • In Kunming, the delegation also visited Bible translation centres and were told of the perennial lack of funds, which has stalled the progress of Bible translation from Mandarin to other indigenous languages. The delegation later visited an indigenous Christian village of the Miao tribe where they were again treated to lively musical numbers.
  • Met with Ye Xiao Wen, director general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. (See related story)
  • Attended Sunday service at the Shanghai Community Church, where Archbishop Hutchison preached.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

Related Posts

Skip to content