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Have China’s Christians Peaked? Pew Researches the Data Debate

New report examines the challenges of measuring religion among Chinese Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, and other beliefs.
Have China’s Christians Peaked? Pew Researches the Data Debate
Image: Jonathan Saruk / Getty Images
Members of a Chinese house church meet for Sunday worship in Beijing, China.

Christianity’s growth in China has stalled since 2010.

That’s according to a new Pew Research Center report measuring religion in China published today. In 2010, approximately 23.2 million adults in China self-identified as Christian. In 2018, 19.9 million adults did so, which Pew researchers say is not a “statistically significant gap.”

Among Chinese Christians, the percentages of zongjiao (Mandarin for “organized religion”) activity have also stagnated. Nearly 40 percent (38%) of Christians said they engaged in such activities once a week in 2010, but that figure dipped slightly to 35 percent in 2018.

“Some scholars have relied on a mix of fieldwork studies, claims by religious organizations, journalists’ observations and government statistics to suggest that China is experiencing a surge of religion and is perhaps even on a path to having a Christian majority by 2050,” the Pew report stated.

But more than a decade’s worth of data from surveys conducted in China provide “no clear confirmation of rising levels of religious identity in China, at least not as embodied by formal zongjiao (宗教) affiliation and worship attendance.”

Pew published its previous report on religion in China in May 2008 ahead of the Beijing Olympics. While that study did not touch on the rate of growth of the Christian faith in the country, it acknowledged the presence of “indirect survey evidence” that suggested a “potentially large number of unaffiliated, independent Christians.”

Its latest report highlighted statistics from the Chinese government that appeared promising at first glance as the number of Protestants in the country jumped from 700,000 to 38 million between 1949 and 2018. However, the two sets of data cannot be directly compared to one another as they utilized different sourcing and methodology and did not mention whether children were included in the count, Pew said.

Between 2016 and 2018, the number of Protestants increased by 10 million (from 28 to 38 million). However, the origins of this rise are uncertain, Pew said: It may be due to an influx of new converts or when Christians who previously worshiped in unregistered churches became recategorized and gained legal status.

“While many Chinese people convert to Christianity, some Chinese Christians apparently also leave the faith,” Pew researchers added.

One-third of the adults who identified as Christian in a 2016 survey by the China Family Panel Studies (CFPS) did not do so in the 2012 analysis. This meant that the number of Christian Chinese adults grew by 1 percent during this period.

In the same surveys, one quarter of the adults who said they were Christian in 2012 no longer identified as such in 2016. One in 5 of them also said they did not believe in Jesus Christ or Tianzhu (the Mandarin words for “God” in Catholicism) in 2018.

The Pew report highlighted the difficulty in representing Christianity in China accurately due to factors like the lack of available data, Mandarin-to-English translation gaps, and how culture and politics have impacted religious activity in the country.

As Pew was not permitted to conduct surveys within China, researchers analyzed surveys conducted by academic groups based in the country: the CFPS, Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS), the China Labor-force Dynamics Survey (CLDS), and the World Values Survey (WVS). It also examined data from the Chinese government and state-run religious associations like the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TPSM).

There are also subtle differences in the Chinese words used to connote English terms like “religion” and “belief.” Zongjiao (宗教) refers to organized religion and encapsulates five officially recognized faiths in the country: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, and Taoism. Xinyang (信仰), which means “believe,” generally implies a formal commitment or serious conviction, while xiangxin (相信), which denotes “belief in,” does not always carry religious connotations.

Christian demographics and composition

An adult in China who says that Christianity is their zongjiao xinyang–a formal commitment to an organized religion or belief system–is likely to be a woman (72%), more advanced in age, who possesses a lower educational attainment than the average Chinese adult according to the 2018 CGSS.

There is a range of estimates for the number of Christians in China because of differences in sources and methods used, and also because some analyses have made adjustments to the limitations imposed by survey and government data, noted the Pew report.

For instance, the extent of geographical sampling coverage may affect the accuracy of Christian estimates. “Surveys may yield a slightly lower Protestant estimate if Wenzhou – said to be the most Christian city in China – is excluded from the sample,” Pew stated.

The government’s “heightened scrutiny” of Christian activities is another contributing factor that may add to the perception that Christianity is not growing in China, although this is a hypothetical notion as there is no available data to reflect it, said Pew. Nonetheless, researchers recognized that there are existing constraints in data collection, like how many Christians worship in underground churches (dixia jiaohui 地下教会) or house churches (jiating jiaohui 家庭教会) and will likely refrain from revealing their religious associations. Christians in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which prohibits members from holding any religion, may also withhold this information in a survey, said Pew.

Just two percent of Chinese adults, or 20 million people, picked “Christianity” as their religious belief according to the 2018 CGSS. Protestants make up close to 90 percent (18 million) of this figure and the remainder are mostly Catholics.

Other surveys reflect similar findings: two percent of Chinese adults said they “believe in” (xinyang) Christianity in the 2018 WVS, while three percent said they “belong to” (shuyu 属于) Christianity in a 2016 CFPS survey.

About 1 percent of respondents identified with Christianity in the 2021 CGSS, although Pew noted that the survey had a smaller respondent pool of 19 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, compared to 28 in the earlier 2018 survey.

Adults who formally identified Christianity as their religion (zongjiao) are more likely to say that religion is very important in their lives, compared to those who believe in Jesus Christ and/or Tianzhu but do not necessarily identify as Christian (61% vs. 29%). The former are also more likely to say they attend worship services once a week or more (55% vs. 21%).

In its broadest measures of Christian affinity, close to eight percent of Chinese adults have connections to Christianity as they identify as a believer, believe in the Christian God, or participate in a type of worship attendance common to Christians, Pew said.

The more beliefs, the merrier

What may also affect estimates of Christianity’s growth in China is that many Chinese adults hold multiple (albeit contradictory) religious beliefs and engage in various religious practices, even if only 1 in 10 formally identify with a particular religion like Christianity or Islam.

In East Asia, “people may practice elements of multiple traditions without knowing or caring about the boundaries between those traditions, and often without considering themselves to have any formal religion,” wrote Purdue University’s sociology professor Fenggang Yang.

About 40 percent of adults in China believe in at least one of the following: Jesus Christ, Tianzhu, Buddha and/or a bodhisattva, Taoist deities, Allah, or ghosts. One in five (20 percent) believe in more than one of these religious concepts and figures.

Less than 10 percent (7%) say they believe in Jesus or Tianzhu and only two percent say they hold this belief while rejecting all other gods and supernatural elements.

Cultural practices that have spiritual undertones, like visiting the gravesites of family members, choosing an auspicious day for special events, and belief in feng shui, are commonplace. For example, 75 percent of adults in China say they go to a family member’s gravesite at least once a year, especially during Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day), to pay their respects by engaging in religious rituals like burning incense and joss paper money as a form of ancestor veneration.

Chinese Christians may do likewise as a means of honoring their loved ones, but will often refrain from engaging in ancestor worship.

Church landscape

Protestant churches in China are also not proliferating.

The number of registered Protestant venues, which includes churches (jiaotang 教堂) and meeting points (juhuidian 聚会点) like apartments or office spaces, increased substantially between 1997 and 2008. But they have now “roughly leveled off” according to the Pew study.

There were approximately 60,000 “legal Protestant venues” in 2018, a slight increase from 58,000 venues in 2009, according to data from China’s State Council Information Office.

These numbers do not capture Protestant house churches or unofficial meeting points, Pew acknowledged. Some scholars, Pew added, also believe that underreporting occurs frequently to “appear compliant with the state’s goal to contain religion.” In the Fengxian district of Shanghai, local officials referred to 24 registered Christian worship sites in 2019 even though they reported having accepted 73 (out of 86) unauthorized Christian sites into the official system in 2018.

Familial ties

A majority of Christians in China did not grow up with Christian parents. About one third (31%) of Christians had a Christian mother, while one fifth (21%) had a Christian father.

Christians are also the least likely religious group (38%) to marry or cohabitate with someone who shares a similar faith according to the 2018 CGSS. By comparison, Buddhists (45%), adults who identify with folk religion (78%), and Hui Muslims (96%) are more likely to do so.

Religious ‘nones’?

A majority of Chinese adults (90%) say they hold no religious beliefs (zongjiao xinyang) in the 2018 CGSS. Another study by the WVS shows that 9 in 10 adults do not have any religious beliefs as well. But only one-third of Chinese adults identify as atheist (wu shen lun zhe 无神论者) according to the 2018 WVS.

The disparity in recorded figures may arise because zongjiao typically refers to belonging to a religious organization or belief system. Survey results may not accurately reflect Chinese adults’ understanding of the term “religion” as they may still continue to hold to certain spiritual beliefs. For example, some may not consider their beliefs in Buddha a religion, Pew observed.

Consequently, the proportion of adults who say they are irreligious is “far larger” than the proportion of adults who “reject any belief in gods or who never engage in spiritual activities.” What this distinction looks like numerically: only 61 percent of Chinese adults say they do not believe in (xiangxin) any gods or deities in the 2018 CFPS survey. But when belief in supernatural forces or participation in Chinese customs is included, “the rate of non-religion” drops further, although Pew did not reveal what this figure was.

CT interviewed experts and scholars on China’s religious landscape on what was surprising, concerning, and hopeful about the Pew report:

Fenggang Yang, founding director of the Center on Religion and the Global East at Purdue University

I’m most surprised by the boldness of the Pew Research Center in releasing this report at this time. The report is primarily based on secondary analysis of surveys, instead of Pew's usual practice of conducting their own surveys. The analyzed surveys in this report are sponsored and supervised by the Chinese Communist authorities. The Communist authorities under Xi Jinping since 2012 have increased restrictions and repressions on religion, cracked down on Christians and Muslims, and campaigned for atheist education in schools and propaganda through mass media.

In an environment that is increasingly hostile to religion, who would want to answer survey questions on religion? What is the response rate in each of the surveys included in the report? I can’t find any information about this. Moreover, it is very likely that many others declined to respond, refused to answer the religion-related questions, or selected options in the close-ended questions without taking it seriously.

The report admits some of the limits of these surveys. Nevertheless, it claims that these are the best surveys available for secondary data analysis. But, the word “best” here is not about the quality of the surveys, merely about the availability of some survey datasets. While the quality of the surveys is unknown or in serious doubt, the Pew Research Center is bold–probably too bold–to put out their findings in this report. They may have done the best they can in terms of technical analysis and presentation, but the numbers and charts cannot be taken for granted as revealing the reality, and is not even close to approximating it.

In short, great caution is absolutely necessary in reading this report. When information is lacking, some information is not always better than no information, because there is the danger of misinformation or misleading information.

The most hopeful or positive finding is that despite the increased repression of religion, a significant proportion of religious believers are courageous in openly admitting their religious beliefs and practices to strangers–survey interviewers who might be accompanied by local officials. In other words, the percentage of Christians here means that these are the most committed and open Christians who dare to be open about their religion in this increasingly hostile political environment.

Up to now, nobody has denied the rapid growth of the number of Christians in China in the last four decades or so. If so many ordinary believers have stood firm in the current political environment in response to surveys, I’m hopeful that Christianity will continue to grow in the coming years.

Chloë Starr, professor of Asian Theology and Christianity at Yale Divinity School

I don’t find much that is surprising. The Pew report is strong on the technical difficulties of accurately reporting religious adherence in China—such as discrepancies in reporting between registered and authorized sites; regional sampling issues for Christianity; variable terminology for belief—but is less focused on political or sociological speculation as to why there is a change in reported numbers.

For instance, the report reproduces data from the annual China General Social Survey reports showing the reported numbers of Protestant adults in sample years between 2010 and 2018. There’s a huge fluctuation in these numbers, with a 5 million loss from 2012 to 2013, then a 3 million gain by 2015, and a 9 million differential over this period, which is not credible. It is not at all surprising, however, that 2017 and 2018 should report lower numbers (16 and 18 million respectively) since this period saw new religious regulations and a changed political ethos, especially regarding unregistered churches. The data for these years is less likely to indicate fewer Christians than more cautious reporting on the part of believers.

It's concerning that we still can’t get accurate data from one of the most surveilled countries in the world, and the degree of engineered obfuscation points to a climate where authorities still downplay and discourage religious adherence, and believers are inhibited from attending worship and from self-identifying as Christian.

The report is helpful in deflating some of the hype on “potentially the greatest Christian nation on earth” that was prevalent when statistics were showing a rapid upsurge in belief, and in challenging a (Western?) fixation on statistics as an indicator of church “success” or import, given the impossibility of determining their accuracy. The Pew report itself points to the need for a variety of means of surveys and the particular issues with reporting in China.

One of the limitations of the grand Pew surveys is that they are inevitably five years out of date when published. The latest data incorporated into this survey is 2018, which predates COVID-19, the shift to online worship, and the (ongoing) recovery of church congregations, all of which have had a significant effect. The entrenchment of Xi Jinping’s policies is not yet fully reflected in this data, so we can probably expect a more marked decline in congregational worship and even greater fluctuations in adherence data in the next survey reporting on the present.

Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, director of the Global Asia Institute at Pace University

The findings indicate a rich and lively religious life, both formal and informal, in today’s Chinese society. Even though Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism) remains a minority experience, its social and cultural influence is disproportionate to its small membership in the overall population. It is heartening to learn that at least before COVID, “the number of people with some connection to Christian faith is greater than zongjiao measures reveal.”

This has much to do with the extraordinary pastoral work and social service done by mainland Chinese Christians. Many registered and unregistered churches have developed charities, bookstores, cafés, private schools, and other social services to promote Christian values and practices among fellow citizens.

The survey also reveals “a subset of Christians who are more religious” and more well-organized “than those who say they believe in Jesus Christ and/or Tianzhu.” The Chinese Catholics and Protestants in both registered and unregistered churches are in a better position to respond to new and old challenges if they have developed their own networks of support and communication.

Pew’s report offers a helpful historical lens through which to evaluate the changing official policies towards organized and autonomous Christian communities, starting from Document 19 in 1982, through the less ideologically stringent rule under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, to Xi Jinping’s call for the sinicization of religions. Today’s Chinese government is not turning the clock back to the Maoist era, but the overall trend is to enforce more regulatory restrictions on organized religious activities at the local level.

Although contemporary Western political discourse on China is characterized by decoupling and mistrust, the rich history of cross-cultural exchange since 1978 has provided a well of friendships and an extensive web of networks to sustain Chinese Christians. It is just difficult to collect information about the faith experience of these informal actors in the standard nation-based surveys.

Xi Lian, professor of World Christianity at Duke Divinity School

The most surprising finding in the report was the 7 percent who responded affirmatively to the question “Do you believe in Jesus Christ,” in contrast to the 2 or 3 percent who self-identified with Christianity (as a religious belonging) or believed in a “religion” in some surveys. The 7 percent figure may be more revealing and accurate because the survey question used the language of the believers.

Most Chinese Christians would say that what they believe in is not a religion, but a truth. After all, zongjiao (religion) is a term adopted by the secular elites in modern China and carries a stigma—something at odds with modernity. Imagine asking “Are you a religionist?” 7 percent is surprising because it is higher than the mainstream estimates of the percentage of Chinese who are Christians. The 2022 CIA World Factbook puts it at 5.1%.

The various surveys contain some inconsistencies, but they do suggest that the era of Christianity’s explosive growth since the 1980s is over. We need more time to find out if Christianity in China has peaked. There are regional differences, and the full implications of the recent, rapid urbanization for the Chinese church are yet to be seen. For instance, how much of the hemorrhage in the membership of rural churches has turned into new blood in urban churches?

What is concerning is seen indirectly in some surveys: the apparent leveling off of Christian identification suggests in part a hesitance to do so in view of increased hostilities of the Chinese state. The new restrictions, such as those directed at minors (under the age of 18) for church attendance, have indeed dented religious observance of both children and their parents. The rise of ultranationalism has also added to the chill facing Chinese Christians since Christianity is increasingly being identified with a hostile West.

Some of the new developments that I find most hopeful are not reflected in this report, such as the agility of many urban churches to adapt to the new political environment, breaking up into cell groups and moving worship services, Bible study, and pastoral training online. The 7 percent who self-identify as believing in Jesus Christ, even if it represents a larger-than-actual Christian following in China if stricter criteria are applied, still suggests a remarkable vitality and resilience of Christianity in China in the face of severe restrictions imposed in recent years, the intense competition from the new, state-sponsored religion of nationalism, as well as economic opportunities and pressures that make religious observance more difficult.

Jesse Sun, assistant professor of history of Christianity at Belmont University

It’s intriguing that the survey distinguishes between “believe in” (xiangxin) and “trust and uphold” (xinyang) when estimating the number of Christians in China. The former will predictably yield more results than the latter, as “xinyang” suggests an ideological competition with the Chinese Communist Party, which demands exclusive ideological loyalty from its members. This nuance is indeed a significant methodological advancement. Additionally, the survey's attempt to cross check individuals who believe in Jesus Christ while also believing in other religious figures is a nod to the complex religious landscape of China.

What’s most concerning is that the survey seems to privilege state and official statistics, which serves more as a testament to the difficulty of obtaining independent, voluntary, and representative data than as reliable evidence for the trajectory of Christian population growth in China. In an environment where many unregistered house churches are being shut down and can't even maintain regular worship, they are unlikely to respond to a survey or identify as Christian. This underreporting is a significant concern, especially since most scholars agree that the number of Christians in unregistered churches is at least as many as, if not more than, those in state-approved three-self churches.

It's encouraging to see a nuanced approach when estimating the number of Christian houses of worship. The survey notes discrepancies between various reporting levels: government officials tend to report the smallest numbers, while three-self church leaders may be more willing to disclose newly incorporated meeting points. This reflects the nuanced understanding of the Chinese terms for “register” (dengji or zhuce), which could be manipulated for political reasons. It's a sign that the surveyors are aware of the complexities involved in obtaining accurate data in a politically sensitive environment.

Overall, the survey is a commendable effort to map China's complex religious landscape and it indeed broadens our understanding in many aspects. Meanwhile, given the tradition of state dominance, where the government from imperial China to the present has always sought to monitor and reduce the influence of religion in society, I won't be surprised if official statistics keep suggesting that the number of Christians in China has plateaued.

Brent Fulton, Founder of ChinaSource

I’m surprised at the consistency across several surveys that found roughly 2-3 percent of respondents identified as Christians. At the same time, however, this figure must be treated with much caution. As the report points out, Protestant Christians tend to be concentrated in certain provinces and cities of China, and Catholic believers are even more geographically concentrated. We do not know the geographical distribution of the various survey respondents, but given the uneven distribution of Christians in China, they are likely underrepresented in the data.

What is concerning is that while it is impossible to know the true number of Christians in China or gauge the growth or decline of the church in a comprehensive manner, anecdotal evidence would seem to support the observation that the church’s growth has plateaued. Of particular concern is the state of the church among young adults and youth.

In the past fifty years, China’s church experienced two significant growth spurts: the explosion of the rural church in the 1970s and 1980s and the emergence of a vibrant urban movement in the 2000s. Those who grew up during the rural revival are now in their fifties and sixties. Many in the urban congregations are now middle-aged. In the years since these surveys were conducted, youth and student ministry, along with Christian-run schools and activities such as summer camps, have been severely curtailed due to the pandemic and to government restrictions on religious activities for children under 18. The survey data showing that Christians were the least likely to have grown up in homes with parents of the same faith also seem to suggest that Christianity is not being passed on generationally. How the church will meet the needs of its next generation remains a critical question.

What I find positive has less to do with the data itself and more to do with Pew’s transparency in acknowledging the formidable barriers to accurately quantifying religious believers in China. While considerable attention has been given over the past several decades to the question of how many Christians are in China, there is no way to answer this question definitively. When asked in the 1990s about the size of China’s church, veteran CIM missionary David Adeney responded, “As I recall, our Lord did not say ‘count my sheep,’ but ‘feed my sheep.’” Rather than fixating on statistics (as we in the West are prone to do), those who care about the church in China would do well to heed Adeney’s reminder.

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]

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