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Culture Q&A

Brent Fulton

Change and challenges

Understanding three decades of Chinese church growth

Change and challenges

Brent Fulton (Gary Fong/Genesis)

Brent Fulton (no relation to me) is the founder of ChinaSource, a Christian organization that works to help the global church better understand China’s rapidly growing church. The author of China’s Urban Christians: A Light That Cannot Be Hidden, Fulton is no newcomer to China: He started working with China Ministries International in Hong Kong in 1985 and has been tracking the rise of China’s churches since then. He announced in September that he will step down as ChinaSource president.

What has surprised you most about the Chinese church in the past few decades? The rules that govern what Christians can and can’t do in China have been in place since the early 1980s, and haven’t changed much. Every time I’ve been to China in the past 15 years, I saw Christians doing something and thought, “You can’t do that in China”—but they’re doing it. Believers are creative despite the restrictions. They’ve moved into new areas, opening stand-alone urban house churches, publishing Christian books, and setting up Christian websites, counseling centers, and schools. Until now, the Chinese government has rarely quashed these things.

What’s the greatest change that you’ve seen in the Chinese church between the ’80s and today? When I first got involved in China, the church was primarily rural. It was very much a church in survival mode trying to meet immediate needs. Now we’ve seen a shift to a younger, more cosmopolitan church that has a very different outlook on life. There’s a very different sense of what’s possible because they didn’t grow up with all these government restrictions. No one has told them they are marginalized in society.

Is this more urban church facing its own set of challenges? The original challenges were very practical: There weren’t enough Bibles or trained pastors. They couldn’t meet because they were under government pressure. A lot of those needs have been met and the political situation has changed. Now the challenges are not too different from what we face in the West: How do we disciple the next generation, tempted by materialism? How do you nurture healthy marriages among first-generation Christians who have no frame of reference on what a Christian family should look like?

Because the church was previously in survival mode, there wasn’t much talk about the succession of leadership or how to run the church well. Nowadays they are discussing church structure, church growth, and denominations.

As the Chinese church undergoes these changes, does this shift how the Western church relates to it? In the ’80s and ’90s, the overseas church had a very significant role to play in providing theological training and materials. It also sent Christians to teach on university campuses or start businesses. You can find many Chinese Christians today who trace their faith journeys back to the witness of those Christians.

Today, China isn’t as welcoming of foreign teachers—and with the new ranking system for foreigners in China, it’s getting harder to get a visa into China. Foreigners used to be a real novelty in China, so if you went to teach, you would be considered an attraction. That’s changed. A Chinese church with foreign connections is becoming more of a liability as China continues to become more anti-foreign.

The big question has shifted from “How do we serve the church in China?” to “How do we serve with the church in China?” Today, it’s the believers in China who are on the cutting edge of new ministry initiatives, as they should be. There’s a role for foreigners to serve as mentors to Christians who are doing things that the Chinese church hasn’t done in the past, such as journalism, counseling, and education.

The global church can provide friendship and encouragement as the Chinese church plows new ground. We should consider how we can encourage them, pray for them, and be there for them.

‘The global church can provide friendship and encouragement as the Chinese church plows new ground. We should consider how we can encourage them, pray for them, and be there for them.’

Can you describe some trends that will define the Chinese church in the next decade? Certainly denominationalism. There are some who very enthusiastically embrace the Reformed tradition. Their churches are looking more Reformed in terms of their structure, leadership, beliefs, and ethos. We’re probably going to see more differentiation between churches if that trend continues. In the past churches had their distinctives—the biggest being the charismatic distinctive—but they didn’t emphasize it as much. They didn’t have a fully formed paradigm and worldview around their distinctive like the Reformed church does.

Another trend we are seeing is the missions movement: People are thinking about missions and mobilizing Christians to go into missions. But not everyone’s excited about that: Some wonder, “Why are we going overseas when we have so much work to do at home?” Others affirm that mission work is important to the church, but they criticize the way the movement’s leaders promote it. They think it’s a lot of hype and not a lot of substance.

Does the American church have any misconceptions about its Chinese counterpart? A few weeks ago I was talking to my Uber driver and found out she’s a Christian. When I told her what I did, she said: “Wow, is China still rounding up the Christians and executing them?”

That’s the most common misconception that I hear, that it’s illegal to be a Christian in China and all the Christians are actively being persecuted. Certainly there are restrictions on the church, and in the last couple of years we’ve seen the potential for even greater restrictions. But when I talk to believers in China about their challenges, that’s usually not the first thing they talk about. I think that by homing in on that one narrative, we miss a lot of the complexity of what’s going on with the church in China.

How will the new religious regulations, which went into effect in February, change what the Chinese church looks like in the future? In recent years, the vision in the cities has been to follow a “megachurch” model and create a stand-alone church where hundreds of people can meet openly on a Sunday. I think some are rethinking that model, as it will no longer be viable if the religious regulations are enforced. They may need to go back to the home church model.

It raises a really interesting question for the church: If the restrictions increase to the point where Christians can’t gather together and do their own thing, then how will the church relate to society? In the last decade, we’ve seen the church carve out its own space in areas like publishing or Christian education. But with that space shrinking, they’re going to ask the question, “How do we live our Christian faith in a way that is within the restrictions that we are facing? Instead of having a Christian school or Christian counseling, how do I do that as a Christian within a secular society?”