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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The rise of Asian Christianity

Section of the Great Wall of China

As the risk of generalizing, it will come as no great revelation to anyone who has spent much time with Asian Christians that they are people of prayer and passion for souls. So it's not surprising to see so much in the news lately about the rise of Asian Christianity, including its missionary thrust. Part of this is due of course to the hostage situation in Afghanistan, but this has really only spotlighted the trend in Korean and other Asian missions work for a wider audience.

This week's National Catholic Reporter featured a column called The uphill journey of Catholicism in China, which discussed the massive growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic groups in China, while noting the relative lack of success of Roman Catholics here.

Perhaps the most remarkable burst of religious energy is in China's Pentecostal Christian population. At the time of the Communist takeover in 1949, there were roughly 900,000 Protestants. Today, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, which puts out the much-consulted World Christian Database, says there are 111 million Christians in China, roughly 90 percent Protestant and mostly Pentecostal. That would make China the third-largest Christian country on earth, following only the United States and Brazil.

The Center projects that by 2050, there will be 218 million Christians in China, 16 percent of the population, enough to make China the world's second-largest Christian nation. According to the Center, there are 10,000 conversions in China every day.

Religious data is notoriously imprecise in an officially atheistic state, and not everyone accepts these eye-popping estimates. In the 2006 update of his book Jesus in Beijing, former Time Beijing bureau chief David Aikman put the number of Protestants at 70 million. Richard Madsen, a former Maryknoll missionary and author of China's Catholics, told me he would put the number still lower, at 40 million. That's in line with the CIA World Factbook, another widely consulted resource.

Various reasons are suggested for the relatively slow growth of Catholicism, but the writer, reporter John L. Allen, Jr., suggests the answer lies in the Pentecostals' expectation of the miraculous.

How would a "Christianized" China affect the region - and the world? Allen says,

By universal consensus, China is an emerging global superpower. Its economy grew at an average annual rate of 9.4 percent over the last 25 years, and today has a GDP of $11 trillion, making it the second-largest economy in the world after the United States. Foreign companies have poured more than $600 billion into China since 1978, far eclipsing what the United States spent rebuilding post-war Europe in the Marshall Plan. China now has a middle class of 200 million people, 80 million of whom are quite well-off. The country exports more in a single day than it did in all of 1978.

How things shake out religiously, therefore, is of tremendous strategic importance, even for people who don't feel any particular spiritual stake in the result. If Christianity ends up at around 20 percent of the population, for example, China could become an exponentially larger version of South Korea (where Christians are between 25-50 percent of the population, depending upon which count one accepts) -- a more democratic, rule-oriented, basically pro-Western society. On the other hand, if dynamic Muslim movements create an Islamic enclave in the western half of the country, with financial and ideological ties to fundamentalist Wahhabi forms of Islam in Saudi Arabia, at least that part of China could become a wealthier and more influential Afghanistan. If growing religious pluralism in China becomes fractious, it could mean that a well-armed and wealthy superpower is destabilized by internal conflict, posing risks to global peace and security.

Asia Times columnist Spengler discusses Allen's article in a piece entitled Christianity Finds a Fulcrum in Asia, exploring both the religious and geopolitical aspects:

Where traditional society remains entrenched in China's most backward regions, Islam also is expanding. At the edge of the Gobi Desert and on China's western border with Central Asia, Islam claims perhaps 30 million adherents. If Christianity is the liquidator of traditional society, I have argued in the past, Islam is its defender against the encroachments of leveling imperial expansion. But Islam in China remains the religion of the economic losers, whose geographic remoteness isolates them from the economic transformation on the coasts. Christianity, by contrast, has burgeoned among the new middle class in China's cities, where the greatest wealth and productivity are concentrated. Islam has a thousand-year presence in China and has grown by natural increase rather than conversion; evangelical Protestantism had almost no adherents in China a generation ago.

Read more here.

Photo by Michael Mooney, some rights reserved.

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