Great Leap Forward
The growing influence of Christians comes as a result of cooperating with the once, and sometimes still, brutally repressive government. "God has his eyes set on China," Uncle Daniel says. "I am seeing that in the policy of the government. I am seeing that in the change of the politics and economics. I'm seeing change in our morality. I believe God will allow China to become strong not just for political reasons, but far more for his kingdom purpose."
China's human-rights track record remains poor. In mid-March, the U.S. government dropped China off its list of the 10 worst violators of human rights. But that same week, China launched a deadly crackdown against pro-democracy Tibetan protesters.
The Third Church
The dazzling growth of Christianity inside China began in the late 1970s at the end of the Cultural Revolution. During that period, up to 7 million people died from widespread violence and famine.
At that time, there were an estimated 3 million Catholics and Protestants in China. Three decades later, estimates of the number of Christians vary widely, anywhere from 54 million to 130 million, the higher number representing a 43-fold increase, which would be one of the largest growth spurts in the history of Christianity.
Scholars have debated for decades about the number of Christians in China. But the new estimates both come from government sources. The higher number of 130 million reportedly comes from Ye Xiaowen, the head of China's State Administration of Religious Affairs. According to reliable reports, he used the 130 million head count at two government briefings in 2006. Bob Fu of China Aid Association has cited 130 million as a credible estimate. Other experts believe any statistic reporting over 100 million Christians is not credible.
The greatest new growth of Christianity is in urban areas. China's economic explosion over the last 20 years has profoundly changed this country of 1.4 billion people, not least its Christians.
Many analysts now see three (often overlapping) groups of Christians inside China:
First, the official associations (subdivided into Three-Self Patriotic for Protestants, and Catholic Patriotic) that are registered with the government, which must approve pastoral, academic, and top-level administrative appointments.
Second, the traditional house-church movement that has rejected oversight and registration. It has been the strongest in rural areas. When the government loosened religious and economic restrictions starting in the late 1970s, the house-church movement exploded in size.
Third, the urban house church, which is not part of either the state church or the traditional "underground" church.
Along with Chinese Christians' strong emphasis on church planting, several additional factors are driving huge changes in the makeup of Christians in China. First, rural Christians have moved to the cities, causing the growth of the once-burgeoning peasant Christian movement to level off. A second factor is the Chinese who have been educated overseas. As China opened up, many went abroad to study, and in the West, many became Christians. These students have returned to China with prized degrees from universities in America and Europe, and are ready to use their influence for the good of society and the church.
A third factor feeding Christian growth is Westerners who have taught English in Chinese schools. Through individual relationships, these teachers shared the gospel with their students, who became Christians and are now part of China's elite.