China: Religious demography and house churches

Last November (21-22, Nov 2008), the China State Council Development Research Center organized a seminar on “Christianity and Social Harmony — Special Session on House Church”. This is the first of its kind organized by a Chinese governmental sector. However, soon after the seminar, the Ministry of Civil Affairs issued a statement for banning activities organized by the China Federation of Christian House Churches.

Latest Crackdown

The statement said (via cool mountain house at douban):


Upon investigation, the China Federation of Christian House Churches has not been registered but operated as an proper association. According to Article 35 of the Registration of Social Organizations Ordinance, all activities organized by the China Federation of Christian House Churches are to be banned.

The douban article (reposted from artblog) points out that:


According to academic research, the number of unregistered NGOs is 10 times that of the registered ones. In 2008, NGOs in particular house churches have played a significant role in relief work after May 12 earthquake and contributed to the development of harmonious society. Now that the Ministry of Civil Affairs has pinpointed the China Federation of Christian House Churches as the target of crack down, it seems that the Ministry will become the third major force following the public security and religion department in repressing house churches. All Christians must be aware of such a trend and pray for Love and Justice in China, pray for the fundamental values of house churches in an difficult environment. It also implies that a large sector of the civil society has been defined illegal. It is a set back at the 30th anniversary of opening-up and reform, a severe violation of democracy and rule of law which is the essence of the ruling party and state policies and the harmonious society.

Below is a brief update of the religious demography in the past decade, which gives some background to the recent crackdown.

Religious demography

On October 16, 1997, China’s State Council Information Center released the “White Paper: Freedom of Religious Belief in China”, claiming:


According to incomplete statistics, there are over 100 million followers of various religious faiths, more than 85,000 sites for religious activities, some 300,000 clergy and over 3,000 religious organizations throughout China. In addition, there are 74 religious schools and colleges run by religious organizations for training clerical personnel.

Very interestingly, the White Paper on Progress in China’s Human Rights Cause in 2004 released on April 13, 2005 by China’s State Council Information Center says China’s religious demography remains 100 million, the clergy members remain 3000, 000, and the number of national and regional religious organizations also remains unchanged (more than 3,000), but the number of venues for religious activities rose to 100, 000.

According to China’s first major survey on religious beliefs conducted by professors Tong Shijun (童世骏) and Liu Zhongyu (刘仲宇) of Shanghai-based East China Normal University, 31.4 percent of Chinese aged 16 and above (or about 300 million) are religious. This figure is three times the official figure released in 2005.

It is noteworthy that 62 percent of the religious believers surveyed are in the 16-39 age groups, while only 9.6 percent are 55 years old or older.

According to this survey, Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Christianity and Islam are the top five religions, accounting for 67.4% of believers. About 200 million people are Buddists, Taoists or worshippers of legendary figures, accounting for 66.1 per cent of all believers. The survey finds 12% of all believers, or 40 million, are Christians.

USA’s “International Religious Freedom Report 2007: China” released on September 14, 2007 quoted China’s governmental figures as follows:

There are more than 100 million Buddhists;

There are more than 25,000 Taoist priests and nuns, more than 1,500 Taoist temples, and two Taoist schools;

There are as many as 20 million Muslims and 10 predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Hui, estimated to number nearly 10 million;

There are 5.3 million persons registered with China’s official Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), and an equal or greater number who worship in unregistered Catholic churches affiliated with the Vatican;

Officials estimated that at least 20 million Christians worship in official churches;

According to NGO reports, Ye Xiaowen, Director of State Ethnic Affairs Commission, said to audiences at Beijing University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that the number of Christians had reached 130 million by the end of 2006, including about 20 million Catholics.

The latest report about China’s religious demography, appearing in a Canadian newspaper, suggests:

16 per cent of Chinese nationals adhere to state-sanctioned Buddhist institutions; almost 2 per cent go to approved Protestant Christian churches; another one per cent attend official Catholic churches; more than one per cent go to sanctioned Muslim mosques, and another one per cent are Taoist.

Family Church

The most controversial figure is how many people attend “family churches”, “house churches” or “underground churches” in China. Li Fan(李凡)exposed that


figures released by house churches show there are 80 million to 100 million Christians in China. And 80% of them, i.e. 64 million to 80 million, are house church adherents.

It is said that the former US President George Bush once urged


it is the time for the 100 million house church followers to surface in China.

Although there is a new wave of crackdown after the November seminar on House church, it has also stimulated some discussion about the surfacing of church activities in China. An article written by Luke Lam has been reposted in many blogs (via yaoqiguang):


First of all, we have to be aware of the secular force and contemporary thoughts. Once a brother jokingly said that, an effective way to ruin a church is not by oppression, but by donation to it, making it rich… For many years, the Evangelicals stress personal religious experiences, the reading of gospel and the growth of believers, while neglecting the development of theology and the critical aspects of Christianity. How are we to respond to such development?… How are we to reconstruct local theology? These are significant issues that the Church and Christian academics have to consider.


Secondly, it is important to reform and perfect the Christian institution/Church in order to prepare for surfacing.


Thirdly, the Church has to prepare for its revival. We can anticipate the growth in the number of churches after the surfacing of house church activities, however we need to prepare ourselves for such blessing.

It seems that such a conclusion is too optimistic given the present political climate in China.

(This article is also contributed by Oiwan Lam).


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Stay up to date about Global Voices and our mission. See our Privacy Policy for details. Newsletter powered by Mailchimp (Privacy Policy and Terms).

* = required field
Email Frequency

No thanks, show me the site