Protestant Christianity was first introduced into China by missionaries at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This was not an auspicious time to enter the Chinese world, and the mission movements became entwined with political and commercial attempts to 'open' China to the West. Nevertheless, as time progressed, many missionaries and Chinese Christian converts came to play an important role in China’s economic and cultural development – working in schools and universities, translating scientific and literary works into Chinese, and acting as mediators between Chinese and Western cultures.

Even so, at the time of the Communist Liberation in 1949, Christianity was still seen as a “foreign religion” by many Chinese. In response, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) was founded on principles of self-administration, self-financing and self-evanglisation by representatives of the Chinese churches in consultation with Premier Zhou Enlai. Some Chinese Christians chose not to join the TSPM on theological, political or personal grounds.

In 1958 union worship services were initiated, as churches were increasingly merged, and ecclesiastical hierarchies were harmonised. Financial and political constraints grew and many churches were closed during the late 1950s and early 1960s, culminating with the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. All religious life and thinking was suppressed for ten years, as vestiges of “feudal society” or “imperialism”.

With the beginning of an 'opening and reform' economic policy following Mao Zedong’s death, churches were gradually refurbished and reopened and the China Christian Council (CCC) was formed under the leadership of Bishop K.H. Ting. Together, the CCC and TSPM form the liang hui (two committees) which supervise the registered Chinese churches throughout China.

Today official figures show that there are over 16 million registered Christians, meeting in 55,000 registered churches and meeting points across the country. The CCC employs 3700 pastors, including associate pastors, and there are 18 seminaries and Bible schools together with a number of lay training centres.*

At the most recent meeting of the National Christian Congress in January 2008, the leadership identified three main tasks as essential to the future health of the church:

  • • maintaining the independence and patriotism of the Chinese Church
  • • theological reconstruction of Chinese theology
  • • strengthening the CCC/TSPM through younger leadership, creation of new departments for social services, lay training and overseas relations.

The activities of the Chinese church remain curtailed in a socialist state and the local implementation of religious regulations varies across China, leading some observers to worry about the continued, sporadic harassment of Chinese Christians, particularly those belonging to unregistered church groups which don’t belong to the CCC/TSPM.

Theological tensions remain between the supernatural-oriented teaching of many rural churches and the more social and academic oriented theology of the seminaries. Relations between registered and unregistered communities can be strained but in many places movement of believers between the two is fluid.

Many Chinese Christians can now worship in increasing confidence and openness. The largest Protestant church in China, funded almost entirely by donations from local Christians and designed by a local Christian architect, seats over 4,000 people.

There are introductions to more local Chinese churches in the links below, as well as reflections from Chinese church leaders and commentators.  

* See National Committee of the TSPM/CCC, ‘The Protestant Church in China and its Relationship with the Olympic Games’, 2008


© Churches Together in Britain and Ireland 2010