Thereafter Christian influence waxed and waned, often absent for centuries before fresh initiatives were taken. Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest, obtained permission to reside in China in 1583. Despite planting a church, he still did not make Christianity a Chinese religion.
Protestant missions were latecomers to China, travelling on the same boats that brought Western trade and imperialism. Missions established themselves along the east coast in the mid-18th century. James Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission (now OMF) in 1865, saw the needs of the inland provinces and he and others moved away from the coast establishing churches and hospitals. Work among the minority peoples in west China, like the Lisu, also began.
By 1949 there were about 6,000 missionaries in China and there were some 20,000 Protestant churches with over 1 million members. Christianity was established, though not accepted as an indigenous faith.
During the next 30 years the Chinese church was isolated and forced underground as the missionaries left, church buildings were closed and pastors and congregations were imprisoned and persecuted. To the outside world it was difficult to imagine how the church would survive this oppression.
As China emerged after Mao’s death, evidence of a thriving church was revealed, sustained by God’s grace through the faithfulness of the Chinese Christians, the prayers of Christians abroad and radio broadcasts.
In 1979 Deng Xiaoping allowed churches to re-open under the control of the Three Self Patriotic Movement. The church then had about a million members.
The TSPM has seen a growth in membership across China through the last 20 years; official reports admit to over 10 million Christians in China. Over 20 million copies of the Bible have been printed in China.
Many Chinese Christians will not align themselves with the official church, seeing it as too much under the authority of a Communist government and serving the Party first and God second. These meet in house churches; some isolated, others part of well-organized groups numbering several hundreds of thousands.
Although figures vary, a realistic estimate for the total number of Protestant Christians in China would be 70 million.
The house-church movement is also at present under great pressure to register with government authorities. Reports over the last five years reveal that incidents of persecution are common. Pastors are imprisoned, materials are confiscated and meetings closed down.
The struggle to establish Christianity in China is by no means over. Support and prayer for the Church is as important as they ever were.
I love what God is up to in China.