New China survey reveals fewer Christians than most estimates

by Mark Ellis — ANS


BOCA RATON, Fla. — As a missionary kid forced to leave China in 1950, Dr. Werner Burklin was overjoyed to return to the land of his roots in 1981. When he got back to the U.S. after subsequent trips, people often asked, "How many Christians are in China?"

"I didn't know," admits Burklin, founder of China Partner.

This son of German missionaries is also a former executive with Youth for Christ and directed two Billy Graham conferences for itinerant evangelists in Amsterdam. He also served on Graham's board in Europe and more recently authored "Jesus Never Left China."

Burklin had heard guesstimates that ranged from 20 million to as high as 200 million Christians, but none of these figures were the result of actual surveys.

"There was a lot of speculation swirling around," Burklin said.

Indeed, ANS reported one estimate of 130 million Christians in China reportedly made by a Chinese government official earlier this year, which Burklin disputes.

To get the facts, China Partner sent teams to every province, municipality and autonomous region in China—31 in all. The only region they did not survey was Tibet. Over a 13-month period, his team interviewed 5,430 people ranging in age from 16 to 92 from a wide variety of occupations. The surveys took place in parks, markets, subways, buses, on the streets, and in numerous other locales.

Based on their polling, Burklin believes there are 39 million Protestant Christians in China, with a 3 percent margin of error. He estimates roughly half are in the underground church, and the other half are in government-approved churches.

Some might question whether those polled would be completely forthright, considering the history of persecution directed against believers—particularly toward the underground church.

"In 1981 people were scared stiff if you mentioned religion, because the government persecuted every religious group during the cultural revolution," Burklin said. "But that's totally changed. Our researchers were astounded that people were so responsive."

Burklin said he believes part of the difference between 1981 and today is that tens of thousands of Chinese students have gone overseas to study, and returned with a different worldview. Likewise, inroads by international business and dramatic changes in communication technologies have also contributed to the changes he observed.

"Hardly any seemed to be reluctant to respond," Burklin said. "It was quite significant to observe how quickly a flash of a smile came across those who were believing Christians. There was no sign of anxiety or apprehension."

Christians and non-Christians alike offered to show his researchers the way to local churches.


Rural pockets?
His findings have met with resistance from some Christian leaders in the U.S.

"I'm very disappointed with evangelical leaders who readily accept numbers they want to be true without going into depth," Burklin said. "Billy Graham had some influence on me. He never tried to exaggerate his crusade numbers—the number of people who walked forward."

Some maintain there are more Christians in outskirts of cities, places possibly missed by China Partner's researchers.

"Many say there are more Christians in the rural areas than in the urban centers," he said. "We were surprised our research didn't prove that to be true, but more research is needed."

Burklin readily agrees there are more Christians in some provinces than others, and would like to do more research in rural areas where he's told there are greater numbers of believers.

"I'm not saying this is scientifically perfect, but it does give a reliable and general understanding of what the facts are,” the researcher said.

Another survey done at about the same time as Burklin's confirms his results. Professor Liu Zhongyu from East China Normal University in Shanghai surveyed 4,500 people in every province in China over a 12-month period during 2006 and 2007. His survey found 40 million Protestant Christians and roughly 14 million Catholics, with about 10 million Catholics worshipping in underground churches and the remainder in government-approved churches.

Most experts believe there were approximately 700,000 Christians living in China in 1949, when the country was closed to traditional missionary activities. So the combined estimate of up to 54 million Protestants and Catholics today still demonstrates remarkable growth.

"I think the growth of the church in China is faster than anywhere in the world in church history," Burklin said. "I'm thankful for what God is doing in China.

"What's caused the church to grow in China? We don't know for sure, but God has the providence to do it His way. He has chosen China to be a field that's multiplied like no other."

For more information about his ministry, visit www.chinapartner.org.

Published, November 2007

Copyright © 2003-2013 Christian Examiner®

Christian Examiner®, P.O. Box 2606 El Cajon, CA 92021 • 619-668-5100 • Fax 619-668-1115 • Email: info@christianexaminer.com