Studying and living in Europe for the past eight months, I have experienced what so many have reported in recent decades: the welcoming people, the great history and the many sights of the continent aside, it is for the most part spiritually dead. Christianity, the primary force for the creation of the greatness of Europe when it predominated, is now a relic mostly practiced by the oldest generation. Cathedrals and other religious buildings and monuments are preserved as part of history and for their beauty, but with little regard for their spiritual significance.
With the primary source of the eventual worldwide spread of Christianity lying in a spiritual coma, a vacuum exists for a successor. For some time, the United States has filled that space, but one wonders for how much longer. Looking across the political spectrum, one finds that left-leaning Christians are mostly made up of people who prefer Jesus to other religious figures, but do not grant him the exclusivity that is biblically prescribed. The Christian Right appears increasingly interested in elevating a political program over real relationship with Christ. Certainly, from the growing mass of disillusioned American Christians, a revival might arise, but if it doesn’t, where will be the next locus of Christian civilization?
Once again, there is evidence that it might be China. Faithwire reports that “100,000 new believers are coming to Christ every year in China…” The Bible, formerly banned there, is now a bestseller. This is happening despite an increase in human rights violations, among which is the suppression of freedom of expression.
It is ironic, though not unprecedented, that Christianity seems to be thriving in an atmosphere of persecution. In Europe it is legal, if treated with indifference, and in America it is the primary religion to which people self-identify, but in both places it is in decline in terms of sheer numbers. But in China, where it is most tested by fire, it is not only walking in the flames unscathed, but it is growing.
The U.K. Telegraph reported in 2014 that China is on pace to become the largest Christian nation in the world by 2030.
Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.
By 2030, China’s total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted.
“Mao thought he could eliminate religion. He thought he had accomplished this,” Prof Yang said. “It’s ironic – they didn’t. They actually failed completely.”
China is not the only officially atheist Asian country seeing Christianity grow in spite of persecution. Faithwire also reported earlier this year that a North Korean defector named Kim Chung-Seong said he witnessed it in his own country. Faithwire goes on to detail the atmosphere in which the expansion is occurring.
The 2017 World Watch List compiled by Open Doors lists North Korea as the “most oppressive place in the world for Christians” due to the country’s totalitarian regime and surveillance state that forces Christians “to hide their faith completely from government authorities, neighbors, and often, even their own spouses and children.” While most of North Korea’s 25 million citizens are considered atheists, Open Doors estimates the Christian population to stand at about 300,000.
If Christians are caught, they are imprisoned or sent to hard labor camps, even killed, but defectors like Kim Chung-Seong have found creative ways to penetrate the North Korean darkness with the light of the gospel; he hosts a radio program in Seoul, South Korea, which reaches some parts of the North. He reiterated the notion that North Korean Christians’ faith “is actually strengthened by the persecution.”
Perhaps Asia will be for the future what Christian Europe was for the past. In America, the Church must detach itself from the politics that has done its best to subordinate Christianity to itself, that made the label easy to hold, while distancing it from the unriviled following of Christ. Faith must be strengthened in order to thrive, and the case of China shows that once it is strong, oppression cannot destroy it. It is that sort of faith that American needs to recover widespread and that Christians everywhere must pray continues to grow under hostile regimes.