It is exceptionally difficult to estimate the numbers of Christians in the world’s two most populous countries, China and India. Both China and India are among the countries with the most total Christians, as these minority populations number in the tens of millions. Additionally, the Christian communities in these two countries have seen significant growth throughout the last century. China is a difficult case due to the Communist government’s nervousness about religion and the unorganized nature of the house church movement. In India, however, it is a combination of Hindutva (a political movement with the goal of designating India as a “Hindu” country), the Dalit movement, and vast numbers of house churches that make it difficult to accept the census as authoritative.
Almost everyone agrees that Christianity in China has experienced remarkable growth over the course of the past century. Pinpointing a reliable number for Christians in China, however, has been extremely difficult for scholars and church leaders alike. The combination of governmental secrecy, a huge general population, and rumors of large numbers of conversions has made this task particularly hard. Other difficulties include the structure of house church networks and the confusing and complicated issue of how to handle and enumerate believing children. Our analysis will provide an overview of a few select studies to arrive at a methodological consensus, while reaching an agreement about figures.
Though each of the studies outlined here arrives at different conclusions for the number of Christians in China, there are some “ground rules” acknowledged by all that are helpful to mention first. Foundational is the discrepancy between official government figures for churches belonging to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM; Protestant; self-supporting, self-governing, self-propagating), the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA; does not accept the authority of the pope and appoints its own clergy), and unregistered “house churches.” Uniformly, scholars deem official government figures as understated. It is generally understood that China’s Christian gains are largely through conversion and occur in both the government-sponsored churches and unofficial house churches, though arguably more so in the latter. The double counting of believers who attend both the TSPM and house church meetings is a growing issue as well. Related to this is a “third expression” of Christians in China: urban, professional congregations that are part of neither the TSPM nor house church networks. What remains a primary concern for Evangelicals, however, is the lack of Christian representation among ethnic minorities in western China.
Paul Hattaway (Asia Harvest)
Paul Hattaway’s article “How Many Christians are there in China?” details many of the oft-quoted figures for Christians in China with his commentary on each. Underlying the entire issue is what exactly defines an individual as “Christian.” Hattaway provides the following helpful definition: “anyone who professes faith in Jesus Christ and calls upon him alone for salvation, regardless of their age or their church affiliation.” The last phrase is of particular importance. Many studies do not count children (anyone under 18 or under 16) in their totals for Christian populations, nor do all existing estimates consider all Christian organizations in China. Therefore, Hattaway’s figures include both children of believing parents and everybody in the TSPM and the CPA. He claims that the figures for the TSPM (18 million) and CPA numbers (12 million) from 2003 and 2005, respectively, are purposely deflated by the Chinese government.
Hattaway believes government numbers to be conservative estimates, especially when considering they do not include children (since it is illegal to baptize minors). He puts the number of Christians in China at around 105 million (84 million Protestants and 21 million Catholics, including members of house churches for both). These figures are based on 2000 census data; like many others, Hattaway awaits the release of 2010 Chinese census figures for recalibration. To arrive at his TSPM number, for example, Hattaway tracked years of clippings from actual TSPM resources and concluded that they were inadvertently reporting a larger number than their “official” estimate. Estimates for house churches were made by analyzing “hundreds of hours of interviews” with house church leaders in “practically every part of China.” Asia Harvest impressively breaks down the figures by province on their website, citing both government and other religious sources to arrive at their totals. Despite his hard work, however, Hattaway insists that only God knows the number of Christians in China.
Operation World (OW) applies a method of self-identification to enumerate Christians and leans on Hattaway’s work as a key informant (and even reaches the same conclusion for the number of Christians in China, 105 million). Therefore, anyone who calls himself a Christian is considered one in their study, regardless of church affiliation or theology. OW arrives at an almost identical number to that of Hattaway and Asia Harvest, and estimates the annual growth rate of Christians in China at 2.7% per annum. In line with other studies, OW employs estimates from both the government and house church leaders. Additionally, OW claims that the gap between house church leaders’ estimates and those of the government is closing as the government slowly becomes more transparent and accepting of the reality of unregistered house church networks in their country. Finally, OW’s survey of the Chinese Christian figures incorporates other, more recent, information and articles related to religious data, population growth data, and ethnic population data (as well as subsequent estimates of religious affiliation of certain minority populations) than Hattaway’s material. This entailed a number of micro-adjustments to the overall situation that yielded a large number of specific, but minor, changes to the Christian population.
World Christian Database
The World Christian Database (WCD), as a data collection and analysis resource, provides a list of “denominations” with separate estimates for each in 1970, 2000, 2005, and 2010. These estimates were supplied by a variety of informants and also influenced by Hattaway’s study. Utilizing this approach, the WCD estimates 107 million for the number of Christians in China in mid-2010 (8% of the population). The 2009 Atlas of Global Christianity listed the number of Christians in China at over 115 million, but researchers at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity lowered that number to 107 million two years later, taking into account recent reliable, scholarly sources on the issue.
Rodney Stark, Byron Johnson, and Carson Mencken
The most recent of the surveys discussed in this report (May 2011) is Rodney Stark, Byron Johnson, and Carson Mencken’s First Things article, “Counting China’s Christians.” The authors used as a starting point Horizon’s 2007 national survey, which interviewed 7,021 individual Chinese ages sixteen and over who had lived at their current residence for three months and had not been a part of a survey in the past six months. That study arrived at a number of 35.3 million Christians over the age of sixteen. The authors concluded that this number was too low, and subsequently conducted a follow-up study in collaboration with Peking University in Beijing, resulting in a number of 58.9 million Christians aged sixteen and over.
Still dissatisfied, the authors corrected the 58.9 million figure by taking into account that “of those known Christians who did agree to be interviewed, 9 percent did not admit to being Christians when asked.” Such a move helps counter the reality that many Chinese Christians are likely to refuse taking part in such surveys due to the sensitivity and danger of claiming adherence to Christianity in China. The authors conclude that “it seems entirely credible that there are about 70 million Chinese Christians in 2011.”
There are two critical issues in the numbers of Stark’s survey. It differs from others in that it excludes children under sixteen years of age; it is unlikely that there are no Christians in China in this age bracket, as large numbers of Chinese Christians are parents. In demographic studies of religion such as this, children must be included as adhering to the religion of their parents if the study refers to the entire population. Another issue is that of growth rates; the authors claim that there is only a 2% growth rate per annum between 2007 and 2011, a number difficult to determine based on a single-year study. Other estimates indicate that the church in China grows by as much as 10% per annum, with a more conservative estimates around 4%. These two issues cause Stark’s estimates to be viewed with caution.
Brian Grim (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life)
Brian Grim’s 2008 article from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Religion in China on the Eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics,” utilizes surveys of religious belief in China between 2005 and 2007. In 2005, 6% of Chinese expressed belief in the possible existence of “God/Jesus” (or, the “Christian God”), a figure 50% higher than the number of people self-identifying as a Christian in the same poll. This indicates that there is possibly a large number of unaffiliated Christians in China. The next year, a poll indicated that 31% of Chinese consider religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives, and in 2007 2% of the polling group responded “Christian” when asked “what is your religious faith?” (1% each for Protestant and Catholic).
Grim’s report cites estimates from the World Christian Database, Global China Center, and Holy Spirit Study Centre, claiming that these religious demographers and researchers have the best access to house church leaders and networks and are thus able to provide more reliable estimates than the Chinese Embassy itself. Grim’s report does not give definitive figures, only general trends and acknowledgements of others’ estimates for house-church movements only (WCD 70 million, Global China Center 50 million, and Holy Spirit Study Centre 12 million Catholics). Important from this study, however, is the polling of Chinese that potentially indicates a higher percentage of Christian adherents than official government records.
Over the past few decades estimates for the number of Christians in China have ranged from 2.3 million to 200 million. Although it may be impossible to arrive at a definitive figure, the studies and opinions expressed here are helpful indicators of how the church is growing in China. An estimate of around 100 million Christians seems reasonable in light of the issues discussed above: discrepancies between official and unofficial estimates, the inclusion of children, lack of information about ethnic churches, and annual growth rates. China’s sizeable Christian population—whatever exactly the number may be—is overshadowed by its much larger total population (1.3 billion and growing), which can easily mask religious growth.
The starting point for tackling religious demography in India is with official estimates from the government census about the status of religion. The Indian census has been taken faithfully every ten years since 1871 and has always included religion (along with population, race, rural distribution, and occupation, among others). The most recently published census data are from 2001 (the results of the 2011 census are expected to be released in 2013).
The 2001 census states that of the 1 billion people in India, 24 million (2.3%) are Christians, with little change in percentage expected in 2011. There was widespread complaint in the Indian Christian community at the release of these results, many believing the number to be significantly underestimated for political reasons. Some argue that Christian Dalits were undercounted. Caste and religious affiliation were linked in the census in a way that permitted Dalits to choose only among Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, though there has been a significant movement to Christianity among the Dalit class over the past several decades. Therefore, the census overlooked India’s 14 million Dalit Christians, as well as 130 million Dalit Muslims. In addition, persecution of Christians in India has had a higher profile since the brutal murder of Graham Staines and his two young sons in Manoharpur, Orissa. The Indian Supreme Court ruled in favor of a life sentence for the leader of the mob (Dara Singh, who was linked to the extreme right-wing Hindu group Bajrang Dal) and acquittals for the eleven men who committed the crime with him. The court also expressed their disapproval of conversion. This incident is just one example of recent hostility towards Christians.
Another approach to assessing religious demography in India, specifically the Christian population, is to canvas all Christian groups for their membership figures. Virtually all groups keep some kind of records, and this approach yields a surprising result that is markedly higher than government census figures. By collecting information from both denominations and networks in India the following picture emerges:
This method produces a figure of 58.4 million Christians in India for mid-2010 (about 4.8% of the population). The advantage of this approach is that working through Christian networks allows us to locate Christians who might otherwise be hidden from view. A disadvantage of this method is that counting members from hundreds of loose networks carries with it its own problems, as individuals may belong to more than one denomination or network. Nonetheless, for the major Christian research centers, this method provides the greatest consistency for estimating the numerical strength of Christianity in every country of the world. Consequently, the results can be compared across countries.
It is also difficult to track the growth of Christianity in India. Official figures do not tell the whole story, and it remains dangerous in some states to openly affirm the tenets of Christianity. Pentecostal/Charismatic fellowships are growing, and many key Evangelical networks have recently increased, such as the Evangelical Fellowship of India, Pentecostal Fellowship of India, and Baptist Evangelical Alliance. Despite persecution, there has been obvious growth of the church in select states over the course of the past century, much of which occurred following independence in 1947. In the northeastern states (excluding Assam), Indian religionists in 1901 were 90% of the population; by 1991 these states were only 60% Indian religionist and 40% Christian. Christianity has dominated the religious sphere in states such as Nagaland (90% Christian), Mizoram (90% Christian), the outer districts of Manipur (40% Christian), and Meghalaya (75% Christian).
A significant feature of Indian Christianity is cross-cultural movement within the country itself, mainly southern Christians doing missionary work in the north. This has resulted in remarkable growth of Indian cross-cultural outreach agencies despite opposition and persecution. Often these outreaches take the form of highly contextualized ministries among Hindus, such as the Yesu Darbar (Court of Jesus) at the Yesu Mandir (Temple of Jesus), full of Yesu bhaktas (Jesus devotees), a “new type” of Christian emerging in South Asia. These new believers come from non-Christian backgrounds (unlike the generations-old Orthodox Christianity found, for example, in Kerala) and are sometimes poor. They are Hindus who choose to remain in their religious communities while simultaneously pledging allegiance to Christ. Exact numbers for these believers are difficult to acquire, but it is estimated that in 2010 as many as three million people could be identified in this way.
The distribution of Christians in India is certainly not uniform. As stated above, the far northeastern states are predominantly Christian (have the highest Christian percentages of any states). Southern India is historically more Christian than northern India due to very early missionary activity there, such as in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Many of the northern states have only small percentages of Christians, such as Orissa (home to much persecution in recent years), Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, and Himachai Pradesh, among others.
Taking into consideration the issues surrounding the 2001 Indian census and on-the-ground reports from Christians (both nationals and missionaries) within India, it is reasonable to suspect that the government’s estimate of 24 million (2001 census) Christians is simply too low. For mid-2010, the Atlas of Global Christianity claims 58.4 million (4.8% of the population) and Operation World 71 million (5.8%). It is likely that these higher estimates reflect realities in the growth of informal Christian movements across India that are not easily perceived by the government. The wide range of estimates is clear evidence that much more work is needed to properly represent Christian demography in India.
This article is a part of a pilot version of the Lausanne Global Analysis. A planning team has begun working on the production of the new Lausanne Global Analysis. The Analysiswill provide multi-lingual analysis of issues facing the church and wordwide evangelization from a global network of regional leaders, researchers and writers. The launch as a monthly publication is tentatively scheduled for April 2012. (Learn more)
. Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 59.
. Rodney Stark, Byron Johnson, and Carson Mencken, “Counting China’s Christians,” First Things (2011), accessed April 21, 2011, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/05/counting-chinarsquos-christians.
. Brian Grim, “Religion in China on the Eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics,” May 1, 2008, accessed May 23, 2011, http://pewforum.org/Importance-of-Religion/Religion-in-China-on-the-Eve-of-the-2008-Beijing-Olympics.aspx.
. “Although the new background brief provided by the Chinese Embassy reports only a small number of these groups, the document does state that ‘There are no [government] data available on the number of “house meetings” that exist.’”
. Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India, “History of Indian Census,” accessed May 9, 2011, http://censusindia.gov.in/Data_Products/Library/Indian_perceptive_link/History_link/censushistory.htm.
. One example of a potential undercount is in Andhra Pradesh. According to Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) data, 6.1% of women aged 15–49 are Christian; of these, 74% identify as Scheduled Caste in DHS. In the Indian census, however, it is not possible to simulteneously identify as Scheduled Caste and Christian. The census reports that 1.6% of Andhra Pradesh is Christian. These figures suggest the possibility of undercounting of Scheduled Caste Christians. For more information on DHS, see http://www.measuredhs.com.
. Anto Akkara, “Churches Angry that Indian Census Ignores 14 Million Christian Dalits,” Christianity Today, February 21, 2001, accessed May 28, 2011, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/februaryweb-only/56.0c.html.
. The Times of India, “Life term adequate for Staines murder convicts: SC [Supreme Court]”, January 21, 2011, accessed May 23, 2011, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-01-21/india/28351453_1_dara-singh-graham-staines-minor-sons#ixzz1BkKapVhd.
. Johnson and Ross, Atlas of Global Christianity, 144. Estimates are derived from in-country informants at work in these networks. More in-depth research is needed to verify these estimates. Note that these believers are counted as Hindus in the census.