Ian Johnson, Beijing-based author of “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao,” has given considerable thought to the reasons that Christianity and other religions are growing in China.
At a recent Council on Foreign Relations event in New York, Johnson noted that the rapid urbanization of China has resulted in alienation with people thrust into living in massive cities for the first time.
Protestant churches, in particular, offer these mostly young white-collar professionals ready-made community. These churches are also engaged in missionary outreach, going to places like college campuses to share the gospel.
Protestant churches in China are effective at building community and reaching others because these things are part of their DNA, Johnson says.
What implications might Johnson’s insights have for the growth of churches outside China?
Throughout most of history, human beings have lived in rural settings, depending on agriculture and hunting for survival.
Just over 200 years ago, in 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Contrast this with 2008, when, for the first time in history, an even number of people lived in urban and rural areas.
This trend continues at a quickening pace. Today, 54 percent of people live in cities, a number expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050.
Urbanization combined with overall population growth could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90 percent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa, according to a United Nations report.
The largest growth will take place in India, China and Nigeria, with India projected to add 404 million people living in cities, China 292 million and Nigeria 212 million, all by 2050.
As other traditionally rural societies experience rapid urbanization, it may follow that the underpinnings of church growth in China, including ready-made community and evangelical outreach, will prove as successful elsewhere.
Granted, circumstances peculiar to the Chinese experience fuel the growth of the church, including a pent-up search for values and meaning in a society in which religious expression has long been outlawed and actively repressed by the state.
Still, the focus on the development of community within the church and active engagement with the wider society may yet signal a way forward for the church in places like the United States, which are experiencing increasing secularism and growth in the number of persons who claim religious belief but not religious affiliation.
Like other societies, albeit at a less dramatic pace, the United States is experiencing its own urban boom with young professionals remaining in or returning to cities.
Ready-made community and active outreach may also serve as an antidote to other alienating forces endemic to contemporary living, including the growth of social media that paradoxically expands opportunities for connection and information sharing, while also contributing to the isolation of individuals and the reinforcement of existing political and other worldviews.
Those who reported spending the most time on social media – more than two hours a day – had twice the odds of perceived social isolation than those who spent no more than a half-hour per day on such sites, according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Meanwhile, those who visited social media platforms most frequently – 58 visits per week or more – had more than three times the odds of perceived social isolation as those who visited fewer than nine times weekly.
Writing to the exiles in captivity in Babylon – the greatest city of its time – the prophet Jeremiah encouraged the people to seek the welfare of the city of Babylon, rather than yearning to return home. “In its welfare,” Jeremiah writes, “you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).
For its part, the Christian narrative aims not for a return to an Edenic garden as portrayed in Genesis but rather toward a city, albeit one with a river running through it, as portrayed in the Revelation to John (Revelation 21-22).
In its pilgrimage on Earth, the church points the way to this ultimate reality, even as it seeks the welfare of the cities of its own time, as the church in China is doing, providing ready-made community and reaching out to those who have yet to hear the gospel.
Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is editor of The Christian Citizen, a publication of American Baptist Home Mission Societies, where a version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @cramseylucas.