Brent Fulton’s ‘China’s Urban Christians’ – A Book Review

China’s Urban Christians: A Light that Cannot be Hidden. By Brent Fulton. Eugene, OR, USA, Pickwick Publications 2015. Pp. ix + 145. $21.00.

China’s Urban Christians

One of the greatest forces to remould the landscape of mainland China in the last two decades has been the country’s push towards rapid urbanisation. Contrary to the measured approach the sociologist Fei Xiaotong recommended to the communist cadre, the speed of constructing and populating China’s urban centres has undoubtedly resulted in many significant societal challenges. Likewise, urbanisation has had significant consequences for the church in China which once was known as having a ‘Christianity fever’ amongst the rural poor but is now seeing a formidable force of urban intellectuals and entrepreneurs.

The volume under review addresses this complex reality. The author, Brent Fulton, has been a China watcher for many years, formerly working as the director of the US office of China Ministries International, an organisation started by Jonathan Chao, and the director of Wheaton College’s Institute for Chinese Studies. He is now co-founder and president of ChinaSource and editor of the popular online magazine on Chinese Christianity, ChinaSource Quarterly. With decades of experience working with the Chinese church and academic degrees in political science, Fulton is well-equipped to write China’s Urban Christians.

After a brief survey of current literature on Christianity in China, Fulton explains that, today, the ‘central issue for China’s Christians has shifted from freedom of belief to freedom of association’ (pg. 3). Generally speaking, Christians no longer experience the type of persecution characteristic of the Cultural Revolution which forced all religious practice into hiding. Fulton explains that oppression is mainly experienced by those who are perceived as a threat to the authority of the state.

Chapter Two outlines three aspects of urbanisation which have reshaped the society and the church: the changing role and structure of the family, the rise of consumerism, and the impact of globalisation. These factors have produced an urban church which has at its disposal a growing availability of economic and educational resources. Chapter Three explains this as requiring a greater professionalism in church leadership, producing an interest in Reformed teachings and its cultural and political implications, and resulting in a growing sense of a Christian faith which engages the state and the society. On the flip side, Chapter Four shows how there is also a growing need to address concerns related to ‘mammon’, the value of Christian stewardship, and the importance of building up families in Christ. While Protestantism in China has historically been characterised as having a more separatist existence, the next three chapters show how the urban church is more outward-focused with an interest in being a light to the Chinese society, engaging with the global church, and seeking greater unity between local churches. Fulton concludes his volume revisiting the question of oppression. As the majority of the churches he has discussed have been unregistered Protestant churches, the question of the church’s legal existence and legal ability to engage the civil society as an NGO is quite tenuous.

Some readers may be disappointed in the limited picture of Christianity in China Fulton offers in this book. For instance, while the book begins and ends with a discussion on a different understanding of oppression, Fulton’s main concern is on unregistered Protestants and he pays little attention to the state-sanctioned churches (see pg. 2). The latter have not experienced the kind of oppression he discusses and have had a much longer history in urban centres, enabling longer-term engagement with the state and the society. They also provide examples of working with the civil society in faith-based NGOs, such as through the Protestant Amity Foundation or the Catholic Jinde Charities. Furthermore, while it is true that a growing segment of urban Christianity in China includes entrepreneurs and intellectuals, blue-collar migrant workers – those who have literally built and sustained China’s rapid urbanisation – are likewise important, as a growing number have formed their own Christian communities in urban China.1 While the book discusses this sector of society with respect to the changing context, a closer look at these migrants would have provided a different picture of responses to urbanisation than one from the perspective of elite urbanites.

Another concern can be raised about the sources used for the book. While a handful of Anglophone scholarly pieces are referred to, the book relies heavily on a number of online sources – especially Chinese Church Voices, a project which translates Chinese online materials directed by Fulton’s colleague Joann Pittman. Fulton’s rationale for this is to ‘hear from the church itself’ (pg. 5), yet this reviewer felt there needed to be a bit more careful curation of the materials and a critical engagement with these sources rather than the more passive approach offered.

Scholars will be a bit reticent about relying too much on this book. But overall, Fulton’s slim volume offers an important introduction for the interested reader to gain a greater appreciation for how rapid urbanisation has changed, and continues to change, the Chinese church.

Thanks to Pickwick Publications for providing me a review copy of this book.

  1.  See Huang Jianbo 黃劍波, Dushi li de xiangcun jiaohui: Zhongguo chengshi hua yu mingong Jidujiao 都市裏的鄉村教會—中國城市化與民工基督教 [Country Churches in Cities: Urbanisation and Christianity of Migrant Workers in China] (Hong Kong: Logos and Pneuma Press, 2012). See also Stephanie M. Wong, ‘Ecclesiology from Below: Urbanizing Catholicism in an Urbanizing China’, Ching Feng, n. s. (forthcoming).