Does the Chinese Church Know How Important They Are? An Interview about the World Christian Encyclopedia


Editor’s note: The World Christian Encyclopedia, first published in 1982, has been “praised as the authoritative, definitive work in the field of international religious demography.” The third edition, by Todd Johnson and Gina Zurlo, was released in November 2019. 

China Partnership’s Hannah Nation helped to edit the new entry on China, and she recently sat down with Gina Zurlo to find out more about the encyclopedia and where China fits into the big picture of world Christianity. Zurlo is Co-Director of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity and a Visiting Research Fellow at Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can we start with an overview of what the encyclopedia is and what its goals are?

This is the third edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia. This publication comes out [about] every 20 years, and is an analysis of Christianity in every country in the world. There are 234 essays, or chapters. Each includes the history of Christianity in a country, and data on every religion and every Christian denomination in that country. This mix of history, demographics, and photos represents a lot of what we do here at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

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What goes into putting together such a massive encyclopedia and project?

The first two editions of the encyclopedia each took 14 years to compile. The third edition only took five years. There are a lot of reasons for that; one was because the technology has changed so dramatically. We have the World Christian Database now, so all the quantitative data is housed in the database, which gets updated four times a year.

Nevertheless, we still did a lot of research. Our student research team researched every Christian denomination in every country of the world. That resulted in changing a lot of figures. The country articles ended up being a much bigger job than I thought, because it turned out many of the country histories hadn’t been updated for the second edition. We were updating 40 years of history, and we had to start from scratch for some places.

Looking across the three editions, what are some of the really big changes you see in global Christianity?

The first edition was in many ways the first place that quantified the shift of Christianity to the global south. There are more Christians in Asia, Africa, and Latin America than Europe and North America. That shift is continuing, and two-thirds of all Christians live in the global south now. One of the things that the third edition highlights a lot more than the second is Pentecostalism. Most of the new Christianity around the world today is charismatic in nature. 

Another finding in the other direction is the decline of Christianity in west Asia and the Middle East. Christianity had been rather stable in the Middle East for 400 years. It’s only the 21st century you see a dramatic drop in the percent of the region that’s Christian.  

Why is it important for evangelicals to be involved in the academic discipline of world Christianity? Evangelicals are very involved in missiology and evangelical institutions, but maybe don’t think about the academic study of world Christianity as quickly. 

A lot of evangelicals appreciate what we do, but there is so much focus on missions and conversion they miss a lot of the nuance that academics tend to unearth – especially in the relationship between community and culture, which is a major theme in missions study. There is a lot of scholarship that could be informing missionary studies and work which is essentially being ignored because it’s seen as too academic and not practical enough; or, from the academic perspective, it’s locked away behind expensive books and closed-off journals.

This is a two-way street between the academic and on-the-ground communities. Academics really need to hear what people on the ground are saying, and vice versa. Especially when it comes to history, there is a general lack of historical consciousness when it comes to wanting to go out and save the world or save people – all of that needs to be grounded in historical consciousness. You don’t really understand people without understanding their history. 

I thought about this a lot when we were producing the third edition. I don’t want our work to be stuck in ivory towers that only people with library access can benefit from. To that end, we have electronic versions available. Say you’re a China specialist, you could just download the East Asia article, or you could download the global overview plus East Asia, or whatever you want. We do have a blog, and I’ve been posting some findings there.

Why do you think global churches should listen to each other? Why do you think they can benefit from learning about each other?

Part of the core of world Christianity is making these global connections. What does a Catholic, charismatic congregation in Chile have to say to American Baptists in Kansas, or independent churches in Zimbabwe? What do they have to say to each other? I think if Christians from different communities and cultures and contexts talked to each other, they would find they have a lot more in common than you might think. Which is why we think there is such a thing as world Christianity. Not world christianities, in the plural – like a lot of the scholarship is moving towards – but there is something that hangs it all together.

Usually, it’s belief, practice, and history. The centrality of belief in Jesus Christ and salvation from sin, even though you might understand sin or salvation in different ways. My personal faith has been enriched substantially by listening to the voices of people who don’t look like me and don’t speak my language, because there are gaps in the kinds of Christianity that I’ve grown up in, that other people around the world are addressing because those issues are more core to them. If you think outside of your own context, you’re going to discover something that should change you. 

Can you share about how you found this calling? 

I came into this by accident. No one grows up saying, ‘I want to be a demographer of religion when I grow up.’ I came to Gordon Conwell and I discovered the Center for the Study of Global Christianity and I was shocked you could study the world this way. I was always a global thinker, so in some ways, my interests were a natural fit. But as I got deeper into it, world Christianity is the thing that keeps me Christian! 

There is so much diversity in Christianity: we can speak so many different languages, you can read the same biblical passage and get 20 different interpretations of it. To me, that is a strength, not a weakness. It shows the translatability of the scriptures, of the gospel, of the core of the Christian message. It’s actually quite beautiful. 

My study and experience of world Christianity has deepened my own personal faith. That is why I’m so passionate about getting this stuff out there and about teaching: because there is a richness out there that western theological education is missing by only teaching white male theology and history and experience. It has been profoundly transformative in my own personal life.

Looking at demographics and numbers, China is one of the places where there are a lot of conversations about what the future holds. As someone who works with China, it often feels to me like everyone always forgets it is there, but at some point, you can’t forget any longer. From the perspective of the global church, where does China fit? And looking ahead to the next 50 years, what do you anticipate things will look like in future editions of the encyclopedia?

China is one of the most complicated places. There are other complicated places in the world, but they don’t have a billion people in them. (Except for India. India and China are in many ways in the same boat.)

China is on its way up. In some ways it gets overlooked, in other ways it is actually quite central, just because of the sheer numbers of people we’re talking about. I would say that 99 percent of the time, when I give a talk on world Christianity, someone is asking me about China. It is this great, mysterious place, and people have a lot of questions about it.

We have a lot of questions about it, too. We know the church is becoming more urban, and we know the church is becoming more male. Maybe because of that, the church is becoming wealthier. There is a movement toward denominations, which is the opposite of the movement that is happening in the West.

There are all these very interesting trends. China watchers are sitting and watching this go down to see what this is going to look like. Are we going to see a more socially active Chinese Christianity? Are we going to see a larger missionary movement from China to other places around the world? Are we going to see more theological education coming out of China, in Chinese, for the diaspora? The Chinese diaspora is a huge thing: all over east and southeast Asia, Africa, and there are lots of Chinese in sub-Saharan Africa now. What are we going to see there, where you have Chinese Christianity meeting sub-Saharan African Christianity? These are all a lot of questions. But I think China is going to take more and more of a central place in world Christianity. 

From a scholarly perspective, there has been a lot of focus on sub-Saharan Africa in the study of world Christianity. This is a mostly 20th century phenomenon, and the whole field of world Christianity really started in Africa. Because people love the narrative of growth, when you have dramatic growth like we’ve seen in sub-Saharan Africa, people descend on it to study it. But China is trickier because of the language barrier.

On the academic level, we don’t yet have enough Chinese speakers to be producing the kind of scholarship that we see coming out of sub-Saharan Africa, which is mostly Anglophone or Francophone. Mandarin Chinese is the fifth largest language of Christianity [other top mother tongues are Spanish, English, Portuguese, and Russian]. More people need to wake up to this fact and start producing materials for the Chinese church, so we can have more theological education in the Chinese churches, so we can receive more scholarship from those churches. It’s important. This is really only going to increase. 

If anybody wants to translate the World Christian Encyclopedia into Mandarin, let me know! I’m ready! 

What is the end goal?

Wouldn’t it be something if the Chinese church knew how important they were in world Christianity? I’m not sure they do. I’m not sure anyone understands how important they are. I’m passionate about global connection, and a lot of it doesn’t happen because of language barriers.


To purchase the East Asia section, including the entry on China, visit Edinburgh University Press.


1) Have interactions with a Christian from another country or culture ever enriched your personal understanding of the gospel? How?

2) How can individuals and church communities deepen their connections with the global church?

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