Stories from International Christian Community First Study of Chinese Churches in Britain Examines Boom and Possible Bust

First Study of Chinese Churches in Britain Examines Boom and Possible Bust

Image: Wongseok Kim

Image: Wongseok Kim

Pastors and theologians respond to opportunities and challenges in new study on explosive growth from Hong Kong immigration.

For many Hong Kong immigrants to Britain, a church is their first point of connection.

hinese pastors in the UK report their congregations have doubled or tripled in size. One church in Manchester has multiplied from less than 200 attendees to 1,200 due to the recent influx of immigrants from Hong Kong.

The impact of all these worshipers is shown in a new report on Chinese Christianity in Britain, the first systematic study of its kind. Led by Yinxuan Huang, a research fellow at London School of Theology (LST), its findings were released October 8 at a seminary symposium.

The study concluded that Chinese non-Christian immigrants are open to Christianity and ready to hear the gospel. But its data also suggests several obstacles to faith remain.

Though they are slowly becoming more outward-looking, Chinese churches have long been insular. And if Chinese Christians don’t mobilize fast enough, they risk missing a key evangelism window, as the study found British-born Chinese to be less receptive to the faith.

“The study is correct to say that children and youth ministries [in Chinese churches] are booming,” said Alexander Chow, a Chinese American lecturer in theology and World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh.

“But what happens beyond that? That’s quite a critical question, not only for British-born Chinese but for the 1.5-generation Hong Kong migrant now.”

Church growth spurt

Billed as the “largest study of its kind in Europe,” the Bible and the Chinese Community in Britain (BCCB) research project is a joint initiative between LST and the British and Foreign Bible Society.

It seeks to develop an “expansive understanding” of the Chinese Christian community’s spiritual and religious characteristics, explore their level of scripture engagement, and encourage the development of more scholarship on how technology and social media can serve their communities.

Huang, the study’s lead researcher, is originally from Shanghai, China, and is now based in Oxford, England. Besides analyzing secondary data, he conducted a nationwide online survey which gathered 1,179 responses from ethnic Chinese—both Christians and non-Christians—in England, Scotland, and Wales. He also conducted 51 interviews with Christian leaders who were both ethnically Chinese and dedicated to serving the Chinese diaspora in Britain.

Among its key findings, the study asserts that Chinese churches have become the fastest growing Christian community in Britain since 2021, due to Hong Kongers.

Most Hong Kong immigrants have arrived in Britain via the British National (Overseas) or BNO visa program, which was launched in January 2021 to allow British nationals in Hong Kong to live and work in the UK and apply for British citizenship within six years. (More than 133,000 visas have been granted as of June.)

About 480,000 Protestants—spanning 70 denominations and 1,450 churches—live in Hong Kong, according to a factsheet published by the special administrative region this year. Almost 1 in 4 Hong Kong immigrants to the UK are Christian, the study estimated.

Many are pastors or Christian workers who take up leadership roles in Cantonese-speaking ministries upon moving to Britain. There are now more than 200 Chinese Christian communities and organizations in the UK, according to the BCCB study, and at least 17 were established in the past 18 months.

But such growth is only temporary and is difficult to maintain, says Peter Brierley, a consultant who has qualitatively and quantitatively studied UK church statistics for 50 years.

“You can’t depend on immigrants to grow the church on a long-term basis,” he said. “Immigrants bring vitality, energy, and new thinking. But these are not sufficient.”

Non-Christian Chinese, particularly first-generation Hong Kong Chinese, tend to be curious and open to the Christian faith while second-generation British-born Chinese tend to be dismissive about it, according to the BCCB report.

Only 18 percent of non-Christian respondents expressed a dismissive posture toward Christianity. And non-Christians from Hong Kong (63%) demonstrated a greater interest in exploring the Bible than mainland Chinese (41%) and British-born Chinese (19%).

This openness to Christianity may arise because these immigrants connect it with societal progress and regard the faith as a “foundational component in Western culture and civilization,” said Chow.

The church’s social function also plays a part in cultivating interest in the gospel. “The church is where [immigrants can] experience altruism and acceptance,” Huang said. “It is the beginning of evangelism.”

Embracing Christianity can be a “pragmatic” decision, said Mark Nam, an Anglican curate in the diocese of Bristol and one of the first British-born Chinese to be ordained in the Church of England. “When my grandparents settled in the UK, they made their children members of the church choir as they wanted them to integrate.”

Redefining evangelism

Despite this discernible openness to the faith, most Chinese believers living in Britain do not evangelize actively.

While the Bible is at the center of the average Chinese Christian’s life (more than 90 percent say they are “likely” or “very likely” to use the Bible to maintain relationships with others), less than half feel confident when talking about Jesus with someone else, according to the BCCB study.

Only 42 percent have shared their faith (including biblical messages) with family, friends, and colleagues in the last 12 months, researchers reported.

Image: Wongseok Kim

Huang cautioned that this number should not be regarded as a measure of how missional Chinese believers are compared to other Christians. Instead, it is relative to other forms of how Chinese Christians engage with Scripture, such as how much they agreed with the statement that reading or listening to the Bible makes them feel “closer to God” (88%) or that the Bible was their “best friend” (60%). Compared to these other forms of engaging with Scripture, then, evangelizing to others through sharing the Word of God is practiced less.

Nevertheless, most of the Christian leaders CT interviewed acknowledged this hesitancy and attributed it to the average Chinese Christian’s lack of theological training.

“It’s not that they don’t want to talk about Christianity, but that they don’t have the answers to questions from non-Christians. This makes it very hard to initiate [conversations],” Huang said.

Calida Chu, a Hong Kongese theologian at the University of Nottingham’s department of theology and religious studies, believes that Chinese Christians may refrain from evangelizing because of the hierarchical structure implicit within the conventional Chinese family unit, where parents are seen as authority figures.

Chinese immigrants entering the UK to study also often have parents who are Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members, and it is “quite impossible” for a family to “abandon their membership,” she added.

In Chow’s eyes, new missional aspects in the Chinese Christian community have been developing, and evangelism is simply one component of it.

Chow stressed the fact that churches in Britain have had a long history of engaging with Chinese immigrants, and that evangelism is now being “reconfigured” mainly because of the new wave of Hong Kong migration.

“Historically, there was a strong [missional] effort in places like Liverpool, London, and Birmingham because of the Chinese population that was there, from seafarers to restaurant workers and students,” Chow said.

Chinese people make up 0.7 percent of the UK population, according to the 2011 census. Chinese communities have been present in London and Liverpool since the early 19th century, and the first permanent large-scale settlement occurred in the 1950s. The Chinese Overseas Christian Mission (COCM) was established during this time and helped to found many Chinese churches.

Engaging Hong Kong immigrants by helping them navigate the British system and addressing their practical, emotional, and spiritual needs is one new form of missional engagement, said Chow.

Looking outward

Of the 45 pastors Huang interviewed for the BCCB study, “not a single one” was concerned about outreach, he said.

This may be due to the overwhelming amount of work that pastors are now engaged in with the influx of new immigrants into Britain. A single pastor now takes care of more than 80 congregants on average, according to the BCCB study. This situation can easily leave them with little room to think of engaging people outside of the church.

Nam, however, says that Chinese churches are doing a “very good job” of welcoming and supporting new Hong Kongers in the UK.

“Churches ecumenically mobilized far more quickly than society for once,” said Nam. He noted the Hong Kong exodus is the biggest migration to the UK outside of Windrush, when West Indian and West African immigrants were invited to migrate to Britain between 1948 and 1971. “The level of collaboration amongst Chinese churches and local churches is exciting.”

Nam believes that British-born Chinese can serve as a cultural bridge between Hong Kong immigrants and British societal norms.

“British-born Chinese have had time to reflect and think on their hybridity,” he said. “Crossing cultural boundaries is an everyday situation.”

British-born Chinese Christians are likely to seek out perspectives like Nam’s when exploring ways to engender more sustained growth in the Chinese church. Huang is aware of this need, especially when it comes to catechizing immigrant youth and children.

The Teahouse

Image: Wongseok Kim

The Teahouse

In his view, the Chinese church is good at creating a sense of community and shared social capital. But it lacks pastoral resources and often relies heavily on the laity.

“A typical Chinese church is not filled with Christian converts but people who are Christian immigrants,” Huang said. “The Chinese church is not very powerful when it comes to generating new believers.”

The BCCB findings reflect that intercultural ministry is a growing trend, and Christian leaders interviewed say this is happening within Chinese churches and among Chinese and local UK churches.

More than 600 churches have joined the nationwide UKHK program, which equips English-speaking churches with resources to assist and support Hong Kongers, the BCCB study noted. Evangelical groups like Welcome Churches and the UK’s Evangelical Alliance have also been a part of this national effort since it launched last year.

Grace International Church, a Chinese church in Liverpool, now holds services in languages such as Portuguese and Farsi. Youth ministry is also intercultural, Huang adds, as 1.5-generation and second-generation immigrants may find it harder to negotiate their hybrid cultural identities compared to immigrant adults.

Nam has been a strong advocate of strengthening intercultural collaborations inside and outside the church. He founded The Tea House  last August, a community focused on cultivating and deepening friendships amongst Chinese-heritage clergy in the Church of England, who represent a mere 0.2 percent of all stipendiary clergy. At a meeting he organized with the Bristol City Council, the Church of England, and Chinese church leaders, one senior pastor of a Chinese church told him that they had never done this before.

This past week, Nam also led a workshop on becoming a “Hong Kong Ready Church.” It featured speakers from non-Christian organization Hongkongers in Britain, local church leaders active in the UKHK initiative, and a pastor from Bristol Chinese Christian Church, the largest Chinese church in the city.

Despite the attention they may be receiving now, these strong social networks between Chinese churches in Britain and Hong Kongers existed long before the BNO visa program was introduced on January 31, 2021, says Chow.

“I know quite a number of Chinese churches that created WhatsApp groups for Hong Kongers who were migrating to the UK well before visas were being issued [to help them find] the best places for schooling and living.”

A “shrinking” window for evangelism?

The window of opportunity to share the gospel is short, suggests the BCCB study, as second-generation British Chinese become less receptive to the faith.

Four out of five non-Christian survey respondents felt that churches and Christians are intolerant of people who have different beliefs and values (79%), while more than half think Christian values are outdated (55%).

“We are in a particular window because migration stirs up questions of being disconnected and lost, and Christianity offers hope during this time,” said Chow.

The other issue lurking in the background when it comes to evangelizing Chinese immigrants: simmering political tensions between mainland Chinese Christians and Hong Kong Christians.

Huang recounts hearing “appalling stories” from three Chinese churches—each in a different city—of these divides, where mainland Chinese Mandarin-speaking and Hong Kong Cantonese-speaking congregants refused to pray for each other or even sit in the same space.

Thankfully, he said, these events occurred in the early stages of his research, and he has heard fewer conflicts occurring as more and more Hong Kong immigrants have arrived.

Still, safety is top of mind for many Hong Kong immigrants. Some Hong Kongers in the UK run away from people who speak Mandarin on the streets, and have installed smartphone apps that inform them about which grocery shops may have links to the CCP, said Chu.

There are “linguistic-cultural-political dimensions” at work in the British context that may hinder a mainland Chinese person from sharing the gospel with a Hong Konger, said Chow.

“The study suggests that mainlanders tend to be a bit more disposed toward a positive view of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and that may be seen as a deterrent [to Hong Kongers],” said Chow. “While by and large most Chinese Christians in the UK would say they are apolitical, there is a political dimension that is presumed, whether realistic or not.”

Such invisible yet palpable tensions continue to exist within Chinese churches in Britain. Most Chinese churches are comprised of three coexisting congregations that hold services in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. More recently, says Huang, some churches have been set up exclusively for “Hong Kong exiles.”

What exacerbates these tensions is that talking about political matters remains taboo in many Chinese churches. But Chu hopes that pastors can address the wellbeing of their new Hong Kong congregants.

“Pastors have to deal with the trauma that Hong Kong people have experienced in feeling like their churches and government have abandoned or mistreated them,” Chu said. “To evangelize effectively, we have to talk about the impacts of political tension.”

However, Nam is not convinced that the window of evangelism is so short, chiefly because he does not think that British-born Chinese are less curious about the Bible.

“If anything, as a minority [group], they are very curious. The key is to ask what they are curious about,” he said. “[British-born Chinese] are not interested in expressions of Christianity in Chinese churches.

“I believe it is God and the Holy Spirit that lead people to Christ, not solely humans in their efforts,” said Nam. “To restrict it to a window is awfully short-sighted.

“The question we should be asking is: ‘How should we be teaching and equipping Christians to more effectively engage?’ I refuse to believe there is a timer or a window on the spreading of the gospel. God is bigger than that.”

Source: https://www.christianitytoday.com/