Christian publishing in China – a huge opportunity
One of the more remarkable facts about the history of the church is that some of its most significant events were barely noticed at the time of their occurrence.
Examples are not hard to find. In the early church the attention of the most powerful inhabitants of the Roman Empire was focused on the political and military accomplishments of their day and they gave scant attention to the persecuted band of men called ‘apostles’.
Yet 2000 years later it is clear that, by the grace of God, those twelve men had a far more powerful impact than anything the Roman Empire ever accomplished. It was from these seemingly small, insignificant events that God worked good in mighty ways for untold millions in the generations to come.
This should not surprise us. Did not Jesus say that the Kingdom of God starts out small — like a mustard seed — and over time becomes a tree of great and lasting significance (Luke 13:18-19)?
Recently, another event has occurred that has gone almost completely unnoticed within the Christian community, but has the potential of becoming a major milestone in the history of the church.
In about 2003 it became possible to publish legally some forms of Christian literature in the People’s Republic of China. Ten years ago, legal Christian publishing there was barely on the radar screen, but today the situation is far different.
The demographic and publishing statistics are staggering. In 1800, 90 per cent of the Christians in the world lived in North America and Europe. Today, about 60 per cent of Christians live in the so-called ‘two-thirds world’ (Africa, Asia, the Middle East). However, Christian publishing in general, and Reformed publishing in particular, has made a weak transition at best to these new regions. The centre of gravity for Reformed publishing is still the English-speaking world.
The church in China is 80-100 million in size and continues to grow at a rapid rate.
China’s adult literacy rate, between 2003 and 2008, is reckoned to stand at 93 per cent.
There are 167,000 bookstores in China.
6.3 billion domestically-published books were sold in China in 2007. On average, the Chinese read 5 books a year and 1.7 magazines and 7.4 newspapers per month. Over the past ten years, more than 200 Christian bookstores have opened throughout China.
Currently, the total number of Christian books in legal circulation in China is approximately 600, using a broad definition of ‘Christian’. About 50-60 new titles are being added each year.
Of the 600 titles now in print, only about 25 or 30 have a Reformed theme. Many of the 600 were published by one of the nine China-based Christian publishers that have emerged in the past ten years.
Yet, amazing as these developments are, they have gone largely unnoticed in the Christian community around the world!
Often, the general perception is that Christian publishing of any sort inside China is impossible and it is still necessary to smuggle Bibles and Christian literature into the country. The reality, however, is that the situation today is far different from even just ten years ago.
It needs to be understood that books with foreign ISBN numbers cannot be published or distributed legally in China. However, a book with a Beijing issued International Standard Book Number (ISBN) can be sold to anyone, anywhere, in any quantity in China, without any fear of official reprisal.
While this movement is still small in size, 30 or 40 years down the road it has the potential of being a major milestone in the history of the church.
We now have the opportunity to provide legal Christian resources in significant numbers to what may be the largest and fastest growing church in the world, but a church that currently exists in one of the biggest Christian literature publishing vacuums in the world.
These changes have enormous implications for the future of the church in China and around the world. What would happen if an additional 200-300 Reformed titles were added to the 600 legally published books now in print? Adding this many titles would increase the total number of Christian books in legal circulation by approximately 33-50 per cent.
Most amazing of all is that, in comparison with traditional evangelical publishers, Reformed publishers have a significant advantage in China. Currently, Chinese publishing houses — all under government oversight — tend to give approval more frequently to certain genres of Christian books than to others.
The books most often approved are biographies, old books with historical value (e.g. Pilgrim’s progress, Institutes of the Christian religion), and marriage and family books. The Reformed community will immediately see the significance of this. How many biographies and old historical books does the Banner of Truth have? How many does EP Books have?
For the past 30-40 years, Reformed publishers have been publishing these books in great numbers, which gives them a unique advantage in filling the publishing vacuum in China. We can be certain that the vacuum will be filled with something. The key question is what will fill that vacuum? The cults are not without presence in China.
Over the past 2-3 years, several Reformed publishing companies have become aware of this opportunity and a few have been exploring various publishing options. Two have taken specific steps to legally publish their books. The most notable example is the Banner of Truth.
In 2009, Banner signed a multi-book publishing contract to translate and publish their books in China. The biggest challenge for Banner and other companies is a lack of funding. While this author is not privy to the financial details of each company, it is clear that their financial resources are very limited.
When informed of the opportunity in China, many companies give the same reply: ‘We love what is going on in China. We want to be involved but we just do not have the money’. The result is that the number of contracts signed and the number of books entering circulation is occurring at a snail’s pace.
At the same time, other evangelical publishers, some with significant financial resources from the sale of top-selling fiction and self-help titles, have been able to move ahead far more rapidly in China.
The good news is that several publishers, such as Banner of Truth, Evangelical Press, and Solid Ground Christian Books each have at least 25 books that will likely pass government censorship in China (i.e. receive a Beijing issued ISBN).
Other publishers such as Reformation Heritage Books, Shepherd Press, Inter Varsity Press (UK) and P&R all have titles that will likely pass censorship. Publishing contracts for these books could be signed tomorrow, if funding were available.
For approximately $1 million USD, 50-60 Reformed titles can be translated and published in China. To some, this might sound like a very large amount of money, but when compared to what churches are spending on building and renovation projects, it is actually a modest figure.
According to the US Census Bureau: ‘Churches in the United States spent about $7 billion on church buildings in 2009’. $1-2 million dollar building projects are quite common.
However, which is more strategic for the fulfilment of the Great Commission and strengthening of the church worldwide? Spending $1 million dollars building a new church gymnasium or Sunday school wing; or, using that same $1 million dollars to publish 50-60 books in a region with one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the world, in one of the biggest Christian publishing vacuums in the world?
The need of the hour is for men and women in the Reformed community to think globally and critically, and to make ministry and financial decisions in the light of Scripture and the rapidly changing needs of the church worldwide.
Christian publishing in China is still in its infancy and publishing quality titles now while the number of legally published books is still quite low can have an enormous impact on the future direction of the Chinese church.
However, if we sit still and do nothing, the non-Reformed titles — which now largely define the market — will continue to shape the future of the church in China.
Robert Morrison Project
Happily, concerned Christians around the world can get involved to help fill this publishing vacuum. The Robert Morrison Project is a US-based, non-profit ministry that seeks to legally publish Reformed literature in China.
Over the next 5-10 years their goal is to publish 50 titles in China (20 are from the Banner of Truth Trust). Individuals and churches may sponsor the publication of specific titles. To learn more about this opportunity, please visit www.robertmorrisonproject.org or contact [email protected]
UK donors may donate to this project through Stewardship Services (UKET), (charity no. 234714), www.stewardship.org.uk
Dr Michael Haykin
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
This article first appeared in Banner of Truth magazine January 2011