September 11, 2012

Chinese Churches — Where Women Outnumber Men

By: Jillian Kay Melchior

BEIJING — Minister Tian, 34, has never had a boyfriend, though she’s gone on a smattering of dates. Pretty, bespectacled and well-spoken, she sits in her office in a prominent Beijing church, describing her romantic dilemma. “From the world’s [perspective], it is hard, because I am older,” she says. “My relatives are worried about it. … I want to get married, [but only] if I can find a Christian man, and he is godly. He [should be] like Jesus.”

Ms. Tian is not alone; women dramatically outnumber men in the Chinese church. “It’s not a trend—it’s a phenomenon,” quipped Kim Kwong Chan, the executive secretary at the Hong Kong Christian Council.

While religious gender disparities—observed and opined upon by everyone from Simone de Beauvoir to George Gallup Jr.— aren’t limited to China, the unevenness is bigger there than in the West.

Chinese women are more than twice as likely than men to become Christians, according to a 2011 article for the Review of Religious Research, which drew on more than 8,000 surveys conducted in the mainland. Women account for 70 percent of the China’s Christian population, according to the official numbers published in the 2010 Blue Book of Religions.

This leaves Christian men in a prime position within the marriage market, a precise reversal of the national situation. Foreign Affairs has reported that China’s one-child policy has resulted in nearly 120 male births for every female birth, predicting that by 2030, more than one-fourth of men in their late thirties will remain unmarried.

Runner, a 23-year-old house-church leader, spoke of the many young women in his church—“sisters whom I love in the Lord,” as he put it—who will make excellent spouses.  He has remained unmarried thus far because he’s waiting and praying to find the woman God has chosen to be his wife, he said.

In contrast, the slim pickings for women are so pronounced that they are visible in both house churches and official churches, in both Northern and Southern China. Ms. Tian, who works at a state-sanctioned church, said that in her Sunday school class, nearly two dozen women attend regularly, all aged 38 to 40, “all single.”

It’s easy to clump these women in with China’s “shengnu”—literally, “leftover women”—whose high educational and professional achievement leave them with an ever-smaller circle of suitable husbands.

Yet there’s a crucial difference in values. Whereas the shengnu want to marry up but can’t because of their own high prominence, China’s Christian women want a man who is first and foremost devout.

“My friends [who] are Christian women don’t care about [whether potential suitors] have money, have a car, their status, their social standing,” Ms. Tian said. “I think because they are good Christians and love God, they long for [godliness].”

Young Christian women are often reinforced by older women who converted after their marriage went sour—in itself a phenomenon that has contributed to the gender disparity. Many divorced older women “feel sadness, and that’s why they come to church,” said Hong Ke Lin, a secretary at Chengdu’s Catholic diocese.

As China has become richer, the divorce rate has also spiked, more than quadrupling in the past 25 years. Last year, more than two million Chinese couples filed for divorce, a record.

In that context, it’s easier to see why young women might believe that shared religious values are a better guarantor of a happy marriage than wealth or social standing.

Grace, a 26-year-old house-church attendee, said she has learned to enjoy the opportunities singleness affords. She has taken theology classes and traveled extensively, and she said she believes God will send her a spouse when the time is right.

Nevertheless, she said, the lack of Christian men can be discouraging. “A lot of girls in my church are under 30, many 25 to 28,” Grace explained. “Most of the girls have strong faith in God, but sometimes they worry.”

The poor marriage prospects can be all the worse because of family pressures, both Grace and Ms. Tian agreed. Many parents are still deeply traditional and expect their daughters to marry young. Ms. Tian offered the example of one 40-year-old friend: “Her parents are not Christian, and ask her often, ‘Why hasn’t God given you a husband?’ That’s a big pressure for her.”

Churches are increasingly becoming responsive to the problems caused by the gender disparity. Some offer Bible studies specifically for single women. Frequently, multiple churches cooperate to host events for male and female singles to meet. Many churches also offer marriage counseling for mixed-faith couples, sometimes with the hope of converting the husband.

Yet overall, men have it pretty good in the Chinese church. “The women in the church are good, most of them will be a good wife,” Ms. Tian said. “If this is [a new Christian’s] goal, [to] come to church to pursue a woman to be his wife, he can marry very soon.”

Jillian Kay Melchior is a Robert Novak fellow with the Phillips Foundation.

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