School education in China: choices among Christian families

By Bridge Education Services |
Chinese girl student
Jerry Wang/Unsplash

Christian school education has a long history in China, going back at least to Robert Morrison’s Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca in 1818. In fact, thirteen of the country’s premier universities were once Christian. That all changed after the current government took power in 1949, when Christian schools and universities were closed, merged with other schools, or secularized in other ways. By 1952, Christian schools in China were basically gone. Revival came to the Chinese countryside in the 1970s and 1980s, and the 1990s saw it come to the cities as well. By 2000, China’s cities had millions of young, educated believers who were just out of college and beginning to start families. They wanted something different for their children’s education than they had experienced themselves. The pent-up demand led to a dramatic shift in the educational landscape, particularly between 2005 and 2017. In 2005, there were just a handful of Christian schools in China. By 2017, there were probably 800 with an average of 60 students, leading to a combined total of 48,000 students in Chinese Christian schools. These schools were unregistered, just like the churches that sponsored many of them, and they existed in the gray areas of Chinese legal enforcement. A survey from this time indicates that there were about 20,000 students being homeschooled by the late 2010s as well. Not all homeschooling families were Christian, but many were.

Things began to change in 2017. Readers may remember that crosses were being removed from churches in south China beginning even earlier than that. But by 2017, the government had begun to regulate increasingly wide swathes of civil society, removing much of the legal gray area. This regulation included laws restricting foreign NGOs (2017), the proselytization of minors (2019), religious groups (2020), tutoring and homework loads (2021), internet religious information (2022), out-of-school tutoring (2023), and instituting patriotic education (2024). More and more chinks of light are being blotted out, one by one, for those who seek to educate their children in a way that honors God. At the same time, unregistered house churches and their schools have been closed and their leaders fined or imprisoned. The number of schools has dropped significantly, while the number of parents homeschooling their children has risen significantly. People are leaving formal schools and using homeschooling as a more discrete way to educate their children according to a Christian worldview.

Choices among Christian Families

Parents are facing a decision with three options: some of them can have their children rejoin the public school system, seeking to be salt and light; they can have their children study abroad, possibly moving the entire family to a different country; or they can choose discrete ways of continuing to educate their children outside of the public system.

To further understand the current situation, a look at the numbers will be helpful. The Chinese Ministry of Education reported in 2023 that there were roughly 246.5 million children in kindergarten, elementary, middle school, high school, and special education combined. That is 17.6% of the 1.4 billion population of China. If we assume that there are 80 million Christians in China (a fairly conservative number), and that this same percentage holds for Christian families, about 14 million children (17.6%) in Christian families are in the K–12 range. Looking at the figures in the first paragraph of this article, there were less than 100,000 students in various forms of Christian education in China even in its heyday in the mid-2010s. That leads to the following obvious conclusion: most children of Chinese Christians have been and continue to be students in Chinese public schools. The second largest group is probably those who are choosing to study abroad. Just over one million Chinese students are currently studying abroad at all levels of education. If the ratio of Christians to the total population of those studying abroad is the same as that of Christians to the greater population of China, that means approximately 57,000 Chinese students from Christian families are studying abroad, and the number may be higher.

Challenges Faced by Chinese Christians

For the rest of this article, we will turn our attention to the first and third groups mentioned above: Chinese Christians whose children are attending public schools and Chinese Christians who have chosen to continue their Christian education privately. This second group may be attending completely hidden unregistered Christian schools, they may be attending Christian schools that have already been discovered and are “on the run” from authorities while they continue to educate children, or they may be homeschooling. We will provide a series of vignettes to further explain various situations that families find themselves in. These vignettes are not based on actual stories, but they represent true categories.

Challenge #1: Where to study after high school?

Xiao Ming, an eighth grader at a Christian school.

Let’s first consider the case of Xiao Ming. Xiao Ming is currently in eighth grade, and he has been in a house-church-sponsored Christian school since he started kindergarten at three years old. The first years were great—his parents were thrilled that he was in an environment where he was loved and was taught God’s Word every day. Things became more challenging just as he was entering grade one. That year, the school had to change locations twice to avoid being closed down by the authorities. This was hard enough for Xiao Ming’s parents. However, even harder was the pressure put on them by their own parents, who did not want Xiao Ming to miss out on the chance of going to university in China. If he failed to get his student registration number (学籍) for grade one, at the beginning of public elementary school, that was likely going to be the case. But in the end, his parents decided that he would go abroad for university, and they continued sending him to the Christian school. The school used many English-language resources from outside China, even though the teachers themselves were not fully fluent English speakers. (A large percentage of Christian education resources are in English.)

Xiao Ming’s school continued to face pressure and eventually had to break up into several smaller units in various locations around the city. His parents received harassing calls from local authorities demanding that they put him back in a local school. But they knew that would be difficult since he did not have a student number. With Xiao Ming now an eighth grader, his parents are in a bind. Xiao Ming’s relatively low academic Chinese language competence and lack of student number make it very difficult for him to go back to a local school; his school’s lack of accreditation makes them wonder if he can even graduate with a meaningful diploma; and the economic pressures of 2024 China restrict their ability to consider sending him abroad for university. At the same time, they wonder if his mother should leave with Xiao Ming and go to a school in Thailand, leaving his father to work his job and send money to them. This was not what they signed up for.

Challenge #2: Where to study after kindergarten?

Peng San, a 5-year-old in a Christian kindergarten.

Our second case is that of Peng San, a five-year-old in a church kindergarten in China. His parents are deciding where he should attend elementary school next year. His mother is a believer, but his father is not. They have enjoyed having him in this kindergarten, despite the pressures that the school faces. They realize that he is now going to enter the compulsory education years of grades one through nine. Moving him to a local public school now will be the smoothest way forward. There will be no obstacles to him receiving a student number, and they have plenty of friends who are sending their children to a local public school as well. His mother is concerned about the increasingly ideological nature of the education even in elementary schools, along with the significant reduction in the amount of English language education he would receive. She hopes that he can receive his university education abroad, and English is a key for that to happen. His father works for a state-owned company, and he is receiving pressure from his boss to make sure that their son attends a public school. He foresees his son passing the college entrance exam and entering a prestigious Chinese university. As Peng San’s parents look to the future, they are not united. His mother has great concerns about a public school, and his father has great concerns about going against regulations. He had supported his wife putting him in the church kindergarten, but this is a bridge too far.

Challenge #3: What lies ahead for this family?

Xue Hua, a homeschooled middle schooler.

Xue Hua is our third case. Her mother was a teacher at Xue Hua’s Christian elementary school. The school was raided and closed two years ago, and her mother began homeschooling her. Several other parents from their former school are doing the same thing, and Xue Hua really enjoys being able to still see many of her friends. They just need to make sure they don’t have group activities outside during school hours, which might arouse suspicion. Their homeschool group has organized different camps and service activities, and the parents are quite satisfied with the current situation. However, as they look ahead, Xue Hua’s parents are concerned. Xue Hua is showing strong aptitude in math and science, but neither of her parents feels confident to teach her in those areas beyond the middle school level. Will she be able to study well in high school using completely online classes? Will her education be accepted at a university abroad? If she does go abroad for university, who will watch out for her in a strange new country? Will she be able to return to China and work thereafter, or will their family be split, with Xue Hua living her adult life in another country? There are no easy answers.

Challenge #4: Which worldview to believe?

Wu Yue, a middle schooler transferred to a public school.

Wu Yue is our fourth case. When her Christian elementary school had to divide into multiple campuses across the city, and her father received a phone call from his employer threatening him with his job if he did not put her into the public system, her parents relented. Wu Yue was put into a low-level, very ordinary public school near her home—it was the only school that would give her a student number and let her in. At first, it was very hard. Her classmates and homeroom teacher found out where she had been going to school before, and they made fun of her. But Wu Yue was a hard-working and generous person, and gradually she won the hearts of her teachers and peers. Things smoothed out and her parents were relieved. The years rolled by, and Wu Yue moved into middle school.

She came home one day from school and was very quiet over dinner. When her mother asked her what was wrong, she broke down into tears and ran to her room. Later that evening, in a conversation with her parents, she shared what was happening. In a science class that day, the teacher clearly stated that the world is uncreated and that those who believe in a God who made the world were deluded mystics. She asked the students who thought God made the world to raise their hands. Wu Yue was the only student who raised her hand. Her teacher berated her and told her she was surprised that someone so smart could believe something so foolish. Wu Yue went on to share with her parents that she was feeling more and more dissonance between the things she was learning in school and what she learned at home and in church. She didn’t know what to believe. Her parents were filled with sorrow and fear.

Challenge #5: Risk of losing his native language

Zhang Kai, a missionary kid in second grade

Our final case is Zhang Kai. His parents are overseas workers, sent out by their church on a mission to a closed country. They took Zhang Kai overseas when he was three years old. It took some time, but Zhang Kai and his family gradually adjusted to life in their new country. When he was old enough, Zhang Kai started attending a local school. His parents were both highly involved in their ministry, and they wanted him to learn the local language and develop a heart for the people there. While the school quality was not excellent, Zhang Kai did enjoy his time with local peers. His mother taught him Chinese at home since it is not available in his local school. Zhang Kai did not see a need to learn to read and write Chinese. He saw that his parents use the local language, as well as English, and it served them quite well. He did not have any peers with whom he conversed in Chinese.

After second grade, Zhang Kai and his parents returned home to spend time with their family and church during Spring Festival. It was a wonderful time, and Zhang Kai enjoyed getting to know his grandparents. One evening, his grandfather pulled out a Chinese storybook and asked Zhang Kai to read it to him. Zhang Kai was not able to do so. The grandfather was shocked, and he asked Zhang Kai to show him his Chinese handwriting. He also did that very poorly. Zhang Kai’s mother cried for a long time that night after Zhang Kai went to bed. He was losing his Chinese language. He couldn’t go back to China and rejoin the school system there. She didn’t know how to start with homeschooling, and she realized if she devoted that much time to Zhang Kai, it would completely change their ministry in the foreign country.

These vignettes have attempted to provide additional context to the challenges faced by Chinese Christians as they seek to educate their children in a way that supports and builds their faith. Their challenges are many. They need our prayers. Despite all of these obstacles, God can enable them to make disciples of their own children. And what is a strategy for moving forward? The same one that is being followed by many house churches.

Opportunities in the Crisis

One house church leader explained it this way. House Church 1.0 represents the original rural house churches of the 1970s—isolated and undercover. House Church 2.0 represents the house churches of the 2000s—full floors of skyscrapers being rented for large congregations that are neither isolated nor undercover. And now we have come to the age of House Church 3.0: smaller church units that meet undercover but are not isolated because they remain networked virtually with larger groups, receiving help and support from them, despite their covert locations.

Christian educators are beginning to use this model as well. Even though they are unable to gather in large groups, they can come together in small schools and home-school co-ops. These smaller groups are easier to operate and to remain hidden. They provide a context for intimate, face-to-face instruction and discipleship. And they can virtually receive many Christian education resources from around the world. This hybrid, online/offline learning methodology can create a context for excellent Christian education, even in these very challenging circumstances in which these small groups find themselves.

Students who graduate from schools like this are choosing one of several pathways: those with the finances and sufficient English language ability choose to go to university abroad; some choose to attend an underground college or seminary; some go to accredited technical schools, which have less demanding entry requirements; and some join church groups that provide them with apprenticeship training. An unanswered question at this point is whether Christian school education in China is a movement that will persist. Some students that were already in such schools in 2017 have continued to study. But the choice for parents of young children to put their children in this type of school is much more difficult. They are facing a much more challenging environment than parents of eight to ten years ago. The suppression of Christian school education, combined with a law that restricts children under 18 from attending Sunday school, severely curtails the ability of the church to disciple its children. This is a strategic space to watch. May the church, and the education and discipleship of its youth, continue to grow. May God continue to open new doors.

This article was first published on ChinaSource. It was republished with permission.

Bridge Education Services (BES) envisions a day when every Chinese family has access to a viable Christian education within their community. To that end, we facilitate broad collaboration to virtually deliver education services to Chinese families and organizations. We connect education providers to those who need their resources, seeking to remove barriers that exist due to technology, language, and lack of accreditation. The discipleship of the next generation is at stake.

The views expressed in this or any other opinion article do not necessarily reflect the views of Christian Daily International.