[Note: citation has been corrected from earlier version.]
The correspondent, Tom Phillips, visited the Liushui Church in Wenzhou, a 5,000-seat "mega-church" that claims to be China's largest church, to highlight the explosive growth of Christianity in the past 30 years:
It is said to be China's biggest church and on Easter Sunday thousands of worshippers will flock to this Asian mega-temple to pledge their allegiance – not to the Communist Party, but to the Cross.
The 5,000-capacity Liushi church, which boasts more than twice as many seats as Westminster Abbey and a 206ft crucifix that can be seen for miles around, opened last year with one theologian declaring it a "miracle that such a small town was able to build such a grand church".
The £8 million building is also one of the most visible symbols of Communist China's breakneck conversion as it evolves into one of the largest Christian congregations on earth.
The assertion (and basis for the headline) that China may become the world's largest Christian nation comes from Dr. Fenggang Yang, of Purdue University:
"By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon," said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. "It is going to be less than a generation. Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change."
This is based on his belief that the Christian population in China could reach 160 million by 2025 (up from less than a million in 1949), and 247 million in 2030.
A number of friends have written me (or 'tweeted') asking for my reaction to the article. I have three comments and a story.
First of all, it's important to remember that, since China begins with 1.35 billion people, it will almost always win every straight numbers game. If China does become the largest Christian nation, the percentage of Christians may still remain low. This is not to detract from the significance of a possible Christian population of 160 million or 247 million; it's just a reminder to keep that number in perspective.
Second, Phillips helpfully points out the divide within the government about how to deal with the spread of Christianity.
Some officials argue that religious groups can provide social services the government cannot, while simultaneously helping reverse a growing moral crisis in a land where cash, not Communism, has now become king. [...] Yet others within China's leadership worry about how the religious landscape might shape its political future, and its possible impact on the Communist Party's grip on power, despite the clause in the country's 1982 constitution that guarantees citizens the right to engage in "normal religious activities.
It is much too simplistic to make either of these assertions: "the Chinese government increasingly views Christianity as a positive force within society"; or "the Chinese government views Christianity as a threat and is determined to crush it."
Finally, the article is a reminder that the efforts of the Chinese government to destroy the Church have been, and will continue to be, a spectacular failure.
And this reminds me of a church bell in Sichuan.
Two years ago I had the opportunity to travel in Sichuan Province with my pastor's wife doing research on Esther Nelson, a missionary from our church who had served in China from 1921 to 1954.
We were visiting the Protestant Church in Yibin, Sichuan, which had been a Baptist church before 1949. During our visit with the pastor, he mentioned to us that there was a bell in the church steeple that had English writing on it. Might we be able to translate the inscription? Never ones to miss out on an adventure, we followed the pastor up into the steeple.
What we found was a giant cast iron bell with the following inscription: "Buckeye Bell Foundry, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1886. Presented to the First Baptist Church of Coffeyville, Kansas, by W.S. Upham. Praise Ye the Lord."
After recovering from shock and finding out a bit more about the bell, I asked the pastor how it was that the bell had survived the Great Leap Forward, a political campaign during which Chinese were instructed to melt down all metal in their possession and turn it over to the government.
"They tried to burn it," he said, "but it they couldn't. It was too strong."
The same can be said of the church in China!