Pentecostals in China

By Robert Menzies [1]

From the East coast to the West coast

The wind of the Holy Spirit will blow everywhere

From the East to the West

The glory of the Holy Spirit will be released

Good news comes from heaven

Good news rings in the ear

Causing dry bones to become moist

Frail bones to become strong

Full of the Holy Spirit, we will not turn back

Step by step we go to distant places

The lame skipping

The mute singing

The fire of the Holy Spirit

The longer it burns the brighter it gets. [2]

Abstract

Sociologists of religion tend to minimize the Bible’s role in shaping Pentecostal practice in China. Thus, they also deny that Chinese Pentecostals possess a clear theological identity. The author challenges this judgment. After tracing the connections between the Azusa Street Revival and indigenous Chinese churches, the author suggests that the common thread that unites Pentecostals in China with Pentecostals around the world is their sense of connection with the apostolic church. Pentecostal praxis is shaped by the stories in the Bible. The author seeks to demonstrate that this is the case in two of the largest house church networks in China.

It is now apparent that since the early 1980s the church in China has experienced unprecedented growth. Once viewed as an essentially foreign faith, Christianity has taken root in Chinese soil. And it has blossomed. If the trends of the past three decades remain constant, by 2020 there will be more evangelical Christians in China than in any other country in the world. [3]

Researchers are agreed that the form of Christianity that has emerged in China is both evangelical in character and Chinese in expression. [4] It is evangelical in that the vast majority of Chinese believers exhibit a firm belief in the authority of the Bible, faith in Christ as the sole means of obtaining salvation, and the necessity of evangelism. [5] And yet this evangelical faith has been expressed in ways that are especially appropriate to the Chinese context. Church life is often experienced in small groups that feature close relationships and family ties. There is a strong emphasis on the miraculous, with prayer for healing taking on an important role in the life of faith. The experiential dimension of Christian spirituality, expressed in earnest prayers and emotionally charged worship, is significant to many Chinese believers. And the vast majority of Christians in China worship in “house churches” that are independent of state or foreign control. [6]

Indeed, the strong experiential nature of Protestant Christianity in China, and particularly the emphasis in the house churches on healing, exorcism, and prophecy, has led many to describe the dominant form of Protestant Christianity in China as Pentecostal. While Tony Lambert describes Chinese Christianity as “biblical supernaturalism,” others, such as David Aikman, Gotthard Oblau, Edmond Tang, and Chen-Yang Kao speak of the specifically Pentecostal features of the church in China. [7] Although sociologists like Oblau and Kao tend to minimize the significant role that the Bible or theological convictions play in shaping the praxis of these Chinese Protestants, they do helpfully highlight the charismatic orientation of their spirituality. Regardless of whether or not these groups can truly be categorized as Pentecostal, [8] this general charismatic orientation is widely acknowledged as the key to the rapid growth of the Chinese church. [9]

In the following essay, I hope to shed light on this significant sector of the global church: the Pentecostal churches of China. I shall begin by offering a brief overview of the historical development of Pentecostal churches in China, including the fascinating story of how churches with direct links to the Azusa Street Revival (1906-1909) were established. I shall then offer evidence for the Pentecostal nature of the house church movement that has grown so rapidly in recent decades. While, as we have noted, some scholars downplay the role of the Bible in shaping Pentecostal practice in China, and thus they also deny that Chinese Pentecostals possess a clear theological identity, I will challenge this judgment. Certainly, not every Christian that prays for the sick, exorcises demons, or prophesies, would affirm a baptism in the Spirit distinct from conversion that is marked by speaking in tongues. Nevertheless, there is a significant number that do. [10] And their influence, as well as the clarity of their biblical convictions, should not be underestimated. The common thread that unites Pentecostals in China with other Pentecostals around the world is their sense of connection with the apostolic church as reflected in the book of Acts. Chinese Pentecostals pray for the sick, worship with joyful abandonment, speak in tongues, and seek the enabling of the Spirit for bold witness in the face of persecution because they find all of these experiences described in the New Testament. The message and methods of the early church are models for their lives and ministry. We shall seek to demonstrate that this is the case in two of the largest networks in China. Finally, I will identify some of the key questions that confront Pentecostals in China as they face an exciting but uncertain future.

 

1 The Early Years (1908-1949)

One of the striking aspects of Christianity in pre-1949 China was the emergence of strong, vital indigenous churches. These churches were founded and led by Chinese Christians. They were established and operated entirely independent of foreign finances, control and leadership. Although these groups were largely overlooked by missionaries and have been neglected by historians, it is evident that these groups were extremely significant. More recently, Daniel Bays, a noted historian of Chinese Christianity, has highlighted the significance of these groups. Speaking of these independent Chinese Christian groups, Bays writes, “I believe that this sector [of the Christian Church] was far more interesting and significant than it might have been thought.” [11] Bays estimates that by the 1940s these indigenous groups accounted for between 20-25% (or 200,000 believers) of all Protestants. [12] Furthermore, Bays notes that these groups have exerted a tremendous influence on the Christianity that has flourished in China since the 1980s. [13]

The largest of these groups, the True Jesus Church, was and remains Pentecostal in character. Bays and Iap Sian Chin have established important links between the Azusa Street revival and the key founders of the True Jesus Church. Alfred Garr, one of the first pastors at the Azusa Street revival to receive the baptism of the Spirit and speak in tongues, felt called to go as a missionary. He and his wife arrived in Hong Kong in October of 1907. The Garrs were joined by a small group of Pentecostals and they began to minister in Hong Kong. Garr’s interpreter, Mok Lai Chi, was baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. Mok became the founding editor of a Chinese monthly paper, Pentecostal Truths (Wuxunjie zhenlibao), which was first issued in January of 1908. This paper “directly influenced the North China founders of the first major Chinese Pentecostal church, the True Jesus Church.” [14]

Another link between the Azusa Street revival and the True Jesus Church can be traced through Bernt Berntsen, a missionary serving in China who was profoundly impacted by his experience at the altar of the Azusa Street Mission. After his baptism in the Spirit at Azusa Street, Berntsen returned to China and, along with a small group of Pentecostals, opened an independent mission station in Zhending (just north of Shijiazhuang) of Hebei Province. In 1912 this group began to publish a newspaper, Popular Gospel Truth (Tongchuan fuyin zhenlibao). This paper, along with the Hong Kong paper noted above, provided inspiration for the early founders the True Jesus Church. Additionally, two of the key Chinese founders of the True Jesus Church, Zhang Lingshen and Wei Enbo were impacted in Beijing by members of the church Bernsten’s group had founded, the Faith Union (Xinxinhui). [15] Berntsen, who was increasingly drawn to the non-trinitarian Oneness position and eventually left the Assemblies of God, appears to have exerted considerable influence on these leaders. It is notable that the True Jesus Church (as did the Jesus Family noted below) followed in this non-trinitarian path. [16]

Zhang Lingshen and Wei Enbo, along with Barnabas Zhang, all of which had Pentecostal experiences that included speaking in tongues, determined that they would form a Pentecostal church in China. They founded their first church in Tianjin in 1917. The church grew quickly and spread to Shandong, Hebei, Henan, Zhejiang, and other provinces. Its key areas of strength were in Hunan, Fujian, and Henan. Hunter and Chan note that the church’s “estimated membership was at least 120,000 by 1949” with 700 churches throughout China. [17] The True Jesus Church remains a strong force today in Taiwan and in China.

The Jesus Family was another large, indigenous Chinese Church that was Pentecostal in nature. The Jesus Family was founded in the 1920s by Jing Dianyin in the village of Mazhuang (Taian County), in Shandong Province. Jing formed a friendship with Assemblies of God missionary Leslie M. Anglin and quickly embraced Pentecostal doctrine. [18] Thus, the Jesus Family’s worship was marked by an emphasis on baptism in the Spirit, speaking in tongues, prayer for healing, prophecy, and other spiritual gifts. The Jesus Family also featured a communal way of life in which everything was shared. The Jesus Family was especially strong in the poorest parts of China. Hunter and Chan provide a wonderful description of the church from a present-day believer’s perspective: the church was “a love fellowship, a meeting-place for the weary and a place of comfort for the broken-hearted…where you are, there is our home, and our home is everywhere.” [19] In its heyday in China the Jesus Family totaled over a hundred communities and around six thousand members. [20] Although the church still exists today in a non-communitarian form in various parts of China, it is quite small.

There were other indigenous churches that were non-Pentecostal in character, such as The Little Flock (Xiao Qun) established by Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng) in the mid-1920s. And there were certainly a number of non-Pentecostal Chinese church leaders of stature. Wang Mingdao, for example, apparently had a Pentecostal experience in 1920, but later “backed away from full Pentecostalism.” [21] Nevertheless, the fact remains that of the three largest independent Chinese churches that sprang up in the early part of the twentieth century (The True Jesus Church, The Little Flock, and the Jesus Family), two were Pentecostal. And one of these Pentecostal groups, the True Jesus Church, was by far the largest single indigenous Chinese church group of that era. This fact, coupled with the significant impact of the Pentecostal form of revivalism that swept through China in the 1930s, indicates that the majority of Chinese Christians prior to 1949, when able to develop their own Christian identity, gravitated to Pentecostal forms of worship and doctrine. It is worth noting, then, that indigenous Chinese Christianity was predominantly Pentecostal.

Of course many Pentecostal missionaries served in China during this period, planting churches and training Christian leaders. The Pentecostal Missionary Union, established in the U.K. in 1909, and the Assemblies of God, established in the U.S. in 1914, were early Pentecostal missions agencies that sent missionaries to China. By 1915 there were approximately 150 missionaries serving in a roughly 30 locations around China. [22] These remarkable early pioneers left a lasting legacy. Although this group is too numerous to list, Mattie Ledbetter serves as an outstanding example of their dedication and impact. A single lady, Mattie was ordained a missionary to South China in 1911. She served for many years in Fat Shan (Foshan in Guangdong Province), establishing two outstations and serving in an orphanage. She often traveled by horseback from village to village distributing Bibles and preaching. In a letter dated Nov. 30, 1920 she offers a vivid picture of her prayer life. She writes, “Once recently at morning prayer…I sunk on the floor under the power of God and lay there three hours. Every little while the power would shake me from head to foot and the Lord would give me a prayer or a song or reveal something to me…and Oh how sweetly Jesus spoke to my soul. I was melted in love.” [23] In 1928 Mattie, suffering from exhaustion, traveled to Hong Kong for a time of rest and recuperation. Little did she know that God would use her to preach evangelistic crusades in a tent and in this way pioneer a vibrant church in Hong Kong. Hong Kong First Assembly of God now numbers close to one thousand believers. Mattie died of dysentery in Hong Kong on March 2, 1938 at the age of 67. [24]

Tony Lambert points out that today the Church in China is generally strong in those areas where historically the missionaries were most active; that is, in the eastern coastal provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu. However, Lambert goes on to note that the Chinese church is also very strong in some provinces where the missionaries were not as active, provinces like Henan and Anhui. He offers no rationale for the growth of the church in these regions, but does note that “the witness of independent, indigenous churches, such as the Little Flock and the Jesus Family, are also vital factors to be taken into account.” [25] What Lambert does not state, but what is especially striking is this: strong, indigenous Pentecostal churches were active in these regions prior to 1949 and today, strong, indigenous Pentecostal churches have blossomed in these same regions. It is difficult to deny that the legacy of these early indigenous churches lives on in the Christians and churches birthed in the revivals of the 1980s. [26] This legacy is conspicuously Pentecostal and it is to this legacy that we now turn.

 

2 Explosive Growth (1949-Present)

When Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese church entered a new and uncertain era. Although the government’s attitude toward religion often featured hostile repression, the striking fact remains that under the first three decades of communist rule Protestant Christianity in China grew by leaps and bounds. As Kao notes, “after the long period of eradication measures from 1956 to the late 1970s, the number of Catholics and Muslims remained the same, while the number of Protestant Christians rose from 0.8 million to 3 million.” [27] Even though, as Kao acknowledges, these official figures represent an absolute minimum, since they do not include underground Protestants; they still bear witness to exceptional growth. [28] And by all accounts, this growth has been fueled by the emergence of Pentecostal churches or groups with Pentecostal-style patterns of worship and outreach.

Nevertheless, as we have noted, many scholars are reluctant to describe these churches as possessing a clear Pentecostal identity – one that is rooted in their reading of the Bible. A host of other factors are offered in an attempt to explain why Chinese Protestants have gravitated toward Pentecostal forms of belief and praxis. For example, Hunter and Chan point out that Pentecostal values resonate with important features of Chinese folk religion and thus meet the felt-needs of many Chinese believers. [29] Fenggang Yang argues that the vicissitudes in China created by the transition to a market economy have created a new kind of angst and the need for a new world-view “to bring sense and order” to peoples’ lives. [30] Pentecostal spirituality helps meet this need. Chen-Yang Kao argues that the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) paved the way for the emergence of “practice-led Pentecostalism” by stripping away various forms of ecclesiastical authority that, without the strident persecution that characterized this era, would have been present. Thus, “there was no Christian authority that was able to provide a doctrinal framework or institutional regulation for discouraging those ecstatic experiences and the exercise of charismatic power….” [31] While all of these explanations may help us in varying degrees understand more clearly why China, like so many places around the world, has been such fertile ground for Pentecostal church growth, they all fail to account for the central dynamic: the biblical record. Yes, the Pentecostal faith, with its openness to the supernatural, provides spiritual resources for significant felt needs. Yes, the Pentecostal message, centered as it is in faith in Christ, provides stability in the chaos of moral confusion. And certainly, Pentecostal faith thrives where there is limited ecclesiastical structure. But none of these explanations takes us to the heart of the matter. Pentecostal faith is rooted in the Bible and flows from the conviction that the stories in the book of Acts are our stories: stories that provide models for life and ministry. Is it not significant that the Pentecostal movement in China was given first breath through the printed page? Why should we imagine that it is any different today? Indeed, even among largely illiterate Pentecostals, the stories of the Bible, passed on orally, serve as models for their faith and praxis. As we shall see, China at this point is no exception.

It is perhaps easy to forget that the Pentecostal movement was birthed in a Bible school. Around the world, Pentecostals have always been quick to establish schools that highlight the study of the Bible. Although Pentecostals feature a simple, narrative approach to the Bible and their hermeneutic is void of the angst over miracle stories and apparent contradictions that characterize many in the West, they emphasize the Bible just the same. This is certainly true of the Pentecostal house church networks in China, who have established an impressive array of training centers in the face of staggering obstacles. As one Pentecostal church leader from Wenzhou stated, “We act strictly in accordance with the Bible. The Bible is the standard for our faith and way of life. We are not evangelical. We emphasize the full gospel.” [32] Another Chinese evangelist framed the issue in a slightly different way, choosing to highlight the different approach to Scripture that marks many Chinese believers. He said to me, “When Western Christians read the book of Acts, they see in it inspiring stories; when Chinese believers read the book of Acts, we see in it our lives.” Of course his point was clear: Chinese believers tend to read the book of Acts with a sense of urgency and desperation, with a hunger generated by their need. This type of reading generally leads to a Pentecostal approach. This is certainly the case in China.

A survey of the larger house church networks in China reveals that a majority is Pentecostal in theology and practice. The Fang Cheng (or China for Christ) Church, the Li Xin (or Zhong Hua Meng Fu) Church, the Yin Shang Church (Anhui), and the True Jesus Church are all strongly Pentecostal groups. The China Gospel Fellowship should probably be categorized as Neo-Pentecostal, although it is home to many Pentecostals as well. [33] The Wenzhou church established by Miao Zhitong might also be described as Neo-Pentecostal. Non-Pentecostal groups would include the Word of Life (or Born Again) Church, established by Peter Xu, and Watchman Nee’s Little Flock (Xiao Qun), as well as a number of smaller groups that are largely reformed in theology and follow the cessationist teaching of the Indonesian-based Chinese pastor, Stephen Tong. [34]

An analysis of two of the larger house church networks indicates that Chinese Pentecostals have, for the most part, a clear understanding of who they are and that this sense of identity is rooted in their reading of the Bible, particularly the stories in Acts.[35]

 

2.1 China for Christ (Fang Cheng)

We begin our brief survey with what was the largest of the house church networks operating in China in the 1990s, China For Christ (sometimes called the Fang Cheng Church). The China for Christ Church began in the Fang Cheng district of Henan Province. It grew very rapidly in the 1980s and constitutes a large network of house churches that span the length and breadth of China. Zhang Rongliang, recognized as the church’s main leader, described a key turning point in the life of the church: “In 1980, we received our very first Bibles from outside China. We held them in our arms and kissed them delicately, with ters in our eyes. They were the fulfillment of many years of fervent prayer and longing.” [36] Decades of oppression had created a great longing and desire in the hearts of people for spiritual truth. In this explosive setting Zhang Rongliang and other Fang Cheng leaders, such as Sister Ding Hei, began to preach the gospel with great boldness. In spite of great hardships the church began to grow exponentially. From 1980 to 1990 Zhang was a fugitive on the run from the authorities. He traveled throughout the country preaching and led many to Christ. He also trained a group of 80 men and women who became the core leaders of the Fang Cheng Church. The Church network grew from five million in the early 1990s to 10 million in the 1999. [37]

Another key moment in the life of the Fang Cheng Church occurred in 1988. Dennis Balcombe, an American missionary based in Hong Kong, traveled into Henan and for the first time met with the Fang Cheng leaders. Balcombe’s humble bearing and Pentecostal message resonated with the Fang Cheng believers. Sister Ding Hei described Balcombe’s influence: “Before Pastor Balcombe came to Henan, some house churches here were already Spirit filled. However, their believers generally didn’t speak in tongues, clap hands, or dance during worship….After two to three years, all our Fang Cheng house churches, except for a few, accepted the Spirit-filled teaching.” [38]

Some years ago (Nov. 26, 2002) I met Zhang Rongliang in Southwest China. We discussed various matters for about an hour and a half and then shared a meal together. While we were eating, Sister Ding, the second highest leader in the China for Christ Network, joined us.

During our meal Sister Ding, who was sitting next to me, raised a question about a book on Pentecostal doctrine that I had made available to them. [39] She suggested that baptism in the Spirit, although possibly an experience subsequent to conversion, could also take place at the moment of conversion. She felt the book implied that Spirit-baptism must take place after conversion. I assured her that we were all in agreement on this point and that when most Pentecostals speak of baptism in the Spirit as subsequent to conversion, we actually mean that it is logically subsequent to conversion, a distinct work of the Spirit. Temporally, both could occur at essentially the same moment, as with Cornelius and his household in Acts 10. We continued our discussion and Sister Ding indicated that their church was Pentecostal in nature.

Sister Ding then stated emphatically that their church came to these classical Pentecostal conclusions, not on the basis of receiving this tradition from others; but rather, as a result of their own experience and study of the Book of Acts. She indicated that in the 1970s and 1980s they were quite isolated and experienced considerable persecution. In this crucible of persecution they developed their classical Pentecostal orientation. At this time their church began to grow rapidly and was widely recognized as the largest house church group in China.

As I reflect back on this conversation, I can now see that there are several streams of Pentecostal influence that have impacted China’s house churches. First, it is clear that there were seeds of Pentecostal teaching and revival planted by the indigenous house churches that were so prominent in China prior to 1949. Additionally, Sister Ding’s testimony also points to the Chinese believers’ sense of solidarity with the persecution and power of the apostolic church. Their context of suffering encouraged their own Pentecostal reading of the New Testament. [40] Finally, Dennis Balcombe’s influence and teaching have served to encourage and give further impetus to Pentecostal revival in China. It is probably difficult to overstate the impact of Balcombe’s example and teaching on the Pentecostal churches in China. Clearly, as Sister Ding notes, Pentecostal influences were already present in the Fang Cheng Church. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that Balcombe was a key instrument that God used to fan the flames. [41]

Toward the end of my time with Zhang and Ding, I asked them if they felt the majority of Christians in China were Pentecostal. Brother Zhang answered that apart from the government-recognized (TSPM) churches and various smaller house church groups, the vast majority were indeed Pentecostal. He considered, in addition to their own church, the China Gospel Fellowship, the Li Xin Church, and the Yin Shang Church to be Pentecostal.

On another occasion late in 2002 I had the joy of teaching in an underground Bible school associated with the China for Christ Network. During one of the breaks, the leader of the school showed me around and introduced to me some of the other faculty members. In the midst of our conversation, I noted that their theological tradition was similar (lei si) to mine (he knew that I was an Assemblies of God minister). He stopped, looked at me, and said emphatically: “No, our theological traditions are the same (yi yang).” Later, with great excitement, he spoke of the hunger for the things of the Spirit in the churches in the countryside.

 

2.2 The Li Xin (Zhong Hua Meng Fu or “China is Blessed”) Church

In March of 2014 I met with several leaders of this large, Chinese house church network. The Li Xin (China Is Blessed) Church was established in the early 1980s in Anhui Province. It has grown rapidly over the past 20 years and now has churches all over China. The founder and leader of the church, Uncle Zheng, shared with me his fascinating story.

Uncle Zheng became a believer in 1978 in his home village in Li Xin County of Anhui Province. His mother was sick and afflicted by a demon. His brother was also not well, and his father died of an illness when Zheng was 13 years old. Six or seven other sick people in the area had become Christians. They had no Bible and they were illiterate, but Christian stories and traditions had been passed down to them orally. This small group would often come and pray for Zheng’s mother. Zheng remembers that he liked this because when they came they would share their food with him. In those days he was often hungry.

This small group of believers had a strong influence on Zheng. He watched them as they prayed for his mother and worshipped together. They asked Zheng to help them understand some worship songs that they had received in written form. Since they were illiterate, they needed him to help them understand the content of the songs. As Zheng read the songs to them, he was touched by the message. These early events led to his conversion as a young 16 year-old boy. Eventually, Zheng’s mother was also wonderfully healed and set free.

Zheng indicated that the church in those days was like the church in the book of Acts. They relied heavily on testimonies, miracles of healing, and the casting out of demons. And the church grew rapidly. He told of one lady who was baptized in a river near the church. She took a bottle with her and filled it with “holy water” from the river when she was baptized. She then took this water back to her husband, who was very sick, and told him to drink it. He did and was wonderfully healed. Zheng and the others said that they had many stories like this.

An important event took place in 1983. The police were pressuring Zheng to stop his church meetings and close down the church. Finally, he said that we would, but that he wanted to meet with the believers one last time. When he returned home, his mother, who at this time was still possessed by a demon, began to laugh in a loud, demonic voice. When Zheng heard this demonic laugh, which seemed to symbolize Satan’s triumph, he felt prompted by the Holy Spirit not to give up and close down the church. Zheng indicated that this was the beginning of a period of many miracles and rapid growth in the church.

The Pentecostal message, complete with an emphasis on speaking in tongues, came to the church in 1988. Two Christian brothers were released from prison after spending 15 years in a labor camp. Zheng noted that the earlier generation (1950s to 70s) of evangelists spent many years in labor camps; his generation (1980s and 90s) represented the “short-term” generation, because they only spent a few years in prison. These two brothers encouraged Zheng and his church to consider the role of speaking in tongues in their own worship and prayer lives. They also introduced them to a Romanian missionary, Brother Matthew, who brought to them the Pentecostal message of tongues as the sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit. They said from this point on, they began to emphasize the work of the Spirit and speaking in tongues.

Dennis Balcombe visited the church in 1988 and his influence was also significant. Uncle Zheng and his colleagues spoke of Balcombe’s ministry and influence with great appreciation. In fact, they began to receive Bibles in 1985 and this was largely due to the ministry of Balcombe’s church in Hong Kong.

The church began to grow rapidly and spread beyond the borders of Anhui Province beginning in 1990. A catalyst for this came in 1993. The police attempted to arrest Zheng and their efforts forced him into an itinerant mode of ministry. From 1993 through 2002 he traveled widely through many provinces, preaching and evading the police. Although Zheng stated that their church does not face strong opposition or persecution now, this earlier period was an important time of church growth, stimulated by persecution. He noted that this was also the experience of the early church in Acts.

I asked Zheng and the other leaders how they would compare the church today with the church of the earlier years (1980s). They said that the church of the early years was largely a village church and that the gospel moved from the villages to the cities. Now, they said that the church is taking root in the cities and the gospel is now moving from the cities to the villages. They feel that this transformation of the church from a largely rural context to a largely urban context is a part of God’s plan. While they noted that the village church emphasized spiritual life and the urban church highlights spiritual gifts, and they also observed that some in recent years are not as committed as those in the early years; generally, they feel that the church today is vital, committed, and strong. In fact, they noted the parallels with the growth of the church in the book of Acts: the church began with uneducated fishermen like Peter; but, as it expanded into the Gentile world, God used an educated man like Paul to help the church expand. So also in China, God used illiterate villagers to establish the church; now he is using university graduates to take the gospel to those in the cities and beyond. They noted that their church now emphasizes planting churches among the university students of the cities because they see this as the future of China’s church.

Zheng viewed the early days, when they did not have a Bible and people experienced miracles in a way that might be viewed as superstitious, in a positive way. He noted that in those days, “We did not begin our presentation of the gospel by talking about sin and the need for forgiveness.” These were concepts that the villagers would not readily understand or feel significant. Rather, they began by talking about Jesus’ power to heal and to free people from demonic bondage. In time, people came to understand other elements and implications of the gospel, but this was God’s way of reaching down and touching people at their point of need. I found this striking, for it reminded me of the ministry of Jesus. Zheng and his colleagues did not view the focus on the miraculous as superstitious; rather, they understood these experiences as God graciously accommodating his work to their situation and needs — a divinely inspired contextualization of the gospel.

Zheng highlighted that their churches continue to emphasize and experience the Holy Spirit’s power and gifts, such as speaking in tongues. Zheng put it his way: “While we believe that the apostles are gone [limited to the Twelve]; the Spirit of the apostles is still the same.” He also said that, “Acts is the pattern for the mission of the church. If the church does not follow the path of the early church, we will lose our way.”

 

2.3 The House Church Statement of Faith

On November 26, 1998 a group of four house leaders, including the leaders of the Fang Cheng Network and the China Gospel Fellowship, signed a statement of faith that they had forged together during meetings convened throughout the previous days. This statement represents the most significant theological statement issued by house church leaders to date. It is thoroughly evangelical and organized around seven key headings: On the Bible; On the Trinity; On Christ; On Salvation; On the Holy Spirit; On the Church; and On the Last Things. The statement on the Holy Spirit is especially significant for our purposes. It reads:

 

On the Holy Spirit: We believe that the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. He is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of truth and the Spirit of holiness. The Holy Spirit illuminates a person causing him to know sin and repent, to know the truth and to believe in Christ and so experience being born again unto salvation. He leads the believers into the truth, helps them to understand the truth and obey Christ, thereby bearing abundant fruit of life. The Holy Spirit gives all kinds of power and manifests the mighty acts of God through signs and miracles. The Holy Spirit searches all things. In Christ God grants a diversity of gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Church so as to manifest the glory of Christ. Through faith and thirsting, Christians can experience the outpouring and filling of the Holy Spirit. We do not believe in the cessation of signs and miracles or the termination of the gifts of the Holy Spirit after the apostolic period. We do not forbid speaking in tongues and we do not impose on people to speak in tongues; nor do we insist that speaking in tongues is the evidence of being saved.

We refute the view that the Holy Spirit is not a person of the Trinity but only a kind of influence. [42]

This statement contains several significant declarations that highlight the Pentecostal leanings of its framers. First, the notion that charismatic gifts were given only for the apostolic period (cessationism) is explicitly denied: “We do not believe in the cessation of signs and miracles or the termination of the gifts of the Holy Spirit after the apostolic period.” Thus, it is not surprising that the statement also declares that the Holy Spirit “gives all kinds of power and manifests the mighty acts of God through signs and miracles.” This statement, at the very least then, identifies the framers and the house church groups they represent as charismatic.

However, there is more. This statement contains another significant declaration: “Through faith and thirsting, Christians can experience the outpouring and filling of the Holy Spirit.” Since this “outpouring and filling” may be received by Christians, this phrase must refer to a work of the Spirit subsequent to (at least logically, if not temporally) the regenerating work of the Spirit experienced at conversion. Although the purpose or impact of this gift is not explicitly stated, it is interesting to note that the language used to describe the experience (i.e., “outpouring and filling”) is drawn from the Book of Acts. [43] It seems obvious that a strengthening or empowering of the believer by the Spirit in accordance with the experience of the early church as recorded in the Book of Acts is in view here. The only prerequisites for receiving this gift that are listed in the statement are “faith” and “thirsting.” Surely this is another way of saying that this gift is available to all earnest believers who desire it. This statement then speaks of an empowering by the Spirit that is distinct from conversion and available to every believer. It thus identifies the framers as not only charismatic, but Pentecostal as well.

Finally, let us examine the reference to tongues: “We do not forbid speaking in tongues and we do not impose on people to speak in tongues; nor do we insist that speaking in tongues is the evidence of being saved.” The phrase, “we do not impose on people to speak in tongues” probably should be taken in light of what follows to mean that they do not force believers to speak in tongues by means of emotional or psychological coercion (e.g., by declaring tongues to be a sign that they are truly believers). [44] It is highly unlikely that the framers, with this phrase, were consciously renouncing the initial evidence doctrine of classical Pentecostalism. This seems to be an obvious conclusion in view of the fact that one of the four cardinal framers (Zhang Rongliang) is the head of an overtly classical Pentecostal group, the Fang Cheng Church.

The only doctrine that the statement specifically rejects and which is relatively common in evangelical circles in the West is the doctrine that denies the current validity of speaking in tongues. The statement is very clear: “We do not forbid speaking in tongues.” The statement, of course, also rejects the relatively rare notion that tongue-speech is a sign of salvation. [45]

In short, the statement on tongues does not appear to be a rejection of the classical Pentecostal position. However, it does not affirm this position either. It reads like a very diplomatic attempt to steer a middle path between two extremes. It rejects the position of those who would seek to forbid tongues and it refutes those who would seek to use manipulative means to force believers to speak in tongues. In fact, the careful way in which this statement is framed suggests that it is a wise compromise that accommodates both classical Pentecostals on the one hand and charismatics on the other.

 

3 The Future of Pentecostalism in China

Pentecostal churches in China have experienced exhilarating growth over the past decades; but, as they look to the future, they face a number of new challenges:


 

  1. In the past, Pentecostal churches have been strong in the rural areas. With the economic changes that are transforming China, they will need to impact the cities if they are to experience continued growth. Will Chinese urban centers prove to be fertile soil for Pentecostal ministry?

Actually, the outlook here is bright. Strange as it may sound, the process of modernization and development may represent a major factor in creating a context conducive for the growth of Pentecostal Christianity. Ryan Dunch, in a very perceptive article, notes that modernization does impact the religious makeup of a nation. However, he suggests that rather than “producing a straightforward decline in religion,” modernization tends to change its nature. More specifically, Dunch suggests that religion, as it meets modernization, tends to become more voluntary (rather than acquired at birth), individualized, and experiential. These shifts in turn force religious institutions to change accordingly. Dunch views the Pentecostal movement as especially well suited to minister to the needs of people in societies, like that of China, which are shaped by industrial market economies. [46]


 

  1. China’s Christian population was isolated for decades. During this period the Pentecostal churches exploded. Now that the influence of foreign churches, many with different theological perspectives, is on the rise, do Chinese Pentecostals have the theological resources to compete in the marketplace of ideas?

This is a question that remains to be answered, but there are promising signs on the horizon. Largely due to the gifted and tireless labor of Robert Yeung and his colleagues at the Synergy Institute for Leadership based in Hong Kong, a number of significant Pentecostal books have been translated into Chinese. Furthermore, Pentecostal Chinese scholars like Aaron Zhuang, Timothy Yeung, and Iap Sian Chin have produced important works in Chinese as well. Additionally, the leaders and faculty of Ecclesia Bible College in Hong Kong, an Assemblies of God Bible School, next year will launch the Chinese Journal of Pentecostal Theology, the first Chinese language journal of its kind. Asia Pacific Theological Seminary, located in Baguio City of the Philippines, is also offering Masters’ level theology degrees in Chinese. David Wang of the Hosanna Foundation is partnering with Jack Hayford’s King’s University to provide Masters and Doctor of Ministry programs for house church leaders in China. These positive developments bode well for the future of the Pentecostal movement in China.

The challenges are very real, however. In my recent interview with Dennis Balcombe he stated that the primary challenge Pentecostals in China currently face comes from the virulent attacks from the Indonesian-based pastor, Stephen Tong. Balcombe likens Tong’s theology, laced as it is with cessationist polemic, to “rat poison,” which combines much that is good with a little that is deadly. Balcombe cites several examples of churches that have been destroyed after embracing Tong’s teachings. [47]

Nevertheless, in spite of the critiques of Pentecostal theology and praxis offered by Stephen Tong, I find it hard to believe that this sort of cessationist teaching, rooted as it is in an elaborate and opaque philosophical system, will win the hearts and minds of many Chinese Christians. It should be noted that one of the great strengths of the global Pentecostal movement is its simple, straightforward approach to the Bible. Chinese Pentecostals love the stories of the Bible. They identify with the stories that fill the pages of the gospels and Acts, and the lessons gleaned from these stories are easily grasped and applied in their lives.

In a country still populated by a large group of semi-literate people, the simplicity of the Pentecostal approach, rooted as it is in the biblical narrative, is a huge asset. The stories of the Bible and the stories of personal testimony often play an important role in Pentecostal worship and instruction. These stories make the communication of the message much easier, especially when cultural barriers need to be hurdled. This is particularly so when the stories connect with the felt-needs of the hearers, as is generally the case with stories of spiritual deliverance, physical healing, and moral transformation. In China, a narrative approach that takes seriously the spiritual needs of people and the miraculous power of God is destined to win a hearing.


 

  1. Can Chinese Pentecostals, who have thrived under intense persecution, survive in a context of increased freedom and growing affluence?

This may be the most difficult challenge of all. The experience of Chinese Pentecostals has taught us that Pentecost brings with it a double promise: the anointing of the Spirit brings both power and persecution. It is hard to maintain one without the other.[48]

 

4 Conclusion 

The story of Pentecost in China is remarkable. It begins with ordinary people, like Alfred Garr and Mok Lai Chi, who were caught up in the fire of Pentecostal revival. The spark they released ignited into a flame that swept through the indigenous churches, groups like the True Jesus Church and the Jesus Family, which in turn shaped the ethos of the dynamic house church movement that has registered explosive growth in the face of mind-numbing opposition. Now, as China is undergoing rapid and massive transformation, Pentecostals in China face new and significant challenges. But we well may find that these challenges in reality represent fresh opportunities. If the last six decades in China have taught us anything, they have surely taught us never to underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit.


Footnotes:
[1] I would like to thank Timothy Yeung, Yee Thamwan, and Don Parrett for their contributions to this essay, especially for their help in collecting data from questionnaires and interviews.
[2] My translation of song 747, “The Wind of the Holy Spirit Will Blow Everywhere,” found in Lu Xiaomin, Xin Ling Zhi Sheng [Sounds of the Heart] (underground house church publication, 2003), p. 806.
[3] Tony Lambert, China’s Christian Millions (London: OMF/Monarch Books, 1999), p. 179.
[4] Due to the limitations of space, we are not able to include Chinese Roman Catholics in this study.
[5] On the evangelical character of the Chinese church, see Alan Hunter and Kim-Kwong Chan, Protestantism in Contemporary China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 82; Ryan Dunch, “Protestant Christianity in China Today: Fragile, Fragmented, Flourishing” in China and Christianity: Burdened Past, Hopeful Future, eds. Stephen Uhalley, Jr. and Xiaoxin Wu (London: East Gate/M.E. Sharpe, 2001), pp. 195-216.
[6] The emphasis on healing and the miraculous in the Chinese church is noted in Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, pp. 85, 145-146; Lambert, China’s Christian Millions, p. 112; and Dunch, “Protestant Christianity,” p. 203, 215-216.
[7] David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2003); Gotthard Oblau, “Penecostals by Default? Contemporary Christianity in China” in Allan Anderson and Edmond Tang, eds., Asian and Pentecostal: The Charismatic Face of Christianity in Asia (Costa Mesa: Regnum, 2005), pp. 411-36; Edmond Tang, “‘Yellers’ and Healers: Pentecostalism and the Study of Grassroots Christianity in China” in Asian and Pentecostal, pp. 467-86; Chen-yang Kao, The Cultural Revolution and the Post-Missionary Transformation of Protestantism in China (PhD thesis, University of Lancaster, 2009).
[8] We concur with Simon Chan, “an adequate definition of Pentecostalism cannot be restricted to phenomenological description” (Chan, “Wither Pentecostalism” in Asian and Pentecostal, p. 578).
[9] Kao, Cultural Revolution, p. 99.
[10] I define Pentecostals, then, as those who believe that: the book of Acts serves as a model for contemporary Christian life and ministry; the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) is a post-conversion enabling for ministry; and speaking in tongues marks this experience. Neo-Pentecostals affirm all of the above except they reject the notion that tongues serve as a normative sign of baptism in the Spirit. For more on Pentecostal identity and related definitions, see Robert Menzies, Pentecost: This Story is Our Story (Springfield, MO: GPH, 2013), pp. 11-20.
[11] Daniel H. Bays, “The Growth of Independent Christianity in China, 1900-1937,” p. 309 in Daniel Bays, ed., Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).
[12] Bays, “Independent Christianity,” p. 310; for similar estimates see Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 134, n. 60.
[13] Bays, “Independent Christianity,” p. 310.
[14] Daniel Bays, “Indigenous Protestant Churches in China, 1900-1937: A Pentecostal Case Study,” p. 129 in Steven Kaplan, ed., Indigenous Responses to Western Christianity (New York: New York University Press, 1995).
[15] Bays, “Indigenous Protestant Churches,” p. 130.
[16] Iap Sian Chin, “Bernt Berntsen—A Prominent Oneness Pentecostal Pioneer to North China,” an unpublished paper presented at the 41st Annual Meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies which convened at Regent University, Virginia Bach, VA, Feb. 29-March 3, 2012.
[17] Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 121.
[18] Bob Whyte, Unfinished Encounter: Christianity and China (London: Fount, 1988), p. 177; Tao Fei-ya, “The Jesus Family: A Christian Utopia in China,” p. 133.
[19] Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 121; on the Jesus Family see also Bays, “Independent Christianity,” p. 312.
[20] Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 121; Bays, “Independent Christianity,” p. 312.
[21] Daniel Bays, “Christian Revival in China, 900-1937,” p. 171 in Edith Blumhofer and Randall Balmer, eds., Modern Christian Revivals (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).
[22] Paul Lewis, “China,” p. 95 in Encyclopedia of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, ed. Stanley Burgress (New Your: Routledge, 2006).
[23] Letter from Mattie Ledbetter to Sadie dated, Nov. 30, 1920, courtesy of the Assemblies of God Archives, Springfield, MO.
[24] See the brief note on her death entitled, “A Good Fight Finished,” in the March 26, 1938 edition of The Pentecostal Evangel, p. 7. For more on Mattie Ledbetter’s ministry, see Wai Man Leung, The Impact of Pentecostalism on the Chinese Churches in Hong Kong (Asia Pacific Theological Seminary, Baguio City, Philippines; DMin Thesis, 2005), pp. 61-4.
[25] Tony Lambert, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church (Wheaton, IL: OMF/Harold Shaw Publishers, 1994), p. 154.
[26] See also Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 140.
[27] Chen-Yang Kao, “The Cultural Revolution and the Emergence of Pentecostal-Style Protestantism in China,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 24:2, p. 174.
[28] On the basis of Paul Hattaway’s analysis (in his Henan: The Galilee of China [The First & Blood Series, vol. 2; Carlisle, U.K.: Piquant, 2009], pp. 323-34), I believe a more realistic number for Chinese Protestants today is 80 million. According to my definitions offered above, at least half of this number might be accurately described as Pentecostal and two-thirds Pentecostal or Neo-Pentecostal.
[29] Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, pp. 141-63.
[30] Fenggang Yang, “Lost in the Market, Saved at MacDonald’s: Conversion to Christianity in Urban China,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44 (2005), p. 432.
[31] Kao, Cultural Revolution, p. 102.
[32] Written statement from a questionnaire completed by Chen Bao Chi, a pastor and church leader from Wenzhou, dated March 18, 2014.
[33] Although several CGF leaders affirmed the Pentecostal distinctives noted above, a survey of 20 students at their Beijing seminary revealed that only seven viewed tongues as a sign of Spirit baptism; and only nine said that tongues occurred in their churches often or occasionally.
[34] These conclusions are supported by: the results of a questionnaire completed by house church leaders from the Fang Cheng Church, Miao’s Wenzhou Church, and the China Gospel Fellowship (for a copy of this questionnaire, contact rmenzies@mail2go.net); an interview with the leaders of the Li Xin Church, including the founder, Uncle Zheng; an interview with Dennis Balcombe on Oct. 14, 2014; and my personal observations and conversations in China over the past 20 years.
[35] The government-recognized (TSPM) churches tend to be less open to Pentecostal values, although there are notable exceptions. For an analysis of TSPM attitudes see the book I wrote under a pen-name, Luke Wesley, The Church in China: Persecuted, Pentecostal, and Powerful (AJPSS 2; Baguio: AJPS Books, 2004).
[36] Hattaway, Henan, p. 282.
[37] Hattaway, Henan, p. 288.
[38] Dennis Balcombe, China’s Opening Door (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2014), p. 110.
[39] A Chinese translation of William W. Menzies and Stanley M. Horton, Bible Doctrines: A Pentecostal Perspective (Springfield: Logion Press, 1993).
[40] Connie Au, “Pentecostalism as Suffering: House Churches in China (1949-2012)” in The Many Faces of Global Pentecostalism, eds. Harold D. Hunter and Neil Ormerod (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2013), pp. 73-99.
[41] The impact of Jackie Pullinger’s ministry among drug addicts in Hong Kong should also be noted. See R.T. Kendall’s description of her ministry in Ch. 11 of his Holy Fire (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2014).
[42] See Tony Lambert, China’s Christian Millions, p. 62 for this English translation. I have included the sentence, “In Christ God grants a diversity of gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Church so as to manifest the glory of Christ,” which is found in the Chinese original, but which is omitted in Lambert’s version. This appears to be an editorial oversight.
[43] The Chinese characters translated “outpouring” (jiao guan) and “filling” (chong man) of the Spirit in this statement are also found in Acts 2:17 (“pour out”) and Acts 2:4 (“filled”) of the Chinese Union Version translation, the most widely used Chinese translation of the Bible.
[44] The Chinese characters translated by the phrase, “do not impose upon” (mian qiang) certainly convey the notion of “force.”
[45] This may be an attempt to distance themselves from non-trinitarian Oneness groups, like The True Jesus Christ, who present speaking in tongues as a necessary sign of salvation.
[46] Dunch, “Protestant Christianity,” p. 215.
[47] See also Balcombe, China’s Opening Door, pp. 188-91.
[48] Wesley, The Church in China, pp. 91-103.

Comments(2)

  1. pastor Phillip Chimenya says

    We need Chinese churches to be opened in Malawi, central Africa

  2. pastor Phillip Chimenya says

    To those who need their church to be opened here in Malawi please write me by using my e mail above

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