Church Growth In China - A Work of God

by Tony Lambert



When I first visited China in 1973 there were no churches in that vast country. By 1952, all missionaries had been expelled and two decades of persecution followed culminating in Mao's Cultural Revolution, which exploded across China in 1966. The last few churches were closed, Bibles were burnt, pastors were sent to labour camps and Christians went underground.


After Mao's death in 1976 the country began to open up and reverse his ultra-left policies. In 1979 I returned to Beijing and witnessed the reopening of the first few churches. The Communist Party decided to allow strictly controlled 'freedom of religious belief' and simultaneously, churches, mosques and temples were permitted to restart their operations.


The grinding poverty and endless political campaigns of the Mao years created a spiritual hunger in many hearts. In the West, many people are well aware of the breathtaking economic strides made by China over the last 30 years. However, few know of the even more amazing spiritual revival of the Christian church.


In 1949, when the Communist Party seized power in China, there were roughly 1 million Protestants of all denominations and some 3 million Roman Catholics. Today, government statistics claim there are 70 million Protestants and 12 million Catholics. These figures are likely to be conservative and may not include many believers who prefer to worship in unregistered house churches. It is possible that the true number of Protestant Christians is about 100 million. These staggering numbers are evidence of a massive spiritual awakening, probably the largest in 2,000 years of Church history.


Over the last 40 years, it has been my privilege to witness and document this revival, while visiting Bible colleges, Christians and churches from both the registered and unregistered churches in nearly every province of China. In each place I have seen evidence of testing under persecution, which in some cases continues even today, along with fervent faith in the gospel, and an effective and infectious desire to communicate the Christian faith.


After foreign missionaries had been expelled by the new Communist government in 1952, there began a series of ruthless political movements. Faithful pastors were dismissed, tortured and even killed. Many evangelical leaders, of whom the best known was Wang Mingdao, were sent to labour camps for over 20 years. By the late 1950s, many churches had been closed and dwindling congregations were forced to listen to propaganda. The state set up the Protestant Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) in order to control, infiltrate and finally destroy all churches. Between 1966 and 1979 there were no churches open anywhere in China. Faithful Christians met in very small groups with their few remaining Bibles. In this highly politicised society, true believers could rely on God alone.


It was out of this crucible of fierce persecution that the house-church movement began to form during the 1970s. The failure of Maoism caused an immense spiritual hunger and interest in the gospel. The house churches are marked by a firm adherence to biblical truth, fervent prayer and costly witness. In 1979 the first church buildings were reopened under the revamped TSPM. Understandably, many Christians who had suffered were suspicious of a state-controlled church. As a result, the church in China today can be characterised as operating in two modes: the 'open' state-managed TSPM church and the more 'clandestine' house churches, although most of these now meet fairly openly, if still technically illegally. However, it is both a great irony and also a great testimony, that over the last 30 years the overwhelming majority of Christians and pastors, in both types of churches, are evangelical. The irony is that every effort to liquidate the church and enforce a liberal neo-communist theology has significantly failed; and a testimony that it is the evangelical gospel, not the watered down versions so common in the West, that has ensured not just the survival of the Chinese church, but its growth a hundredfold.


The liberal theology of the TSPM leadership, which compromised with the Communist regime, holds no attraction for Chinese Christians. Efforts by the few theological liberals such as Bishop Ding, an internationally known TSPM leader who died a few years ago, to enforce 'theological construction' on the churches, have failed. Chinese Christians are stubbornly conservative in their theology, holding the doctrine of the cross, the divinity and the resurrection of Christ, and the full inspiration and authority of the Bible, as central to their faith.


It is common for city churches to have over 1,000 people at each of their several Sunday services. Young people are very much in evidence; students, graduates and entrepreneurs eagerly attend services with Bibles on their laps taking notes. Many Christian factory owners hold regular Bible studies on their premises, a fact noted with some amazement in a recent BBC documentary. Sunday schools and youth work, once forbidden, are now common in most churches. There are now over 400 Christian bookshops in China and Christian publishing is thriving, although still censored.


In Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, on the prosperous south-eastern coast opposite Taiwan, the church was particularly persecuted under Mao, to the extent of being targeted as an 'atheist zone' where every effort was made to extinguish the last trace of Christianity. The gospel was introduced in the late 19th century by George Stott, a one-legged Scotsman with the China Inland Mission. His first Chinese co-worker was also physically handicapped. Out of these lowly beginnings God has worked a miracle of sovereign grace. Today in Wengzhou, there are over 2,500 registered churches open in this city of 8 million people. In the surrounding countryside, many of their huge, neo-classical buildings, which rear incongruously over the rice-fields, hold several thousand people. There are also thousands of unregistered house churches, many with their own large buildings. Over 1 million people, or 12% of the total population of Wenzhou, are evangelical Christians. To put this in context, there is no major city anywhere in Europe with an evangelical population approaching this number.


Wenzhou has become known as the 'Jerusalem of China' and its Christians are engaged in vigorous evangelism all over China. Many large cities over 1,000 miles away have large Wenzhou-planted fellowships, as I witnessed on a visit to Chongqing in West China. Further afield, Wenzhou Christians have planted churches in Italy and Spain, and they are active in Asia and the Middle East.


Many Chinese Christians wish to repay the debt they owe to the missionaries, who brought the gospel to China, by taking the good news 'back to Jerusalem' through the difficult Muslim countries of Central Asia and the Middle East. Although this movement was advertised worldwide some 20 years ago, in a highly exaggerated fashion, today Chinese Christians are undertaking serious cross-cultural training and a number have already gone to Egypt, Pakistan and other countries. In God's providence, the massive plans for a new economic 'Silk Road' linking China to Central Asia and the Middle East, as well as China's economic and trading activities in Africa, may well be the context for a major contribution to world mission by China later this century.


The growth of the Christian church has alarmed the authorities, especially those who still adhere to a more left-wing Marxist ideology. Government researchers recently warned that the Protestant church in China was growing at the rate seen in recent decades in South Korea, where at least 25% of the population are Christians. They warned that over the next two or three decades the number of Christians in China could reach as many as 300 million.


It is perhaps because of such warnings that in the spring of 2014 the local government in Wenzhou suddenly launched a massive anti-Christian campaign, under the specious excuse of removing the large red crosses which adorn most churches there. As of late 2015, over 1,100 churches have had their crosses forcibly removed and several megachurches have actually been totally demolished. When I was last in China, I saw footage of police brutally beating Christians who had sought to peaceably block the entrance to their church courtyard and prevent demolition teams from moving in. These actions are clearly a warning shot fired across the bow of the resurgent Chinese church, to remind it who is in political control.


Over the last 35 years, the Chinese church has seen remarkable growth and a gradual improvement in freedom to worship and evangelise. However, the Chinese government appears to be set on a path to increase its global influence and a new nationalism is apparent. In such an atmosphere, some in authority still regard Christianity as foreign, subversive and a threat. Recent events in Wenzhou are a sober reminder that the church should never become triumphalistic, boasting of numbers and large buildings. Older Chinese Christians, who lived through the dark years of persecution under Mao, have told me that they do not necessarily regret the pressures that still remain on the Chinese church. They see such refining as necessary to keep the church focused on humbly living out the gospel, and effectively witnessing to the power of Christ in China's dynamic and rapidly changing society.









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