The church in China has experienced many ups and downs over the past twenty years due to rapid urbanization, evangelistic outreach, and severe restrictions. Since the early part of this century, the five largest house church networks (China for Christ, China Gospel Fellowship, Yinshang Church, Lixin Church, and Word of Life), all of which originated in the rural areas of China, have shifted their focus to the cities. At the same time, the presence of missionaries intensified with significant involvement in evangelism, church planting, Bible training, and theological education. For the first 15 years of the twenty-first century, the church in China enjoyed a period of growth, outreach, and revivals, even in the face of great challenges.
With the new religious regulations that were implemented in 2018, waves of systematic persecution have flooded the house church movement and changed the landscape of Christianity in China. Many churches have been shut down and almost all missionaries were forced out of the country. With the removal of the missionaries and many of the ministries they initiated, the Chinese church is beginning to feel the pain of isolation. The recent wave of persecution has diminished the church in terms of its size, social influence, outreach ministries, and even its global vision. The spiritual passion blazing for decades has started to cool down with the number of Christians attending church dropping. However, in the midst of all of this, the persecution also serves to sift the church, to purify it, and to make it stronger and more independent.
In this short paper, I will first describe new developments pertaining to the five large house church networks noted above. Then, I will discuss the emergence of Pentecostal churches in this new season of restrictions. Finally, I will offer some concluding reflections on the nature of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement in China.
Developments with the Big Five
I recently spoke with one prominent leader from the China Gospel Fellowship who has close connections with the other large networks. According to this leader, their theological stance, as well as that of the other four networks, has not changed much over the years. However, their strategy for church planting has shifted during these past decades. Twenty years ago, “these groups almost certainly represented a significant majority of the house churches in China.”1 The following statement, which was made almost twenty years ago about the theological orientation of the large house church networks, still remains true today: “The overwhelming majority of Christians in China today are at least charismatic.”2 These groups are largely charismatic in essence and some, overtly Pentecostal, even though some prefer “evangelical” to describe their theological stance.
These church networks began to focus on the cities in response to the rapid urbanization that took many of their members (rural migrant workers) to the urban centers in search of opportunity and prosperity. As the number of migrant workers grew, the churches grew as well. For the first ten years of the new millennium, the number of churches rapidly multiplied in the cities. The number of believers continued to multiply over the next ten years. As these churches and the new migrant believers took root in urban soil, they encouraged many of their city friends to join the church as well. When we think of Chinese Christians in the 1980s and 1990s, the typical representatives would be believers who lived in the villages. Yet, because of their effective evangelistic work, more and more educated middle-class people who lived in the cities began to respond to the gospel and join the church. The demographic landscape of these house church groups, and Christianity in China as a whole, has thus shifted significantly since the beginning of the new millennium.
Starting from 2018, the government has sought to impose more restrictions on house churches. As a result, many churches have been shut down or forced to operate “underground” in small groups. These churches are even more marginalized than in the past because now Christians in public schools, in the Communist party, and in government departments are forced to sign an agreement, promising not to become involved in church activities. The pandemic made things even worse. Some of the churches in the China Gospel Fellowship (CGF) lost between thirty and forty percent of their members. The other networks were impacted in similar ways as well. Nevertheless, the leader with whom I spoke is still optimistic about the future of the CGF network. He believes that another revival will shake China within the next five to ten years.
New Expressions of the Pentecostal Church
At the same time, during this period (2000–2018), with a growing number of educated people joining the churches, the house church movement has become more diverse in its theology and practice. Today, while the traditional house church networks are decreasing as a percentage of Chinese Christianity, new house church networks that operate online are influencing more people and drawing more churches together, even in the face of growing challenges and persecution. Comparatively speaking, their number may seem to be insignificant at this point, but they are gradually gaining strength and today represent the new face of Christianity in this digital era.
Another new development worth noting is the emergence of churches that have a clear and explicit Pentecostal identity. A number of Christians who have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit like those early believers on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) consciously identify with the Pentecostal movement and embrace its distinctive doctrines and practice. They are not ashamed to be known as Pentecostals.
I recently spoke with an alumnus who graduated two years ago from Asia Pacific Theological Seminary (APTS) in the Philippines. Currently, this brother serves as the assistant pastor of a Pentecostal church in the southern part of China. The founding pastor of this church, who is also studying at APTS, became a Christian in a TSPM church in 1992. After his conversion, he was passionate about sharing the gospel with others. However, the leaders in the TSPM church sought to dampen his evangelistic zeal. This man received the Pentecostal gift in 2002 after encountering missionaries associated with the Canadian Assemblies of God. In 2004 he started his own church. The Canadian missionaries worked behind the scenes, praying with him, encouraging him, accompanying, and comforting him when he was lonely. During 2008 and 2009, another group of Pentecostal missionaries came to equip him and other church leaders. At this time (2008–2009), another missionary from New Zealand started to share about other dimensions of Pentecostal and charismatic practice in the church.
This Pentecostal church is a growing, vital group. They have been forced to change the venue of their meetings every year due to the growing number of believers attending the church. They launched a plan to plant more churches in different cities in their province. Even though they were under investigation and persecuted last year, the church was still able to function well through online services combined with in-person services. Their impact continues to grow.
According to this pastor, there have been three models for the house church in China so far: model 1.0 is the traditional house church, normally meeting at an individual’s home; model 2.0 is when the church rents a large meeting place to accommodate more people; model 3.0 appears from the outside to be very much like model 1.0; but, thanks to the new technology, all of the home groups can be connected as one church.
A typical Sunday worship service begins with praise and worship, which is followed by announcements, Holy Communion, the collection of an offering, and testimonies. The sermon follows and then, after the sermon, there will be an altar call. The service ends with a song to encourage the members to bear witness throughout the following week. This church acknowledges and accepts the foundational doctrines of the Assemblies of God. They have strong connections with APTS and other AG churches in the region. The church leadership is very passionate about connecting with other Pentecostal churches. A single spark can start a prairie fire in Pentecostal circles. Even though they are still small in numbers, they are strong and unified in their voice as a Pentecostal church.
Most of the independent house churches in China are fond of the term “evangelical” because it serves as a safe designation for their theological self-understanding and church practices, even though according to most systems of classification, they often might be identified as Pentecostal or charismatic churches. The term “charismatic,” to some degree, often carries negative connotations in Chinese house church circles. There are three reasons for these negative associations. First, the TSPM church, from its inception, has largely neglected the work of the Spirit. Second, the expression of charismatic gifts in the church is often confused with superstitious practices which are routinely rejected and criticized by the majority in China who are steeped in Communist ideology. Finally, some Christian denominations, particularly those associated with the Reformed tradition, often denigrate the charismatic and Pentecostal movements. However, as Pentecostal churches and denominations grow and exert their influence, and as Pentecostal Bible schools and seminaries, both inside China and beyond, join to promote Pentecostal distinctives, particularly as these align with evangelical values, they will be acknowledged, understood, and embraced.
Pentecostals could play an important role as the house church movement seeks to establish its identity. If we Pentecostals are able to humbly, but confidently, articulate who we are, what we believe, and the biblical basis for our beliefs, we might offer the house church movement the spiritual resources that are vitally needed by a church that is facing tremendous opposition. As one house church leader put it, “While we believe the apostles are gone [limited to the Twelve], the Spirit of the apostles is still the same.” I do believe that by planting churches, producing helpful and edifying Christian literature, and networking with other churches from different traditions, we can bear witness to this reality.