The 2000-year history of the church is a history of mission; it is also a history governed by God. Led by God, persecuted and scattered believers engaged in mission—the prelude to the establishment of the church in Antioch. Traveling via the great roads of the Roman Empire, Paul took the gospel to Europe and to Rome itself.
Jumping ahead several centuries, after the Reformation, Catholicism and Protestantism began to take the gospel to the whole world. In 1807, the first Protestant missionary, Robert Morrison, went to China.
Thanks to the grace of God, gospel outreach to the Chinese began relatively early. It can be argued that it began about the same time as the founding of New Zealand. In 1860, gold miners from China began to arrive in Otago and Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand. Life was extremely difficult as the miners faced being uprooted, racism, and suffering acute homesickness. The New Zealand Presbyterian Church felt called to evangelize these thousands of miners. The Dunedin Chinese Presbyterian Church was established in 1897 by Rev. Alexander Don, who had served as a missionary in Guangdong Province, China.
Today, according to incomplete statistics, there are more than 90 Chinese churches in New Zealand with about 10,000 congregants. Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city with about 1.7 million people, has the largest number of Chinese churches (about 70 in all) with a total membership of around 7,000. Another 20 churches are in other cities, with a total of about 1,500 people attending. Christchurch, for example, New Zealand’s second largest city, has about seven Chinese churches.
The Chinese church in New Zealand has gone through three stages.
Stage 1: The first stage was the “founding stage” (1860–1949) and largely depended upon the ministry of retired missionaries.
Stage 2: The second stage was the “nurturing stage” (1950–1989), when Chinese preachers began to shepherd Chinese flocks, and the Chinese church began to diversify. Waves of immigration during the 1980s and 90s included Chinese people from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, some of the older Chinese churches used Cantonese or Taiwanese but in recent decades most have switched to using Mandarin (or in some cases both Mandarin and Cantonese).
Stage 3: The third stage has been the “development” or “growth stage” (1990–present). In the most recent immigration wave, large numbers of new immigrants have come to New Zealand from China, so today the largest ethnic group in most Chinese churches consists of those from mainland China.
One remarkable Chinese church that began in October 1989 was the Christchurch Chinese Church in the South Island. The vision for the church came from a Chinese pastor in Melbourne, Australia, Pastor Chek Chia. Anne Scott, a retired OMF missionary from Taiwan, got involved, and simultaneously Jack and Becky Stuart returned from mission work in Hong Kong.1 Jack was asked to be the pastor and has served there for over 30 years. The church now has four congregations (two English, one Mandarin, and one Cantonese), and pre-COVID-19 had 500–600 attending each Sunday.
During this third stage, starting in the nineties, overseas Chinese churches and denominations began to plant Chinese congregations in New Zealand. Examples include the Methodist Church of Malaysia, the Evangelical Formosan Church (EFC, 台福, Tai fu) from the United States, and the Bread of Life Church (Ling Liang, 灵粮) in Taiwan. There are nine EFC churches in Auckland. In addition, some Kiwi churches established Chinese congregations as part of their wider church family. An example is the historic Baptist Tabernacle in central Auckland. The “Tab,” as it is called, has a thriving Chinese congregation. In fact, several Kiwi Baptist churches have a total of eight Chinese congregations in Auckland, two in the capital city of Wellington, and one each in three other smaller centers. In Auckland a fellowship of Chinese Baptist pastors meets each month for prayer and fellowship. They also arrange special services such as a joint Good Friday service. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the 2022 Easter event was held online but was attended by well over 600. Furthermore, God has used new immigrants to establish several independent Chinese churches in Auckland and Christchurch as well as in other cities in both the North and South Islands.
It is of note that during this third stage, theological training in Chinese became more available. The Carey Baptist College established its Centre for Chinese Research and Training in 1998 to deliver ministry and mission formation alongside robust theological training for Chinese Christians. Many students over the years have graduated with the New Zealand Diploma in Christian Studies delivered in Chinese2 and are currently serving in churches and ministries throughout New Zealand and overseas. In recent years offshore providers (notably Logos Seminary and GETS Theological Seminary) have been offering online courses with lecturers coming from Taiwan or the US to do week-long, intensive teaching. Sadly, due to New Zealand Qualifications Authority policy changes and “healthy” competition from offshore providers, the Carey Baptist College Chinese Diploma program became financially unsustainable, and the College now delivers short courses and webinars in Chinese through its Centre for Lifelong Learning.
For more than ten years, God has been at work among the Chinese churches in New Zealand, building a spirit of unity and cooperation. Auckland Chinese pastors, from most groups and denominations, gather for prayer every month, hold an annual interchurch pastors retreat, and, from time to time, organize large-scale evangelistic events, deeper-life conferences, and lay-training seminars. Over the past four years, we have seen God raise up a prayer movement in the Chinese church in New Zealand. Starting in 2018, an interchurch 24/7 prayer network was established with more than a thousand Christians participating in the prayer watch during specific times slots. Also, beginning from 2018, the “First Light New Year’s Eve Prayer Meeting” has been held every year.3 The vision of this New Year’s Eve joint prayer meeting is “Land of the Sunrise, at the Awakening of the Dawn, at the First Light, Watching in Prayer for the World.” This large-scale prayer meeting is jointly organized by the New Zealand branch of 華福 Hua Fu, the Chinese Church Centre of World Evangelization (CCCOWE),4 and the Interchurch Pastor’s Prayer Meeting; all Chinese churches are invited to actively participate. This year (2021/22), we felt moved to invite brothers and sisters in China to join with us in organizing the event. Let us Chinese believers, both in China and overseas, stand together at this turning point in history. Let us pray together! Let us “Wake up the dawn and bless China”!
In 1991, the New Zealand government revised its immigration policy with a view to attracting overseas technical talent. As a result, many young, educated, and skilled Chinese immigrants came to the country—mostly to Auckland. This has, in various ways, had a big impact on this peaceful nation and given local Chinese churches the opportunity to see significant growth. Most of these new immigrants from the mainland are atheists and are a vast, ripe, harvest field for the gospel. Since 2004, in most Chinese churches in Auckland, the majority of those coming to faith and being baptized are from mainland China. While the local Chinese churches are shepherding and equipping believers, they are also raising up many preachers who are originally from China.
According to the 2018 census, there are 247,000 Chinese in New Zealand, accounting for an astonishing 5% of the country’s total population—and 17.6% of the Chinese immigrants are Christians. In the next 20 years, the population of New Zealand is expected to increase by about 1 million, and the proportion of Asians will increase significantly. The number of Chinese is expected to reach 500,000.
The number of migrants worldwide has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, from 150 million in 2000 to 272 million in 2020. With the rise of the middle class in China, growing wealth, and a post-epidemic era, more Chinese people are likely to immigrate to New Zealand in the future. With current tensions between China and the United States, and with Australia and the United States being so closely aligned, a small country like New Zealand has a lot in its favor. A bridge between China and the West, and yet based on Western civilization and Christian faith and values, the Pacific nation of New Zealand is very attractive to Chinese immigrants.
Over the years, God has been raising up churches in China. The baton of mission has been passed on to the Chinese churches. It is not that we fought for it, but God handed it to us. The focal point of the Chinese church is not overseas—it is China. The important centers of the Chinese church are not in Taiwan, North America, or Hong Kong; rather, they are in mainland China. However, overseas Chinese churches have a vital role to play in missions and church planting.
Since 2000, house churches in China have been undergoing transformative change. These changes include focusing on reaching the cities, discipling and shepherding marketplace professionals, establishing micro-churches with families as gathering points, and connecting groups through their respective spiritual leaders.
The New Zealand Chinese church is collaborating with Chinese believers in mission: through establishing a prayer watch center, a training and mission base with geographical advantages, and a pastoral retreat center.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and now the Russian-Ukrainian war, the world is facing its greatest disruption since World War II. China is also facing unprecedented challenges. The situation across the Taiwan Straits and developments in Hong Kong are very critical issues. It is at such a time that Chinese churches in New Zealand are facing potential breakthroughs. Although we are on the fringes of the action, we are not frogs in a well. We sense God is calling us as the Chinese church in New Zealand to play our part in world mission and to pay attention to the concept of triple building—from building one’s personal spiritual life to building the church, and from the building the church to building God’s kingdom.5 New Zealand is about to become a base for Chinese missions in the future. Together with the church in China and local Kiwi churches, we will shoulder our responsibility in the momentous cause of the great commission.
- Jack is a Caucasian Kiwi and Becky is from Hong Kong. They were serving in Hong Kong with YWAM prior to becoming pastors of Christchurch Chinese Church.
- The Carey Baptist College Diploma in Christian Studies is New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) accredited.
- The Chinese is: 日出之地、唤醒黎明、第一道光、守望世界.
- The New Zealand branch of 華福 Hua Fu, Chinese Church Centre of World Evangelization.
- The Chinese is: 从个人生命建造到教会建造，从教会建造到国度建造.
Image credit: Google maps screenshot
Zhou Bin (John Zhou, 周斌牧師), is senior pastor of Pakuranga Bread of Life Church (恩泉灵粮堂) in Auckland, one of the largest Chinese churches in New Zealand. From Shanghai and a graduate of Tong Ji University, Pastor Zhou is married with two children. He has lived in New Zealand for 25 …View Full Bio