Book Review

Excitement, Realism, and Incisive Commentary


Christ in China: An Anthology. In appreciation of Tony and Frances Lambert’s 34 years of faithful service; OMF-Hong Kong, 2016. Available for US$25 plus postage from OMF-HK by request; email jwm@psmail.net. Also available on the OMF-Australia website for AUS$36.36.

Reviewed by Ronald Boyd-MacMillan

I remember a conversation in 2006 with a high ranking member of the Religious Affairs Bureau. He was refusing my version of events in a certain province, and the meeting was going from bad to worse. I pulled out a copy of China Insight and showed him a piece by Tony Lambert that proved the case. Instead of blowing up, he smiled and said, “Well, if Tony Lambert says it’s a fact, then it must be a fact.” The meeting then took a much better turn.

Not everyone in high places appreciated Tony’s incisive and sober commentary on the church in China, but that is also testimony to his accuracy and even fearlessness. This anthology preserves forty-six of Tony’s monthly analyses of the story of Christianity in China that were written during the years from 1987 to 2016. I cannot think of another China watcher that had a combination of such longevity with a rigorous attention to detail, a sober refusal to exaggerate, and a wide-ranging interest in all aspects of the greatest revival story of the world church of the past 50 years. For these reasons alone, this anthology is worth it.

Of course, I did know Tony quite well, and he was gracious enough to let me tag along on many of his China trips. As a journalist, I prized two elements in particular of his approach. The first was his commitment to get to the bottom layer of the house church story. We all knew about documents from Beijing, statements of Three-Self leaders, and statistics from Amity Press, but few were really making it their business to get around the countryside and see for themselves just how extensive—and how vulnerable—the house church movements were. Tony brought this story up to the surface in all its complexity, including the production of vital profiles on the cults that were wreaking such havoc with new believers. The second was his trust of the simple truth. In an age of breathless excitement about the growth, with noughts being added to estimates almost daily, Tony brought a responsible realism about the figures of church growth, in the 1990s especially. This also involved warning about the perils of running ministries based on optimistic information.

This is what makes the book deserving of a wider readership. It is not just snippets of the world’s largest ever revival; it is a template on how to do planning, reporting, and effective ministry in the midst of bewildering change. The section headings give you an idea of the range: History of the Church in China; Indigenous Movements; Cults and Sects; Minorities and the Gospel; Voices from China, and Contemporary Issues and Trends. I still photocopy and send to mission strategists an article Tony wrote in 2004 called, “The Gutzlaff Affair: A Warning from History.”

I was delighted to see this piece included in the anthology. Charles Gutzlaff (1803-1851) was a pioneering missionary to China, but he set up a literature distribution network which statistically looked incredible in its initial results until it was sadly exposed as an elaborate fraud. Gutzlaff was the real deal, but he just did not listen to criticism when concerns were expressed that his Chinese workers were doctoring their reports and feathering their own nests when they left his orbit of supervision. Everyone paid a price, especially Gutzlaff, who died heartbroken not long after his workers were exposed. As Tony writes, “…good intentions and zeal for the gospel are not enough,” and, “…what sounds like a great work of God at a distance may dissolve into the air close up.” His final sentence should be chiselled in stone: “To question and probe the reliability of various China ministries and projects far from being unspiritual is actually essential if the gospel is to be preached effectively in China and the Chinese church built up and equipped so that it can itself reach out effectively.”

Tony and I had to put this into practice. Once we arrived at a large TSPM seminary and saw a huge stock of Bibles destined for minority tribes—except they were not being distributed. A phone call to Hong Kong and the plot thickened. The mission agency that paid for them did so on the understanding they were to be given out free. But the leader of the seminary was saying they had to be sold. It became a scandal that tainted a great Christian leader, just like Gutzlaff. Few thanked us though for helping to expose the fraud. These days, throughout the worldwide church, as planning processes become more elaborate, there is always the danger of creating paper fictions of impact despite the best intentions to be more accountable.

There are other pieces too that give unique slants on the contemporary story. In addition to seeing how Tony built up reliable assessments on church growth, there are profiles of Bishop K. H. Ting when he tried to impose liberal theology on the TSPM rather coercively. It is even worth rereading pieces that one would be inclined to dismiss as dated but still carry powerful reminders of what has been largely forgotten. In the Voices from China section, Tony quotes a Peking University student reflecting on the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989. Fresh from the very time, it details a level of repression that has been denied by government propaganda for so long we routinely now talk of the “Tiananmen incident” and put the death toll at no more than a few hundred. To read again that groups of twenty people were secretly executed near the Marco Polo Bridge on a regular basis after the massacre reminds one how traumatic were these protests and their aftermath.

For all that, for me, the most staggering sentence of the whole book was from his introduction: “When I first lived in China in 1973 not one Christian church was open to the public in the entire country. . . . I did not come across any independent evidence of existence of Christians until 1978 when I was able to give a Bible to a young man in Shanghai who had been injured in the Cultural Revolution.” To think that Tony puts his pen back in his drawer nearly fifty years later, after seeing a church of 100 million grow from this standing start, beggars belief and surely expands faith. To preserve a sense of sheer astonishment and excitement at the power of God, read this book!

Ronald Boyd-MacMillan

Dr. Ronald Boyd-MacMillan is currently the Director of Strategic and Global Research at Open Doors International. Based in Hong Kong for many years in the 1980s and 1990s reporting on the Chinese church as a journalist, he has also travelled extensively among and taught in China's house church movements in the... View Full Bio