Broadly speaking, the history of student ministry in China is nearly as long as that of modern Protestant missions in China. Robert Morrison founded the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca in 1818 to educate and influence Chinese youth and children. This was the first school of Western education for Chinese people. Thereafter, Western mission agencies coming to China focused on expanding missions and furthering the influence of the church through education. By 1950, on the eve of the complete withdrawal of Western mission agencies from China, there were 20 colleges and universities in China, more than 300 secondary schools, and more than 6,000 primary schools.1 From this we can see the influence of missions on education.
It can be said that in recent Chinese history, student ministry that truly left a missionary influence on university campuses started with the YMCA’s mission to China. David W. Lyon (1870–1949) gathered students from multiple universities to found China’s first YMCA group in Tianjin in 1895. John R. Mott, head of the North American YMCA, visited China the following year. Mott visited many universities, preaching and giving lectures, which led to the establishment of 22 YMCA groups. This helped bring about the first national YMCA conference held in Shanghai during that same year.2 Under the influence of the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), more and more North American missionaries came to China, starting a wave of missionaries from Western churches to Chinese intellectuals.
However, in 1919 the May Fourth Movement, characterized by its patriotism, erupted in China, and it gradually evolved into a nationalist awakening throughout the whole society. It forcefully attacked everything from “the West,” and every Christian organization in China was seen as part of the Western powers. The Anti-Christian Movement that broke out in 1922 even more directly attacked Christianity. Responding to the anti-Christian movements triggered by an ever-increasing nationalist sentiment became an unavoidable issue for Western mission agencies.
At the same time, North American churches were becoming divided over the debate between liberal theology and fundamentalism. The YMCA was deeply influenced by liberal theology which led it to change the emphasis of its missionary work from individual salvation to the salvation of society as a whole. This shift coincided with the backdrop of China at that time; Christianity needed to prove that it was not a tool of aggression by Western powers, but rather a servant of “saving China.” Marx’s communist ideology was also spreading among university campuses and young people.
As a result, the YMCA in China struggled to survive in Chinese society under the political movements, nationalist movements, and liberal theology, but it also gradually deviated from its mission. When the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, the target of domestic nationalist sentiment shifted from the West to Japan. However, with the loss of much of the country’s territory, many national universities moved inland. The YMCA, based in Christian universities in eastern China, was hit hard by foreign aggression, and its influence was greatly weakened.
During that time, God raised up a revival of the fundamentalist churches as represented by the China Inland Mission (CIM). This also led to the revival of the evangelical student movement. The chaos of war caused severe damage to the former organization of Western mission agencies, but the continuing support of the West by the Nationalist government and the relaxation of control over university campuses provided a relaxed environment for the evangelical student movement. Moreover, the spiritual revival of fundamentalists energized this student movement.
As early as 1938, CIM missionaries Paul Contento and his wife used English training classes in Kunming to contact and serve students, attracting more than two hundred students to attend. On this foundation, Paul Contento formed “Asia’s First” campus fellowship (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship).3 After this, Pastor Zhao Jun Ying and Pastor Yu Li Gong went to Guangxi, Guizhou, Kunming, and other places to preach, and they had the opportunity to make contact with thousands of young students. Later, when Pastor Zhao Jun Ying went to evangelize at university campuses in Chongqing, the students responded enthusiastically. In the auditorium of National Central University, every night students streamed in to hear the sermons, and the number of students believing in God grew every day.
Amidst this atmosphere, the first Chinese Christian University Students Conference was held in Nanshan, Chongqing in the summer of 1945, with Pastor Zhao and the China Native Evangelistic Crusade as the main organizer in cooperation with Pastor Jia Yu Ming’s Nanshan Bible Seminary. During this meeting, China InterVarsity Evangelical Christian Students Fellowship was established, with Pastor Zhao Jun Ying as the director-general.
With the help of CIM worker David Adeney, China InterVarsity used campus evangelism, student conferences, and retreats as its main ministries to promote the revival of the largest evangelical student movement during wartime. Unlike the YMCA student ministry, China InterVarsity was more focused on personal rebirth, salvation, testimony and repentance experiences, passionate evangelism, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the authority of the Bible.
From that time, the ministry of China InterVarsity grew rapidly, and student fellowships were established on many university campuses across the country. In 1947, China InterVarsity organized in Nanjing the second national Christian University Students Conference. More than 300 college students from around the country participated. Under the influence of this conference, a large number of college students dedicated themselves as full-time gospel workers, including Zha Yi Kun (David Cha) from Soochow University, who went to Taiwan after 1949 and founded Taiwan’s Campus Evangelical Fellowship.
Also in 1947, an evangelical student movement—the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES)—was established in Boston. Pastor Zhao Jun Ying participated on behalf of China InterVarsity, which was the largest evangelical organization among the 10 founding member countries. By 1949, China InterVarsity had established student fellowships in 89 universities across the country (except for the Northeast and Taiwan) with more than 20,000 students involved.
However, with changes in the national situation, China InterVarsity was affected in many ways and gradually became unsustainable. Pastor Zhao Jun Ying left mainland China in 1948, and despite the help of missionaries, the ministry of China InterVarsity had difficulty expanding. With the arrest of Wang Ming Dao in 1955, the Christian Tabernacle was closed, and Beijing InterVarsity was suspended, marking the official end of China InterVarsity in mainland China. However, this wave of the fundamentalist evangelical student movement did not stop. The seeds sown by China InterVarsity continued to take root and grow overseas. David Cha founded the Taiwan Campus Evangelical Fellowship. David Adeney traveled across Southeast Asia, promoting the establishment of evangelical student organizations. Zhao Jun Ying and Yu Li Gong went to North America to continue serving Chinese international students there.
In mainland China, leaders of the YMCA who held liberal theology, such as Wu Yao-Tsong and Tzu-Chen Chao, joined the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Three-Self Church) in 1950, which represented their theological and political integration and identification with communism. On the other hand, fundamentalists such as Wang Ming Dao went to prison for refusing to compromise.
A resurgence of the Chinese student evangelical movement came after 1980. Three important forces contributed to this resurgence: many English teachers sent from North America who shared the gospel as foreign teachers on Chinese university campuses; a large number of campus workers from the United States and South Korea who were sent by Campus Crusade for Christ to China; and campus outreach by fundamentalist house churches in urban China. Starting around the year 2000, the evangelical student movement on Chinese university campuses experienced a nationwide revival which continued until around 2010. This was a golden decade for the Chinese university campus gospel movement.
Many factors led to this phenomenon. In addition to the Western workers re-entering Chinese university campuses, the Chinese government sought support from Western countries (especially the United States) to develop the economy and so relaxed social controls, tacitly letting people choose their own faith. Furthermore, the political movements of the past decades had eradicated the dominance of traditional culture and folk beliefs, which led to a spiritual vacuum in people’s hearts. In addition, during this period of rapid economic development, people felt lonelier. Christianity filled the emptiness of people’s hearts during this era and gradually became fashionable. Of course, another reason has been the interest of Chinese intellectuals in Western civilization after the 1980s. After the political movement of 1989, many intellectuals’ ideals of home and country were shattered, prompting them to convert to Christ.
The revival of the contemporary Chinese evangelical student movement has had an important impact on the Chinese church. First, large numbers of university graduates flowed into cities, especially cities in eastern China, leading to the revival of urban churches. Second, there has been increasing attention on societal issues, such as caring for marginalized groups, social justice, publishing ministries, and Christian education. Third, the Chinese church has been prompted to participate in global missions. In the past two decades, the Chinese church has sent many young graduates on missions to Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and other regions. These missionaries have high educational and professional skills so they can quickly learn the local language, integrate into the local cultural situation, and work with international organizations. For the foreseeable future, university graduates and young professionals will continue to be the main force of the Chinese church in world missions.
Nevertheless, relative to China’s population and the size of university campuses, the above-mentioned revival can only be regarded as a spark. According to official data from the Chinese Ministry of Education, by 2018 China had a total of 2,663 schools of higher education with 28,310,300 students in undergraduate and junior colleges.4 According to this author’s understanding, the current number of Christians in various evangelical campus ministries in China is at most 0.5% of the total number of students. Compared to the student movements during revivals in North America, there is a world of difference. Even compared to the campuses of Chinese universities a hundred years ago, it is not a hopeful outlook. In addition, since the implementation of the Revised Religious Affairs Regulations in 2018, the Chinese evangelical student movement has continued to encounter strong persecution and tremendous pressure, making survival of the ministry more difficult.
Whether we look at history or the current situation, the evangelical student movement in China has a long and difficult path. However, this author believes that the Lord of history will also be the Lord of Chinese university campuses. As he has worked in the past, I believe he will also work in the future.
李金強、劉義章主編，《烈火中的洗禮——抗日戰爭時期的中國教會 1937-1945》， 香港:宣道出版社，2011。
Ed. Li Jin Qiang, Liu Yi Zhang. Baptism By Fire: The Chinese Church During the Sino-Japanese War 1937-1945. Hong Kong: China Alliance Press, 2011.
Ying Fuk Tsang. Christianity’s Failure in China?—A History of the Chinese Communist Movement and Christianity. Hong Kong: Logos and Pneuma Press, 2008.
Basil Joseph Matthews. John R. Mott. Trans. Zhang Shizhang. Youth Alliance Press, 1935.
Ed. Wang Ling Guang. Evangelical Student Movements in China. China and Gospel Journal 6, no. 3. Taipei: Zhongfu Publishing, 2008.
于力工，《夜盡天明:于力工看中國福音震撼》，台北:橄榄，1998。 赵君影，《漫谈五十年来中国的教会与政治》，CA:中华归主协会, 1981。
Yu Li Gong. The Break of Day: Yu Li Gong on the Gospel Impact in China. Taipei, Olive Press, 1998. Zhao Jun Ying. On Fifty Years of Church and Politics in China. CA: Chinese for Christ, 1981.
Zhao Tien En. Zhuang Wan Fang. A History of Contemporary Chinese Christianity. Taipei: Zhongfu Publishing, 1997.
趙曉陽，<美国学生海外志愿传教运动与中华基督教学生立志传道团>,宗教学研 究. 2008,(03)。
Zhao Xiao Yang. “Voluntary overseas evangelistic movement among American students and the Chinese student volunteer movement for the ministry.” Religious Studies: 2008 (03).
Translated from Chinese by ChinaSource. The original article in Chinese is available for download.
- 邢福增，《基督教在中國的失敗?——中國共產運動與基督教史論》，香港:道風書社，2008，195。Ying Fuk Tsang, Christianity’s Failure in China?—A History of the Chinese Communist Movement and Christianity (Hong Kong: Logos and Pneuma Press, 2008), 195.
- 馬泰士，穆德傳》，張仕章譯，青年協會書局，1935年, 102。Basil Joseph Matthews, John R. Mott, trans. Zhang Shizhang (Youth Alliance Press, 1935), 102.
- 李金強、劉義章主編，《烈火中的洗禮——抗日戰爭時期的中國教會1937-1945》，香港:宣道出版社， 2011，383。Ed. Li Jin Qiang, Liu Yi Zhang, Baptism by Fire: The Chinese Church During the Sino-Japanese War 1937-1945 (Hong Kong: China Alliance Press, 2011), 383.
- 中华人民共和国教育部:http://www.moe.gov.cn/jyb_sjzl/s5990/201909/t20190929_401639.html. Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China: http://www.moe.gov.cn/jyb_sjzl/s5990/201909/t20190929_401639.html
Image credit: Tim Brookings
ZHU Zi Xian (pseudonym) is minister from a mainland Chinese house church. During university he received the gospel and became a Christian. At the time of his graduation, he received God’s calling to serve on campus, and for more than 10 years devoted himself to campus ministry. After getting married, …View Full Bio