Many of you, after reading these various accounts of the origins and growth of Pentecostal churches in China, may feel some discomfort. I understand that. It all sounds a bit unusual: stories of miracles, visions, and glossolalia—a bit too optimistic. Where are sober-minded critiques of these events? What about the prayers that go unanswered? Are there no evangelists that give up in the face of fierce persecution? What about church splits, leaders who fell, and those discouraged by unrealized expectations? It all sounds a bit too much like the book of Acts.
Perhaps in future issues of the ChinaSource Quarterly some of these questions can be explored. But for this issue I felt that it was important that you hear directly from Pentecostal church leaders who have served in China for many years and who are active participants in the Pentecostal movement. They offer first-hand, eye-witness accounts of key events, and they do so from the perspective of Pentecostal “insiders,” people who have contributed to the story. The ongoing story of Pentecost in China is not a story that can be easily found on the shelves of your nearest library. Its dynamism and ethos are not readily grasped or communicated by detached scholars.
So, if you are feeling some discomfort, that may be a good thing—a sign that your own presuppositions are being challenged, your perspective stretched. With this in mind, I offer two concluding observations concerning the Pentecostal movement in China and, more specifically, why it is an important part of God’s larger redemptive story. First, I believe that the Pentecostal churches in China have an important contribution to make to the larger, global body of Christ. Secondly, I also firmly believe that the Pentecostal movement, both in China and globally, desperately need the larger body of Christ.
The Chinese Church’s Contribution
Pentecostals the world over celebrate the present-ness of the kingdom of God. God’s awesome presence in our midst, his gracious willingness to bestow spiritual gifts, his desire to heal, liberate, and transform lives—all of these themes, so central to Pentecostal piety, highlight the fact that God’s reign is now present. Pentecostals proclaim a God who is near, a God whose power can and should be experienced here and now. This element of Pentecostal praxis, for the most part, has served as a much-needed corrective to traditional church life, which has far too often lost sight of the manifest presence of God. As traditional churches in the West have increasingly lost touch with the supernatural elements of the Christian faith, Pentecostals have reveled in their worship of an immanent God, a God who is truly with us. Although many in an increasingly secular West struggle to understand this kind of faith, Pentecostal churches around the world are growing with such rapidity that one scholar has suggested the Pentecostal movement should be identified as “the most successful social movement of the past century.”1
Yet, in the midst of this growth and exuberance, Pentecostals face a very present danger. The emphases that have enabled Pentecostals to make a unique contribution, also render us susceptible to an unbalanced triumphalism. Our vision can (and often has) become so fixated on God’s power and triumph that we lose the ability to see his hand in the midst of suffering, rejection, and opposition. Our emphasis on the present-ness of the kingdom is easily twisted into an arrogant and unbiblical over-realized eschatology, where there is little room for weakness. Luther named it well: a “theology of glory” that had little room for a “theology of the cross.”2
In view of the obvious strengths and vulnerabilities of the Pentecostal movement, the emergence of Pentecostal churches in China is especially important. Their experience reveals that Spirit-inspired ministry consistently encounters rejection as well as acceptance, and that the suffering and opposition that result from this rejection are part of God’s divine plan. Ultimately, they serve to advance the gospel. Like the narrative of Acts, our story this side of our Lord’s second coming is not a tale of triumph upon triumph, but rather an account of “acceptance and rejection, triumph and tragedy.”3 This story, told extensively in the experience of the post-1949 church in China, has the potential to serve as an important, cautionary tale—a story that might help curb the triumphalism (over-realized eschatology) latent within the much-needed Pentecostal emphasis on the presence of God’s kingdom.
The Pentecostal Movement’s Need
My father was a church historian. He loved to speak of the value of studying church history and often described the rich truths and important perspectives that flowed from his study. When it came to the emergence of the modern Pentecostal movement, my father was quite clear. He emphasized that the unusual experiences that marked the Azusa Street Revival and later Pentecostal gatherings were not unique. Indeed, he pointed to over 20 charismatic movements that have appeared throughout church history, most of which experienced similar phenomena. Prophecy, healing, exorcism, speaking in tongues—these experiences are not new or novel, nor were they one hundred years ago. These kinds of charismatic experiences have punctuated the life of the church in diverse places and among different groups at various times over the past 2,000 years. No, the modern Pentecostal movement in this regard is not unique.
“What is unique about the modern Pentecostal revival,” my father would say with a gleam in his eye, “is that is has survived.” If we study these charismatic movements of the past, we find that none of them ended well. This is a sobering fact. The Montanists are an excellent example of a charismatic group that probably started well but ended badly. The list of other such movements is painfully long. Most started well, but all of them remained on the periphery of the life of the church. In time, due to an over-emphasis on charismatic gifts and a lack of grounding in Scripture, these groups went astray. A charismatic leader or self-proclaimed prophet would arise and lead the group into self-destructive fanaticism and heresy.
However, here is where the modern Pentecostal movement is different. Here we find its uniqueness: the Pentecostal movement has survived long enough to become a part of mainstream Christianity. It survived, and it did not remain on the periphery. Indeed, the Pentecostal movement began with a strong sense that it was a part of the larger evangelical church.4 Over time, relationships with the broader church deepened and matured. The result was, in my view, a wonderful cross-pollination. The Pentecostals influenced their evangelical neighbors, and in turn they too were impacted by their evangelical brothers and sisters. One positive aspect of this evangelical influence was an affirmation of what was present from the beginning—a strong commitment to the Bible as the standard, the measuring stick, for doctrine, practice, and spiritual experiences.
So, while the experiences (prophesy, healing, tongues, and so on) of the modern Pentecostal movement are not new, the fact that it has become an integral part of mainstream, orthodox Christianity—indeed, a vital part of the global evangelical church—is unique. Herein lies the Pentecostal movement’s significance and incredible promise: for the first time in the history of the church a charismatic movement has become mainstream and significantly impacted the church universal. This is no doubt the case because the early Pentecostal leaders were committed to judging their theology and practice, their spiritual experiences, according to the Word of God. The warm relationships that developed over time with their evangelical brothers and sisters clearly facilitated this healthy and essential posture. If the early leaders of the Pentecostal movement had departed from a firm commitment to judge their message and experience against the standard of the Bible, history tells us that the movement would have become marginalized from the larger body of Christ and spiraled downward into irrelevancy due to heresy and excess. Thankfully, this was not the course of the modern Pentecostal movement.
My prayer is that this important cross-pollination might continue, both in China and around the world. I believe this issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly will further this important task.
- Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 8.
- See Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Theology of the Cross: A Stumbling Block to Pentecostal/Charismatic Spirituality?” in The Spirit and Spirituality: Essays in Honour of Russell P. Spittler, eds. Wonsuk Ma and Robert Menzies,(JPTSS 24; London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 150-63.
- Martin W. Mittelstadt, The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts: Implications for a Pentecostal Pneumatology, (JPTSS 26; London: T&T Clark International, 2004), viii.
- Robert Menzies, Christ-Centered: The Evangelical Nature of Pentecostal Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020), 3-35.
Robert Menzies, (Ph.D. University of Aberdeen) is an adjunct professor at Asia Pacific Theological Seminary in the Philippines. He has taught at Bible schools and seminaries in the Philippines, Australia, Fiji, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Russia, Holland, Korea, and the United States. Dr. Menzies has authored several books on the work of …View Full Bio