When I first arrived in Hong Kong in 1969, there was no accurate information about the church in China. The prevalent belief was that Christianity had been basically eliminated from China. It was common knowledge that all religion had been prohibited during the Cultural Revolution (1967–1976), the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) church—which was totally under the control of the Communist Party and preached only liberal theology—was closed, house churches were prohibited, all clergy were sent to labor reform camps or prison, seminaries and Bible schools were closed, and all Bibles and religious books had been destroyed by the Red Guards.
It was assumed by many that the whole nation had become atheistic. As China began to open in 1978, one major ministry, Asian Outreach, printed a tract which simply described the beautiful mountain scenery in Guilin (such as you see depicted in Chinese landscape paintings), and ended with this question, “Is it possible all this somehow occurred through natural processes, or might there perhaps be a Creator?” One would ask, why were these gospel tracts not more specific in presenting Christ and the gospel message? The reason is there was a fear that any religious literature would be confiscated and those distributing it would be arrested. It was thought that except for a few older people in the villages, the whole nation was now atheistic.
Most liberal churchmen stated, “What Christianity could not do, Chairman Mao did. Chairman Mao made a ‘new man’ out of the Chinese race.”1 They claimed crime, prostitution, the taking of illegal drugs, gambling, and other vices had been eliminated. Liberal churchmen stated, “While the people were relatively poor compared to most in capitalist nations, what they had they shared one with another, the government provided basic educational and medical services, everyone greatly loved Mao and the Communist Party, and most were very happy.” It was then often stated, “There is no need for Christianity, a Western religion that puts guilt on people and allowed imperialism to take root in China.”
However, within weeks of my first trip to Guangzhou in the spring of 1978, I found that was totally false. During the past several decades we have been learning about the terrible atrocities, massacres, famines, political infighting, and horrendous persecution of religious believers. Even now we hear about the horrors of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) in which an estimated 32 to 45 million lost their lives through famine with about ten percent being victims of the radical leftists. Victims of persecution during the Cultural Revolution—those who “struggled against” it were persecuted and tortured—number in the millions including hundreds of thousands of Christians. No one is sure of the total number of deaths during the Cultural Revolution, but it is possibly several million.
Prostitution then and today was rampant, but prostitutes then sold their bodies to get ration coupons which were needed to purchase food. We saw this everywhere after China opened in 1978 as even then food could only be purchased using both money and ration coupons. As we began to travel throughout China, we saw not only prostitutes, but beggars everywhere. Poverty was widespread, and on visits to hospitals we saw dirty, rundown buildings with almost none of the equipment or medication that a hospital would need.
The idea promoted by liberal clergymen in the West that Mao had made a “new man” was not true, but what was true is that the small, Protestant, house church of perhaps not more than one million believers in 1949, had grown by multiple millions.
I became aware of one group of 40,000 believers in a district in Guangxi province. They met in multiple house churches, but we were told they had only one complete Bible among them. Due to that report, in the first part of 1979 we began our Bible ministry to China (called “Donkeys for Jesus”), and during the 36 years from 1979 to 2015 (the year Xi Jinping began to take tight control of the nation), countless millions of Bibles were delivered to China from Hong Kong. Most were provided free to house church leaders, and thus during those years I was privileged to travel throughout this vast nation.
During the past few decades, I have met with hundreds of house church leaders, and even many TSPM pastors, and have ministered in both types of churches on multiple occasions. This is what I learned: Through the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all Christians through which the Full Gospel2 was preached, with healings, deliverances, and signs following, the Protestant church of a million or less grew to a church of 70 to 100 million believers, conservatively speaking.
Due to the strict control of people’s movements, including that of foreign visitors, it is impossible for anyone to conduct an accurate religious survey. However, these estimates are based on the percentage of known Christians in different districts and an analysis of general religious beliefs in the different provinces. Many believe that at least eighty percent of the Christians are either Pentecostal or charismatic. While this is hard to verify, I firmly believe most people converted to Christ due to miraculous healings, deliverance from demonic powers, and other miracles that proved the truth of the gospel.
From 1979 to 1997 I made multiple trips throughout China. Weekly, I taught English in Guangzhou, led a few hundred students to Christ and baptized them in the Guangzhou reservoir. I helped to coordinate a Bible ministry through which thousands of Bibles entered China every week, and I travelled all over the nation meeting with Christian leaders in hotel rooms or public parks in major cities.
I wanted to visit rural home churches, especially in Henan (where Hudson Taylor previously worked), but was told it was far too dangerous for a foreigner to visit them. However, knowing that our church was a Spirit-filled Pentecostal church, and almost one hundred percent of the Bible couriers and those supporting the ministry were Pentecostals, the Chinese believers wanted me to visit their home church coworkers’ meetings and teach on this subject.3 Thus, in early 1988, they arranged for me to go into the rural areas of Henan, Anhui, and Zhejiang provinces to teach in coworkers’ meetings that numbered from 80 to 800 attendees or more. Meetings would last three to five days in one village, and then we would go on to another village. Usually, I would teach and preach for up to nine hours a day, but during that time, in every session, we prayed for the believers to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. This continued until 1997 when I lost my visa. When my visa was restored in 2003, I continued this ministry until 2015 when I again lost my visa.
Before we visited China and taught the Pentecostal message, believers would experience miracles of healing and supernatural deliverances. This was due to the prayers of Christians. Even decades before I entered the rural areas to teach the Pentecostal message, churches had a habit of gathering early in the morning for prayer with these meetings often lasting up to two hours.
As people were baptized in the Holy Spirit, they also received gifts of the Holy Spirit: gifts of healing, words of knowledge, miracles, and so on. More than that, they received great boldness to openly preach the gospel. Thus, healings and miracles that followed the proclamation of the gospel led to the conversion of thousands of people.
Space does not allow me to share even a small percentage of what I saw; however, I want to state that we saw thousands of coworkers filled with the Holy Spirit accompanied by speaking in tongues and a massive outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Miracles, signs, wonders, and divine healings were seen everywhere we went. Many told me the main reason people became Christians was due to the testimony of divine healing, deliverance from demonic powers, and other miracles. While the Chinese church is not perfect—mistakes have been made, some false doctrine and teaching emerged during those years—nobody can deny that the Chinese church is like the church in the book of Acts. The gospel is widely preached with signs following; but, as in the first century, persecution is prevalent.
Hu Jintao was the moderate president of the People’s Republic of China from 2003 to 2013. He promoted the “harmonious society” policy. During those years we often visited the official Three-Self Patriotic Churches and with the approval of the authorities ministered in these churches in many cities. Many thus were opened to the work of the Holy Spirit with biblical worship services, praying for the sick, and the operation of the gift of the Holy Spirit. During those years official churches would unite with house churches to preach the gospel in their communities.
During recent years, restrictions on Christian ministry in general have increased and many overseas Christian workers have been forced to leave China. The government restricts the evangelism of children and youth, and Bibles can only be purchased in official church bookstores. Atheistic Marxist education is the norm for all Chinese young people. It would seem the present leadership of China is reversing the Open Door Policy of Deng Xiaoping which began in the 1980s. However, we thank the Lord that during the few short years China was open, thousands of Spirit-filled Christians from overseas entered China to provide Bibles, teaching materials, and to pray with countless tens of thousands of Chinese Christians to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Chinese church has a solid foundation based on the Word of God in which the Holy Spirit is honored. I believe despite temporary setbacks, the doors to China are still open in that the Chinese people are very open to Christ and the Holy Spirit. I believe that before the return of Christ, perhaps in our generation, this nation of 1.4 billion Han Chinese and other ethnic groups will be reached with the Full Gospel.
- For a similar assessment of the naïve sentiments at that time, see Ross Paterson’s foreword to Tony Lambert, China’s Christian Millions (Oxford: Monarch, 2006), 7.
- The Full Gospel is often understood as including all four elements of the Fourfold Gospel: Jesus is Savior; Healer; Baptizer in the Spirit; and Coming King.
- “Coworkers’ meetings” refers to meetings for those actively engaged in ministry rather than the normal worship services that were open to all believers.
Image credit: A friend of ChinaSource.
Dennis Balcombe, an American who has served in Hong Kong and mainland China for 54 years, has a vision to provide a Bible to every Chinese desiring one, and that all Chinese Christians will experience the baptism in the Holy Spirit. He planted the Revival Christian Church in Hong Kong …View Full Bio