Editor’s note: This two-part article is adapted with permission from Evan J. Liu, “The Spirit-Empowered Mission of Chinese House Churches,” in The Remaining Task of the Great Commission & The Spirit-Empowered Movement, eds. Wonsuk Ma and Opoku Onyinah.1 Part 2 regarding urban revival follows.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Most house churches are non-denominational, though they may bear some marks of influence from foreign missionaries and evangelists. They accept female pastoral ministry and thus have no problem ordaining women pastors. Some house churches may claim to follow certain foreign traditions such as the Western Reformers or Baptists, but this is not very common. In some of those house churches that follow certain foreign traditions, women are forbidden to teach adults or engage in pastoral ministry. Overall, the indigenous house churches prefer to express and bear witness to their Christian faith through their own Chinese style of worship and ministry. While they hope that someday their religious practices will be recognized and protected by the government, they do not fear suffering for the sake of their faith even as they pray for the government to regard them as good citizens.
Persecution, Revival, and Mission
Chinese house churches have experienced all kinds of persecution under the government’s strict supervision. Arrest, property forfeiture, and harassment cannot intimidate them, and they readily perceive all these miserable experiences as bearing the cross with Jesus Christ. With the belief that someday they will be rewarded by God in heaven for denying the world and persevering through trials, a good number of newly founded underground house church seminaries continue to increase every year, even though they face the possibility of being shut down and having their staff arrested. The conviction that underground Christian education is “approved by God if not by man” has greatly encouraged many Christian churches and organizations to take risks in China.
The recent rise of Chinese Christianity was in large extent due to the rapid growth of Christians in villages from 1985 to 2005. The religious passion of the Christian peasants encouraged them to rethink traditional understandings of Christian life and ministry. The path of discipleship for these farmers was narrower than that of Christians in the cities, but the former demonstrated an even greater power for hope and transformation than the latter. Christianity has planted deep roots in China since the 1980s because the power of faith impacted the lowest levels of society and expanded like a wildfire that could not be controlled by the government.
Before 2000, the house churches focused their mission primarily on domestic China, and after 2000, the mission focus began to shift from China to other countries. Two international mission movements originated from Chinese house churches and are well known around the world as “Back to Jerusalem” (BTJ) and “Mission China 2030” (MC 2030).
BTJ is a mission movement initiated by Pastor Shaotang Yang and Guquan Zhang in the 1940s which seeks to bear witness to the gospel along the Silk Road, moving from the west of China through the largely Muslim nations toward the ultimate destination, Jerusalem. When they founded Northwest Spiritual Fellowship (NSF) in 1946, Pastor Zhang’s family was sent to Xinjiang province in the western corner of China. After the Communist Party took power in 1949, the missionary work in Xinjiang was quickly shut down by the government. The members of NSF in Xinjiang faced arrest and imprisonment from 1951 onwards, and Pastor Zhang was martyred in 1956. Simon Zhao, a member of NSF, was detained in a prison in Kashgar for 20 years (1951–1971).
After his release from prison, Simon Zhao spent a few years in Xinjiang. From there he moved to the middle part of China and began to proclaim the BTJ vision in other parts of China. The vision ignited many house church leaders, and they also advocated it by challenging churches to reach out to the lost souls in China as far as possible.2
Since the 1990s, the BTJ vision has been developed further by the house churches in the middle part of China. They emphasized that Chinese Christians should receive the evangelistic mandate from Western missionaries and send out 100,000 missionaries of their own to Islamic countries and Israel. The advocates of BTJ are deeply convicted that Jesus’ parousia will surely happen immediately after the Chinese churches convert a great number of Muslims and Jews. This movement has been widely propagated by many rural, Chinese house church leaders from the 1980s to the present.3
Three Chinese leaders, Peter Xu, Brother Yun, and Enoch Wang, inherited Simon Zhao’s vision of BTJ and promoted it among their churches for pan-China mission. After Brother Yun escaped from China to Germany in 2001, he boldly proclaimed the BTJ vision in Europe and predicted that one million missionaries would be sent out to the world by Chinese house churches.4
Instead of being promoted by the rural house churches, MC 2030 was championed by the intellectual house churches in megacities. The focus of the MC 2030 movement is that the Chinese churches should pay off the gospel debt owed to the Western Protestant missionaries who came to China beginning in 1807 and who were expelled from China in 1952. There were approximately 20,000 Protestant missionaries who served in China and taught the Chinese people to know Jesus Christ. So, the goal of the Chinese house churches is to send out 20,000 indigenous missionaries to other countries by the year 2030. The movement’s founders come primarily from the house churches of the megacities of China, are all highly educated, and represent the elite Christian classes in the urban house churches.5
BTJ and Rural Revival from 1980 to the 2000s
Peter Xu was the founder of Word of Life (Sheng Ming Zhi Dao) church in central China. The membership of this house church was estimated to be tens of thousands in the 1990s. Later Peter Xu also became the major leader of the BTJ gospel mission movement. He was arrested many times by the government. After serving several years during his last imprisonment in China, with the aid of the US government, Xu escaped from China to the US in 2002.
I interviewed Peter Xu in 2017 and he explained to me his understanding of why the village house churches experienced such huge revival from 1980 to 2002. He emphasized that the secret of this revival was its relationship to suffering, witness, and proclamation of the gospel without fear. He has participated in many supernatural services since the 1970s and witnessed many miracles of healing.
Peter Xu was a charismatic leader who practiced healing and deliverance with strong confidence. Due to his spiritual openness, Peter believed in spiritual images, dreams, prophecies, and other phenomena. When he founded Word of Life (Sheng Ming Zhi Dao) in the 1980s, the church also received the transforming work of the Spirit (conversion) with weeping and mourning for many days.6
In 2002, when I went to the province in the middle of China where Simon Zhao, Peter Xu, and Brother Yun had all served, I also experienced the strong Spirit-filled atmosphere within different village churches. There were many revival meetings every month and often hundreds of village Christians gathered for worship, prayer, and study in these meetings. They usually lived together in a huge house for two weeks and, for security reasons, all the gatherings were held in the basement so that no sound could be heard by their neighbors.
Every morning the believers rose at 5:00 and prayed and worshiped until 7:00. Then, apart from a break for lunch, Bible instruction filled the day. They sang hymns in the evening after dinner and went to bed around 9:00. When I ministered there, I sensed the presence of the Spirit in a powerful way. It seemed Pentecostal fire was ignited each day by sincere prayer, fasting, and worship. Due to the believers’ passionate pursuit of the Lord, the atmosphere dramatically changed. We were all filled with a strong sense that God was present.
The catalyst of the revival among the village churches was the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit-filled revival and mission swept through the rural areas during and after the 1980s, numerous grassroots Chinese began to embrace Christianity. Poverty and sickness become the catalyst for Chinese farmers to experience spiritual miracles and open their hearts to follow Jesus. Many village church leaders told me similar stories concerning how the revival began to sweep through their areas. It always started with miraculous healing and deliverance. There were many sick families and people suffering from poor hygiene and demonic possession in their areas because of severe idolatry. Once people got sick or developed psychological disorders, they did not have enough money to receive medical treatment. Thus, they had to seek spiritual mediators or monks for protection and restoration. However, then their situations typically turned even worse.
Finally, when they heard that Christian pastors could provide healing and deliverance, as a last resort they invited the pastors to help them. To their surprise, the bad situations changed radically and became good. Through the ministry of the evangelists, the sick were restored, those with mental illness were cured, and the oppressed were set free through the casting out of demons. This turn of events brought repentance to the whole village, which gave up idolatry and other sins. Revival would sweep through the area as people began to listen eagerly to the message of the evangelists.
The Chinese village revival sounds very similar to Luke’s narrative of events in the Samaritan village recorded in Acts 8:5–17. The evangelists usually encouraged the new Chinese believers to pray earnestly for God’s forgiveness and the outpouring of his Spirit. When the Holy Spirit filled the believers, they were usually flooded with joy and manifested some spiritual gift such as speaking tongues, prophecy, or interpretation of tongues.
The revival fire was also accompanied by persecution. The believers used many methods to enhance the security of their meetings, but still they were often discovered by local government officials. Christians’ property would be forfeited once they were accused of attending illegal religious meetings, and they could be put into prison for several months or even several years depending on their role in the organization and operation of the meetings.
I investigated some typical rural churches from 2002 to 2004 and found that although the revival fire had not been quenched, many young adults had left their churches for megacities to improve their physical lives, hoping for financial prosperity. Those who remained in the churches were old people, teenagers, and young mothers with small children. However, God can make all things work together for good. Soon after the rural revivals began to fade, the spiritual fire began to spread to the cities which were booming as a result of massive urbanization. Many young adult Christians, when they moved from rural areas to the cities, formed house churches composed of urban laborers.
This brings us to part two of our study and the story of urban house churches.
- This two-part article is adapted with permission from Evan J. Liu, “The Spirit-Empowered Mission of Chinese House Churches,” in The Remaining Task of the Great Commission & The Spirit-Empowered Movement, eds. Wonsuk Ma and Opoku Onyinah (Tulsa: ORU Press, 2023), 207-220.
- Huang Jianbo. “From East to West – History and Reflections of the Northwest Spiritual Labor Group.” Holymountain, June 17, 2020. 黄剑波：自东而西——西北灵工团史述及思考 – 教会历史 圣山网论坛：恩典中国的异象 (holymountaincn.org).
- Paul Hattaway, “A Captivating Vision: Why Chinese House Churches May Just End Up Fulfilling the Great Commission,” Christianity Today 48.4, 84 (2004); cf. Ezra Jin, Back to Jerusalem with All Nations: A Biblical Foundation (Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2016).
- Paul Hattaway, Back to Jerusalem: Three Chinese House Church Leaders Share Their Vision to Complete the Great Commission (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2003); Brother Yun and Paul Hattaway, The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun (Grand Rapids: Monarch Books, 2002).
- Andrew T. Kaiser, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi Since 1876 (Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 255-256.
- Later, this spiritual weeping became a sign for the church to discern whether a believer had received the born-again experience. Therefore, the church was also called the Born-Again church by others.