One of the striking aspects of Christianity in pre-1949 China was the emergence of strong, vital indigenous churches.1 These churches were founded and led by Chinese Christians. They were established independently and operated without foreign finances, control, or leadership. Although these groups were largely overlooked by missionaries and have been neglected by historians, it is evident that they were extremely significant. More recently, Daniel Bays, a noted historian of Chinese Christianity, has highlighted the significance of these groups. Speaking of these independent Chinese Christian groups, Bays writes, “I believe that this sector [of the Christian Church] was far more interesting and significant than it might have been thought.”2 Bays estimates that by the 1940s, these indigenous groups accounted for between twenty and twenty-five percent (or 200,000 believers) of all Protestants.3 Furthermore, Bays notes that these groups have exerted a tremendous influence on the Christianity that has flourished in China since the 1980s.4
There were indigenous churches that were not Pentecostal in character, such as the Little Flock (Xiao Qun) established by Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng) in the mid-1920s. There were also, certainly, a number of non-Pentecostal Chinese church leaders of stature. Wang Mingdao, for example, apparently had a Pentecostal experience in 1920, but later “backed away from full Pentecostalism.”5
Nevertheless, the fact remains that of the three largest independent Chinese churches that sprang up in the early part of the twentieth century (the True Jesus Church, the Little Flock, and the Jesus Family), two were Pentecostal. One of these Pentecostal groups, the True Jesus Church, was by far the largest, single, indigenous Chinese church group of that era. This fact, coupled with the significant impact of the Pentecostal form of revivalism that swept through China in the 1930s, indicates that the majority of Chinese Christians prior to 1949, when able to develop their own Christian identity, gravitated to Pentecostal forms of worship and doctrine. It is worth noting, then, that indigenous Chinese Christianity was predominantly Pentecostal. It is evident that the legacy of these early indigenous churches lives on in the Christians and churches birthed in the revivals of the 1980s.6 This legacy is conspicuously Pentecostal, and it is to this legacy that we now turn.
A survey of the larger house church networks in China that grew dramatically during this earlier era (1980–2000) reveals that a majority are Pentecostal in theology and practice. The Fangcheng (or China for Christ) Church, the Li Xin (or Zhong Hua Meng Fu) Church, the Yin Shang Church (in Anhui), and the True Jesus Church are all strongly Pentecostal groups. The China Gospel Fellowship should probably be categorized as Neo-Pentecostal, although it is home to many Pentecostals as well.7 The Wenzhou church established by Miao Zhitong might also be described as Neo-Pentecostal. Non-Pentecostal groups would include the Word of Life (or Born Again) Church, established by Peter Xu, and Watchman Nee’s Little Flock (Xiao Qun), as well as several smaller groups that are largely reformed in theology and follow the cessationist teaching of the Indonesian-based Chinese pastor, Stephen Tong.8
A detailed analysis of these networks is beyond the scope of this short essay. However, I can offer a brief description of the largest of the house church networks operating in China in the 1990s, the China for Christ Church (sometimes called the Fangcheng Church).9
The China for Christ (Fangcheng) Church
The China for Christ Church began in the Fangcheng district of Henan Province. It grew rapidly in the 1980s and constitutes a large network of house churches that span the length and breadth of China. Zhang Rongliang, recognized as the church’s founding leader, described a key turning point in the life of the church: “In 1980, we received our very first Bibles from outside China. We held them in our arms and kissed them delicately, with tears in our eyes. They were the fulfillment of many years of fervent prayer and longing.”10 Decades of oppression had created a great longing and desire in the hearts of people for spiritual truth. In this explosive setting Zhang Rongliang and other Fangcheng leaders, such as Sister Ding Hei, began to preach the gospel with great boldness. In spite of hardships, the church began to grow exponentially. From 1980 to 1990 Zhang was a fugitive on the run from the authorities. He traveled throughout the country preaching and led many to Christ. He also trained a group of 80 men and women who became the core leaders of the Fangcheng Church. The church network grew from five million in the early 1990s to 10 million in the 1999.11
Another key moment in the life of the Fangcheng Church occurred in 1988. Dennis Balcombe, an American based in Hong Kong, traveled into Henan and for the first time met with the Fangcheng leaders. Balcombe’s humble demeanor and Pentecostal message resonated with the Fangcheng believers. Sister Ding Hei described Balcombe’s influence in glowing terms, noting that because of Balcombe’s influence, “all our Fangcheng house churches, except for a few, accepted the Spirit-filled teaching.”12
Some years ago in 2002, I met Zhang Rongliang in southwest China. We discussed various matters for about an hour and a half and then shared a meal together. While we were eating, Sister Ding, the second highest leader in the China for Christ network at that time, joined us.
During our meal Sister Ding, who was sitting next to me, raised a question about a book on Pentecostal doctrine that I had made available to them.13 She suggested that baptism in the Spirit, although possibly an experience following conversion, could also take place at the moment of conversion. She felt the book implied that Spirit baptism must take place after conversion. I assured her that we were all in agreement on this point and that when most Pentecostals speak of baptism in the Spirit as subsequent to conversion, we actually mean that it is logically subsequent to conversion, a distinct work of the Spirit. Temporally, both could occur at essentially the same moment, as with Cornelius and his household in Acts 10. We continued our discussion and Sister Ding affirmed that their church was Pentecostal in nature.
Sister Ding then stated emphatically that their church came to these classical Pentecostal conclusions, not on the basis of receiving this tradition from others but rather as a result of their own experience and study of the book of Acts. She indicated that in the 1970s and 1980s they were quite isolated and experienced considerable persecution. In this crucible of persecution, they developed their classical Pentecostal orientation. At this time, their church began to grow rapidly and was widely recognized as the largest house church group in China.
As I reflect on this conversation, I can now see that there are several streams of Pentecostal influence that have impacted China’s house churches. First, it is clear that there were seeds of Pentecostal teaching and revival planted by the indigenous house churches that were so prominent in China prior to 1949. Additionally, Sister Ding’s testimony also points to the Chinese believers’ sense of solidarity with the persecution and power of the apostolic church. Their context of suffering encouraged their own Pentecostal reading of the New Testament.14 Finally, Dennis Balcombe’s influence and teaching have served to encourage and give further impetus to Pentecostal revival in China. It is difficult to overstate the impact of Balcombe’s example and teaching on the Pentecostal churches in China. Clearly, as Sister Ding notes, Pentecostal influences were already present in the Fangcheng Church. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that Balcombe was a key instrument that God used to fan the flames.15
Toward the end of my time with Brother Zhang and Sister Ding, I asked them if they felt the majority of Christians in China were Pentecostal. Brother Zhang answered that apart from the government recognized (TSPM) churches and various smaller house church groups, the vast majority were indeed Pentecostal. He considered, in addition to their own church, the China Gospel Fellowship, the Li Xin Church, and the Yin Shang Church to be Pentecostal.
On another occasion late in 2002, I had the joy of teaching in an underground Bible school associated with the China for Christ network. During one of the breaks, the leader of the school showed me around and introduced to me some of the faculty members. During our conversation, I noted that their theological tradition was similar (lei si) to mine (he knew that I was an Assemblies of God minister). He stopped, looked at me, and said emphatically: “No, our theological traditions are the same (yi yang).” Later, with great excitement, he spoke of the hunger for the things of the Spirit in the churches in the countryside.
Why have Chinese Christians gravitated toward Pentecostal forms of belief and praxis? I believe the answer to this question is related to one of the great strengths of the global Pentecostal movement: its simple, straightforward approach to the Bible. Chinese Pentecostals love the stories of the Bible. They identify with the stories that fill the pages of the gospels and Acts, and the lessons gleaned from these stories are easily grasped and applied in their lives. In a country still populated by a large group of semi-literate people, the simplicity of the Pentecostal approach, rooted as it is in the biblical narrative, is a huge asset. The stories of the Bible and the stories of personal testimony often play an important role in Pentecostal worship and instruction. These stories make the communication of the message much easier, especially when cultural barriers need to be hurdled.
This is particularly so when the stories connect with the felt needs of the hearers as is generally the case with stories of spiritual deliverance, physical healing, moral transformation, and power to persevere. Here Sister Ding’s words echo loudly: the Chinese believers’ sense of solidarity with the persecution of the apostolic church encourage them to seek the same Pentecostal power.
The Chinese believers’ context of suffering encourages their own Pentecostal reading of the New Testament. One Chinese friend put it this way, “When Western Christians read the book of Acts, they see in it inspiring stories; when Chinese believers read the book of Acts, we see in it our lives.” The recent reemergence of Cultural Revolution-type opposition to the gospel in China makes this point all the more relevant. In China, a narrative approach to the Bible that takes seriously the spiritual needs of people and miraculous power of God is destined to win a hearing. This is the rich, Pentecostal legacy of the Chinese indigenous churches.
- This article is an excerpt, edited for this issue, from Robert Menzies, “Pentecostals in China,” in Global Renewal Christianity: Spirit-Empowered Movements Past, Present, and Future, Vol. 1: Asia and Oceania, eds. Vinson Synan and Amos Yong (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House Publishers, 2015), 67-90.
- Daniel H. Bays, “The Growth of Independent Christianity in China, 1900–1937,” in Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, ed. Daniel Bays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 309.
- Ibid, 310. For similar estimates see Alan Hunter and Kim-Kwong Chan, Protestantism in Contemporary China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 134, n. 60.
- Daniel Bays, “Christian Revival in China, 1900-1937,” in Modern Christian Revivals, eds. Edith Blumhofer and Randall Balmer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 171.
- Alan Hunter and Kim-Kwong Chan, Protestantism in Contemporary China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 140.
- Although several CGF leaders affirmed the Pentecostal distinctives noted above, a survey of 20 students at their Beijing seminary revealed that only seven viewed tongues as a sign of Spirit baptism and only nine said that tongues occurred in their churches often or occasionally.
- These conclusions are supported by: the results of a questionnaire completed by house church leaders from the Fangcheng Church, Miao’s Wenzhou Church, and the China Gospel Fellowship (for a copy of this questionnaire, contact firstname.lastname@example.org); an interview with the leaders of the Li Xin Church, including the founder, Uncle Zheng; an interview with Dennis Balcombe on Oct. 14, 2014; and my personal observations and conversations in China over the past 20 years. While Peter Xu’s Word of Life Church is Pentecostal-like in many respects, I do not classify this group as Pentecostal since they were not receptive to prophecy or speaking in tongues.
- The government-recognized (TSPM) churches tend to be less open to Pentecostal values, although there are notable exceptions. For an analysis of TSPM attitudes see Luke Wesley, The Church in China: Persecuted, Pentecostal, and Powerful (Baguio, Philippines: AJPS Books, 2004).
- Paul Hattaway, Henan: The Galilee of China, The Fire & Blood Series, vol. 2 (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2009), 282.
- Ibid, 288.
- Dennis Balcombe, China’s Opening Door (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2014), 110.
- A Chinese translation of William W. Menzies and Stanley M. Horton, Bible Doctrines: A Pentecostal Perspective (Springfield: Logion Press, 1993).
- Connie Au, “Pentecostalism as Suffering: House Churches in China (1949-2012),” in The Many Faces of Global Pentecostalism, eds. Harold D. Hunter and Neil Ormerod (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2013), 73-99.
- The impact of Jackie Pullinger’s ministry among drug addicts in Hong Kong should also be noted. See R.T. Kendall’s description of her ministry in chapter 11 of his book Holy Fire (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2014).
Image credit: A friend of ChinaSource.
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