Book Reviews

Understanding the Chinese Church

The Resurrection of the Chinese Church by Tony Lambert. Hodder & Stoughton, 1991. Revised edition: Harold Shaw Publishers/OMF, 1994, 353 pp. ISBN 0-87788-728-4, paperback. Cost: $9.99 at Amazon.

At any gathering of pastors discussing the spiritual situation in China, the same questions appear with regularity:

  • What is happening in the house church in China?
  • What is the difference between the house church and the State sponsored church?
  • Is anybody currently being persecuted in China today?
  • Is it dangerous for a North American to travel to China?
  • Can North Americans engage in evangelistic activity while over there?
  • Is there still a need to smuggle Bibles into China?
  • What does the Chinese church really need from us?

Tony Lambert’s The Resurrection of the Chinese Church answers many of these questions. Don’t be put off by the early date of publication (1994)—this is the type of resource that can make foolish mission pastors appear wise and will help prevent many of the costly errors that initial forays into the People’s Republic often produce. This book, along with his follow-up volume, China’s Christian Millions, provides insightful information to those just beginning to educate themselves about China. Yet, those who have long been engaged in Chinese ministry will find it useful in better understanding the revival and growth that has characterized the Chinese church.

Resurrection is a well-documented story of the rapid development of the Chinese church between the years 1974 and 1994. As a British diplomat, Lambert spent four years living in Beijing in the late ‘70s. After 1983, he visited China several times each year maintaining contact with his friends and associates. Based on personal conversations, interviews with church leaders and state documents pertaining to religion, Resurrection tells a fascinating yet scholarly story.

Basically chronological in the telling, Lambert weaves four distinct threads throughout his story. One thread is the development of religious policy by the central government that sought to control the remnants of the Chinese church following the Cultural Revolution. Using charts and descriptions, even I was able to follow the birth and expansion of the different structures designed to keep the church in check. From the CCP (Central Communist Party) to the UFWD (United Front Work Department), to the RAB (Religious Affairs Bureau), down to the TSPM (Three Self Patriotic Movement) and CCC (China Christian Council), Lambert makes this complex labyrinth seem understandable. Another fascinating aspect to his description is his use of government documents showing the intent of each of these organizations. Based on documents from the local up through the national level, Lambert relays to the reader the truth of what the government’s real intent toward the suppression of religion has always been. He shows how the infamous “Document 19,” which is supposed to protect the freedom of religious expression, is being used by the government to actually hinder it.

Another thread is the literal explosion of the house churches at different points across China. This explosion is even more astounding considering the attempts by the government to curtail its establishment and growth. With great insight Lambert suggests that: “Freed from Western forms and traditions, the Christian message took on new life and meaning, spread by the lives and words of ordinary believers.” The growth of the house church in China along with Lambert’s insight made me wonder what forms and traditions may be keeping the Spirit’s work in check in my life or the life of the Western church.

Another thread that is woven throughout these twenty years is that of the persecution of believers—both Protestant and Catholic. Using published reports of arrests, letters from believers, conversations with local church leaders and even party officials, Lambert shows how believers have been arrested, jailed and tortured for their faith. What I found most interesting is that, despite reports to the contrary, persecution in the first part of the 1990s intensified and, according to sources with which I recently checked, has not abated in any significant fashion in the last few years. This leftward (more antagonistic toward Christianity) move originated in conjunction with the events at Tiananmen in 1989. Many are watching to see if the new change in leadership that is currently underway will continue this leftward leaning or result in a more relaxed view of religious freedom. Right now the jury is still out.

A final thread that emerges is the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the official organization charged with overseeing Protestant Christianity in China. Lambert shows how on one hand many of the churches that had been closed down during the Cultural Revolution have been opened and are enjoying great success, even attracting young people from the cities. Yet, some of the fiercest persecution of the house churches is coming from some of the leaders of the TSPM-affiliated churches. This is a complex situation and Resurrection does not seek to simplify it. Lambert points to the good and the bad within the official church, and the reader is left needing to pray for discernment as he or she decides how best to relate to the church in China.

Scattered as gems throughout the book are Lambert’s reflections on why this resurrection has taken place. He is too much the scholar to devote much time to ramblings of speculation, yet you wish he had speculated more. The Resurrection of the Chinese Church is a must-read for anybody who aspires to understand today’s Chinese church. It is a primer for those beginning to look to China and a reference book to those who have been there for years. Read it with your coffee but do not forget your map of China.

Image credit: DSC00495 by makzhou via Flickr.
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Joe Laird

Joe Laird is a foolish missions pastor at Intown Community Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Joe spent almost six years in the People’s Republic of China during the 1980s.View Full Bio