One of the most striking features of contemporary China is the startling pace of its modernization, urbanization, and economic development. Strange as it may sound, this process of modernization and development may represent a major factor in creating a context conducive for the growth of Pentecostal Christianity.
Ryan Dunch, in a very perceptive article, notes that modernization does impact the religious makeup of a nation. However, he suggests that rather than “producing a straightforward decline in religion,” modernization tends to change its nature. More specifically, Dunch suggests that religion, as it meets modernization, tends to become more voluntary (rather than acquired at birth), individualized, and experiential. These shifts in turn force religious institutions to change accordingly. Dunch views the Pentecostal movement as especially well suited to minister to the needs of people in societies, like that of China, which are shaped by industrial market economies:
Pentecostal movements, once routinely presented as reactions against modernity, are now being reevaluated as especially reflective of these forces, in their emphasis on the self, and in equipping their adherents, especially in the developing capitalist societies of Latin American and South Korea, with the “values of ascetic Protestantism…so essential for social mobility in a capitalist economy.”
Pentecostal doctrine and praxis were particularly appealing to indigenous Chinese Christians in the 1920s and 30s. Many Chinese were attracted to this new form of the Christian faith, “which preached good conduct, promised fellowship with divinity, afforded healing and exorcism and offered forms of worship that could be corporate or individual according to the circumstances.” And, as Hunter and Chan recognize, “the religious revival of the 1980s suggests that these are still deep needs.” It is not unreasonable to suggest, then, that the forces of modernization and urbanization have, in part, enhanced this sense of need. All of this indicates that China, like other societies being shaped by the forces of modernization and urbanization, represents fertile ground for the seeds of Pentecostal revival. The following case study supports this claim.
The Li Xin Church
In March of 2014 I met with several leaders of a large, Pentecostal house church network. The Li Xin (Zhong Hua Meng Fu or China Is Blessed) Church was established in the early 1980s in Anhui Province. It has grown rapidly over the past 20 years and now has churches all over China. The founder and leader of the church, Uncle Zheng, shared with me his fascinating story.
Uncle Zheng became a believer in 1978 in his home village in Li Xin County of Anhui Province. His mother was sick and afflicted by a demon. His brother was also not well, and his father died of an illness when Zheng was 13 years old. Six or seven other sick people in the area had become Christians. They had no Bible and they were illiterate, but Christian stories and traditions had been passed down to them orally. This small group would often come and pray for Zheng’s mother. Zheng remembers that he liked this because when they came they would share their food with him. In those days he was often hungry.
This small group of believers had a strong influence on Zheng. He watched them as they prayed for his mother and worshipped together. They asked Zheng to help them understand some worship songs that they had received in written form. Since they were illiterate, they needed him to help them understand the content of the songs. As Zheng read the songs to them, he was touched by the message. These early events led to his conversion as a young, 16 year-old boy. Eventually, Zheng’s mother was also wonderfully healed and set free.
Zheng indicated that the church in those days was like the church in the book of Acts. They relied heavily on testimonies, miracles of healing, and the casting out of demons—and the church grew rapidly. He told of one lady who was baptized in a river near the church. She took a bottle with her and filled it with “holy water” from the river when she was baptized. She then took this water back to her husband, who was very sick, and told him to drink it. He did and was wonderfully healed. Zheng and the others said that they had many stories like this.
An important event took place in 1983. The police were pressuring Zheng to stop his church meetings and close down the church. Finally, he said that he would, but that he wanted to meet with the believers one last time. When he returned home, his mother, who at this time was still possessed by a demon, began to laugh in a loud, demonic voice. When Zheng heard this demonic laugh, which seemed to symbolize Satan’s triumph, he felt prompted by the Holy Spirit not to give up and close down the church. Zheng indicated that this was the beginning of a period of many miracles and rapid growth in the church.
The Pentecostal message, complete with an emphasis on speaking in tongues, came to the church in 1988. Two Christian brothers were released from prison after spending 15 years in a labor camp. Zheng noted that the earlier generation (1950s to 70s) of evangelists spent many years in labor camps; his generation (1980s and 90s) represented the “short-term” generation, because they only spent a few years in prison. These two brothers encouraged Zheng and his church to consider the role of speaking in tongues in their own worship and prayer lives. They also introduced them to a Romanian missionary, Brother Matthew, who brought to them the Pentecostal message of tongues as the sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit. They said from this point on, they began to emphasize the work of the Spirit and speaking in tongues.
Dennis Balcombe visited the church in 1988 and his influence was also significant. Uncle Zheng and his colleagues spoke of Balcombe’s ministry and influence with great appreciation. In fact, they began to receive Bibles in 1985 and this was largely due to the ministry of Balcombe’s church in Hong Kong.
The church began to grow rapidly and spread beyond the borders of Anhui Province beginning in 1990. A catalyst for this came in 1993. The police attempted to arrest Zheng and their efforts forced him into an itinerant mode of ministry. From 1993 through 2002 he traveled widely through many provinces, preaching and evading the police. Although Zheng stated that their church does not face strong opposition or persecution now, this earlier period was an important time of church growth, stimulated by persecution. He noted that this was also the experience of the early church in Acts.
The Urban Church
I asked Zheng and the other leaders how they would compare the church today with the church of the earlier years (1980s). They said the church of the early years was largely a village church and the gospel moved from the villages to the cities. Now, they said the church is taking root in the cities, and the gospel is now moving from the cities to the villages. They feel that this transformation of the church from a largely rural context to a largely urban context is a part of God’s plan. While they noted that the village church emphasized spiritual life while the urban church highlights spiritual gifts, they also observed that some in recent years are not as committed as those in the early years. However, generally, they feel that the church today is vital, committed, and strong. In fact, they noted the parallels with the growth of the church in the book of Acts: the church began with uneducated fishermen like Peter, but, as it spread into the Gentile world, God used an educated man like Paul to help it expand. So also in China: God used illiterate villagers to establish the church; now he is using university graduates to take the gospel to those in the cities and beyond. They noted that their church now emphasizes planting churches among university students in the cities because they see this as the future of China’s church.
Zheng viewed the early days when they did not have a Bible and people experienced miracles in a way that might be viewed as superstitious, in a positive way. He noted that in those days, “We did not begin our presentation of the gospel by talking about sin and the need for forgiveness.” These were concepts that the villagers would not readily understand or feel significant. Rather, they began by talking about Jesus’ power to heal and to free people from demonic bondage. In time, people came to understand other elements and implications of the gospel, but this was God’s way of reaching down and touching people at their point of need. I found this striking for it reminded me of the ministry of Jesus. Zheng and his colleagues did not view the focus on the miraculous as superstitious; rather, they understood these experiences as God graciously accommodating his work to their situation and needs — a divinely inspired contextualization of the gospel.
I expected that they might say that today in the urban centers their approach is quite different; however, they did not. When I asked if they continue to emphasize praying for the sick and casting out demons today, they looked at me with faces filled with bewilderment. How else would you present the good news of Jesus? Even though the cognitive aspect of their message is undoubtedly more pronounced when communicating with the university students than with the villagers, they still maintain a strong emphasis on the reality of God’s power and encountering him in a personal and tangible way.
Thus, it is not surprising that Zheng and the others have a favorable view of the church today. They highlighted that their churches continue to emphasize and experience the Holy Spirit’s power and gifts, such as speaking in tongues. Zheng put it his way: “While we believe that the apostles are gone (limited to the twelve), the Spirit of the apostles is still the same.” He also said that, “Acts is the pattern for the mission of the church. If the church does not follow the path of the early church, we will lose our way.
Image courtesy of Robert Menzies.
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... View Full Bio