Blog EntriesChristianity

Global Chinese Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity

A Book Review


Global Chinese Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, edited by Fenggang Yang, Joy, K.D. Tong, and Allan H. Anderson. Leiden: Brill, 2017. Volume 22in the series, Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies, edited by William K. Kay and Mark Cartledge

This is a superb book about a very significant topic.

The editors have assembled a competent team of researchers to study Chinese Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity (CPCC) around the world from a variety of angles, and the result is a volume that achieves something very rare: It delivers more than the title promises!

Because CPCC affects so many Chinese Christians, and because millions of Chinese believers share some, but not all, features of Pentecostal and/or Charismatic (P/ C) Christianity the editors wisely chose to include discussions of large swaths of Chinese Christianity that are not formally P/C, including the Local Church, Roman Catholic charismatics, and the huge networks in Henan. The True Jesus Church, which departs from Christian orthodoxy on the doctrine of the Trinity and does not call itself P/C, but which has roots in Pentecostalism, also receives valuable treatment.

Several questions frame the research reported here: What, exactly, is P/C Christianity? How much has P/C Christianity affected Christianity in Greater China, especially the unregistered churches in the People’s Republic of China? How does CPCC relate to indigenous Chinese religion and culture? More specifically, to what degree does it reflect a legitimate contextualization of biblical Christianity in a Chinese setting, and to what extent does it manifest syncretistic tendencies?

What is Chinese Pentecostal and/or Charismatic Christianity? How widespread is it?

Definitions

To begin with, we note the distinctions between Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianities. Though it had various theological antecedents, most scholars say that Pentecostalism as we know it now “began” with the famous Azuza Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906. Usually, the distinguishing mark of Pentecostal belief is that the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” is a distinct, second, post-conversion experience, different from regeneration, and that it is marked by the gift of speaking in unknown tongues.

Organizationally, Pentecostal Christians tend to belong to denominations committed to that understanding of the baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Pentecostals also believe that God continues to give believers other “supernatural” spiritual gifts, such as healing, interpretation of tongues, exorcism, and prophecy.

Charismatic Christianity, though again not without historical antecedents, emerged as a major religious phenomenon in the 1960s, and has since spread around the world like wildfire. Charismatics may or may not hold to a distinctly Pentecostal theology of the baptism with the Spirit, but they do believe that God gives spiritual gifts today. They emphasize speaking with tongues, healing, prophecy, and prophetic dreams and visions. Charismatics tend not to form, or belong to, denominations, but to meet either as independent congregations (or networks) or as a “church within a church” within existing congregations.

As for practice, both Pentecostals and Charismatics have usually engaged in very lively, even emotional, worship. Typically, there will be speaking with tongues, usually simultaneously by all, or most, of the congregation; lively music, with a strong concentration of more contemporary tunes and words; clapping; the lifting of hands during singing and sometimes during prayer; weeping; dancing; exclamations of joy, longing, and other emotions; falling down and/or being “slain in the Spirit”; participation by lay people as well as ordained clergy; and a strong presence of women in various forms of leadership (Chapter 16).

Chinese P/C Christianity displays almost all of these features, though of course in varying ways in different places.

Distribution of Pentecostal and/or Charismatic Christianity in China

According to these typical characteristics, then, and in direct opposition to widespread claims that “most” Chinese Christians are P/C, the editors believe that in China “there are a few Pentecostals, a few more charismatics (but not necessarily a majority of Chinese Christians), and a growing number of Christians who do not reject certain charismatic practices.” (p. 10) This is a major, and very significant, thesis.

Pentecostals include, the True Jesus Church, which holds to a doctrine of the Trinity that departs from traditional Christian orthodoxy. (Chapter 7) The Local Church, founded by Watchman Nee and later led (outside of China) by Witness Lee, shares some charismatic features, but cannot be classified as a Pentecostal or even a “charismatic” denomination. (Chapter 8) In recent decades, some Roman Catholic dioceses have seen the formation of Charismatic groups under the supervision of ecclesiastical authorities. These have tended to emphasize Bible study, prayer, and healing. (Chapters 9, 13)

The Hong Kong-based American Pentecostal missionary Dennis Balcombe has influenced four large networks in Henan in recent decades, but even here we do not see a typical “Pentecostal” denominational organization or doctrinal commitment. (Chapters 10, 11)

Urban professional unregistered churches feature much less P/C practices and phenomena, perhaps because of the “rational” religion of their educated leaders and perhaps because P/C Christianity has a reputation for unruly, noisy, and extremely emotional worship services that draw protests from neighbors. (Chapter 11)

Both Local and Global

Global

Pentecostalism originated in the United States, but has spread around the world, as has its cousin, charismatic Christianity.

Pentecostal Christianity came to China early in the 20th century through missionaries (Chapter 3), including a Norwegian Pentecostal who exercised great influence on the founder of the True Jesus Church, though that movement was always fully indigenous. (Chapter 6)

In the past few decades, worldwide P/C Christianity has impacted China, both by way of foreign missionaries like Dennis Balcombe, and through the establishment and outreach of large Chinese P/C congregations elsewhere in Asia, including Singapore (Chapter 14) and Malaysia (Chapter 15).

Local

At the same time, Chinese P/C Christianity has almost always succeeded in rooting itself in its local setting (Chapter 1), often by incorporating—or at least sharing—features of indigenous Chinese folk religions (Chapter 2) or Confucianism (Chapter 6); meeting the needs of the poor and others in the community (Chapters 4, 14, 15); especially recently, taking great pains to show that they are “patriotic” and fully supportive of China’s “dream,” (Chapter 12).

Evaluation

Readers will find this volume extremely valuable for understanding CPCC—its origins, growth, variations, international connections, distinguishing marks, and sociological characteristics. The contributors have done their work very well, giving us careful, detailed studies in the best tradition of sociological research. Chapters on particular aspects of Chinese P/C Christianity are set in their larger historical and ecclesiastical context by excellent essays in the Introduction, Chapter 1, and the Conclusion.

In addition, Chapter 10, “The ‘Galilee of China’: Pentecostals without Pentecostalism,” and Chapter 11, “’Christianity Fever’ and Unregistered Churches in China,” provide as good an overview of unregistered Protestantism in China today as you will find anywhere.

Theological convictions will inevitably affect one’s response to this book and the phenomena it describes. In general, those who accept the assumption that the Pentecostal interpretation of the New Testament is correct will have no trouble with statements like [someone] “was baptized in the Holy Spirit” and spoke in tongues. For those who believe that the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” is another biblical term for the transformation that takes place when a person truly repents, trusts in Christ, is born again, and receives the Holy Spirit, the blithe and uncritical use of Pentecostal terminology will seem a bit problematic.

That is because one great strength of these chapters—the authors mostly seem to write “from the inside,” or at least with fundamental sympathy for P/C doctrine and practice—sometimes may seem to be a weakness. Though these highly-trained researchers succeed almost completely in describing their subjects objectively, their identification with P/C Christianity sometimes lends an almost “in-house” flavor to the presentation.

To be fair, the volume is part of a series on Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. There is nothing wrong with writing from an agreed theological standpoint in such a context. I am only alerting non P/C readers to what they will encounter.

Overall, however, this is a superb resource for anyone wanting to know about the immense influence of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity upon the church in China. Some common misconceptions—like the claim that “most” Chinese Protestants are P/C—receive correction. Within the volume, the authors display minor differences; these add to the value of the collection as a well-rounded treatment of a subject that is as complex as it is crucial.

This volume will doubtless spark a number of studies, even as it raises some very important questions.

Among these are:

How much of Chinese Christianity is simply traditional Chinese folk religion—that is, an “instrumental” faith that seeks “goodies” from God (or “the gods”), and how much reflects true faith in the biblical gospel?

What happens when people don’t get their worldly “needs” met?

How valid are the criticisms that P/C Christianity in general, and Chinese Protestantism in particular, lack a solid biblical foundation?

How much P/C worship flows from a genuine response to the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, and how much comes from learned patterns of group behavior?

Finally, how consistent with the Bible are the main teachings and emphases of P/C Christianity? For my own reflections on these questions, go to Reaching Chinese Worldwide.

Though perhaps other books will be more useful to the average reader, I highly recommend Global Chinese Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity to scholars of Chinese Christianity.

For a more detailed overview of this book, go to Global China Center.

Editor's note: Our thanks to Brill for providing a complimentary copy of Global Chinese Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity for our reviewer. 

G. Wright Doyle

G. Wright Doyle

G. Wright Doyle is the director of China Institute (www.reachingchineseworldwide.org) and Global China Center (www.globalchinacenter.org), the editor of Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity (www.bdcconline.net), and co-editor of Studies in Chinese Christianity, published by Wipf and Stock. For more on effective ministry among Chinese, see Reaching Chinese Worldwide,... View Full Bio


Do you usually have a cup of coffee while reading the latest ChinaSource post? For the price of a cup of coffee, make a donation to support our content so that we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.

Donate