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The Holy Spirit at Work in China’s Churches

Reflections on the 2023 Summer CSQ

Although I have often encountered the Pentecostal branch of Christianity in China, I am not a member of the Pentecostal church. However, through reading the summer 2023 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, I have gained a more comprehensive and deeper understanding of Pentecostal churches.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Pastor Dennis Balcombe, and found that, not only was he an important person in the contemporary Pentecostal movement in China, but also that he was an elder brother in Christ much to be respected. Through his two articles, on the origins and growth of the Pentecostal church, I have not only come to a clearer understanding of the history and role of the Pentecostal movement in Chinese history, but also to understand better the effect of the Pentecostal movement on the global missions movement in China and the myriad threads of connection the Pentecostal movement has had with the indigenous church movement in China as well.

Furthermore, through reading the articles in the summer Quarterly, I found that the contemporary Chinese Pentecostal movement and Pentecostal/charismatic churches are introduced from three perspectives: the Pentecostal practices of faith, the extent to which believers in China hold Pentecostal beliefs, and the significance the Pentecostal faith has had on the development of Chinese Christianity.

I grew up in the northern part of Zhejiang Province, in an environment deeply influenced by Pentecostal faith. Whether in the pre-Cultural Revolution period when there was a great deal of poverty, or in the era of the Cultural Revolution at the peak of societal madness, the pursuit of spiritual growth as a Christian was the most basic lesson I was taught since childhood and practiced daily. Moreover, healing through prayer, experiencing God in the midst of great difficulties, and finally recovering from them were not only commonplace, but were also the main source of hope that enabled Christians to live a different life—a life full of hope. This was at a time when Christians did not have Bibles (when homes were ransacked, Bibles were taken away and burned), and society at large had fallen into despair. Therefore, for Christians, the faith of “experiencing God” was not merely a teaching, but real, everyday life.

However, since those early days of immature understanding, I have realized that although everyone had similar spiritual experiences, not all Christians were Pentecostal. As I grew older, I realized that true Pentecostals are still a relatively small minority of believers. Therefore, combining my experiences growing up and serving for many years in the mainland, I am eager to explore with Robert Menzies and other authors of the summer Quarterly the following topics:

1. To have Pentecostal experiences may not be the same as holding Pentecostal beliefs.

Let me give some historical perspective. In the 1980s, as the people’s communes were gradually dismantled and the Chinese countryside was barely holding on, those Christians who had experienced the Cultural Revolution and survived against all odds drew on their actual experiences of God during the Cultural Revolution. They went from house to house spreading the gospel, leading the farmers who had experienced the depths of poverty and were troubled by sickness and pain to turn to Christ, establishing the church. This phenomenon was fairly common throughout all regions of China.

In that era, I, too, followed my elders to the homes of people possessed by demons, casting out demons with prayer, and I saw with my own eyes many works of the Holy Spirit. It did not take long for Christians to go from door to door, village to village, establishing churches. Finally regional churches of a large scale appeared, including the “five families” that later became well known, and other large scale churches networks. These church networks not only have strong characteristics of the era, but also strong characteristics of Pentecostalism. I believe that this is an important characteristic of the Holy Spirit leading the Chinese people to Christ in the later half of the twentieth century (see John 16:13), especially from the late 1950s to the 1980s.

However, the situation began to change as urbanization sped up in the late 1990s, theological education became more accessible, and migrant churches and new urban churches sprang up rapidly in coastal and other relatively developed regions. Although migrant churches do not reject the works of the Spirit, especially in terms of healing and casting out demons, there are far fewer truly Pentecostal churches among migrant churches than there were among the rural churches of the 1980s, especially since entering the new century. Reformed theology eventually became more attractive than Pentecostal beliefs among the urban churches that sprang up like bamboo shoots after a spring rain.

2. Chinese Christians emphasize the works of the Spirit, and also emphasize eschatology.

Just as the summer Quarterly showed, indigenous Chinese churches not only emphasize the works of the Spirit, but also emphasize dispensational eschatology. Many years ago, I received a tattered copy of The Revelation of Jesus Christ by Martin Hopkins, translated and written in traditional Chinese that had been secretly passed around for many years. In the book I discovered that many of the theological perspectives held most determinedly by the Chinese church were catalogued and introduced in detail. Later, when I read Hopkins’ Sermons on Revelation, I gradually realized that the most tightly held fundamentalism among Chinese churches—both denominational churches and indigenous churches—originated from Watson McMillan Hayes and his North China Theological Seminary. Although the North China Theological Seminary was located on the Shandong Peninsula, which was steeped in the Pentecostal tradition of the Jesus Family and others, the seminary itself was not Pentecostal, but was a fortress of the fundamentalism which Chinese Christianity firmly held.

Along with the drastic political changes in China in 1949, Chinese Christians gradually melded dispensationalism and the works of the Spirit, and this became the faith they held firmly in the 1960s and 1970s and was an important motivation to the urgent spreading of the gospel in the 1980s, “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). On its arrival in the twenty-first century, with the gradual decline of dispensationalism, Reformed thought began to gain acceptance among Chinese house churches. This phenomenon has become even more evident since the 2010s. Therefore, I must be honest and say that, although I did not feel any discomfort when reading this summer Quarterly Robert Menzies’ view that the Pentecostal movement will become mainstream in the church seems rather subjective, at least in contemporary China.

3. The main characteristic of Chinese Christianity is the centrality of the Bible.

In reality, whether Pentecostal/charismatic, or fundamentalist (traditional house churches), evangelical, or Reformed, upholding the Bible is the greatest commonality affirmed by all Chinese Christians. It is also the most important reason that they all oppose the Three-Self organization. At the same time, almost all Christians promote the importance of prayer and spiritual growth, and accept the works of the Holy Spirit, only differing in opinion on the specific expressions of speaking in tongues and healings. However, those differences do not affect mutual respect for one another. Therefore, entrusting the development of Christianity in China entirely to Almighty God and following his will alone in leading Chinese Christians in the twenty-first century is undoubtedly the most important path to experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit.

I believe deeply that God will reveal his will to lead the people of China to Christ even more in the twenty-first century.

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Image credit: Fauzan Saari via UnSplash.

Steve Z.

Steve Z. (pseudonym) is a pastor, writer, researcher, and specialist on church development.View Full Bio

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