Editor’s note: God has done an amazing work in China over the past decades. The author, who has worked with the Chinese church for many decades, shares his thoughts on the foundations of Chinese church growth, and how God has used catastrophe to draw Chinese to himself. While God’s hand is evident in the spread of Christianity in China, the author also cautions that there is much work left to be done. While no one can tell what the future may bring, he urges believers to be sensitive to the work of the Spirit and ready to walk through any doors God may open.
No one factor alone can explain the miracle of the growth of the Mainland Chinese church in the past 40-plus years. The only absolute factor is God’s hand behind it all. Since we believe that salvation is a miracle brought about by the grace of God, we must not think we can manipulate things. (I call this “managerial missions” – thinking of missions as entirely a result of our methods or strategies, which can thus be controlled, much like a manager would control factory output.)
We must also not go to the other extreme, thinking we have no responsibility. We should analyze what programs and strategies seem to bring the best results. But this will always need to be evaluated. We seek a “resonance” between what the Spirit is doing and what we do. This takes a lot of prayer and constant evaluation. I also don’t believe that any one strategy will work forever, if for no other reason than the Evil One will find ways to thwart it. We are in a war for the soul of China, and Satan does not want to give up his hold easily.
Foundations of Chinese Church Growth
On one level, we could say the growth of the church is on the foundation laid by the missionaries, particularly those that have come in the last 200 years. Humanly speaking, this is the method God has used to plant the seed of the gospel. Yet even in this, we cannot forget God’s hand. We must admit the missionaries made a lot of mistakes (i.e. going in on the gunboats). Despite these mistakes, God still planted his church. We should humbly ask what mistakes we are making today – we are no smarter than the early missionaries, nor are we more holy and righteous.
On another level, God was not dependent on the missionaries. I met a brother in Tianjin in the late 80s. He said I was the first Christian he had ever met. At first I was extremely wary, but he gave a clear testimony of how the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and how he began listening to the radio broadcasts. (We know this type of conversion – through dreams and visions – is not uncommon in Muslim contexts.)
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Church Growth through Catastrophe
When I look back at the past 40 years, I also see God has at different times orchestrated events to create a “loss” or a “need” in the hearts of the Chinese. The first was the combination of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Through these things, many Chinese lost hope and perhaps felt guilt in a never-before-experienced way. This work of the Spirit was then combined with the faithful and courageous testimony of many Chinese believers. I don’t think foreign missionaries had much of a role at this time. They may have had a role in teaching, but evangelism and church planting was primarily done by Chinese believers. There was definitely a movement of the Spirit at that time. I talked to an elderly brother who was an evangelist in Henan. He described how they used to go to a village, have a evangelistic meeting, establish a church, and then after a few days go to the next village and repeat the process. Don’t you wish it was that easy today?
My impression of the 80s is no single evangelist nor strategy can explain the growth. It was a work of the Spirit, and he had prepared hearts through the events of the 70s.
A second “loss” that had a deep impact on China was June 4th. At the time we never imagined it, but now we see that the growth of the urban church can in many ways be dated from this event. This event brought disillusionment to so many, especially intellectuals. The impact of Western and Korean missionaries in this time was more pronounced. The growing influence of Western culture probably did make it easier for many to accept the gospel. A Chinese pastor said as much to me the other day. He said he felt it was easier for him to accept the gospel than it was for his parents or grandparents. Yet we must not forget that Satan has now used Western culture and affluence to close the hearts of many in China.
The early 2000s, up to around 2014 or 2015, was a time of “peace.” Perhaps it was much like the “Pax Romana” that was so important for the growth of the early church. As a friend of ours in Chengdu said around 2003, the situation in China at that time was perfect for church growth – just enough pressure to keep the church pure, but enough freedom to do a lot of ministry. If someone like Xi had come in right after Deng, we might have had a very different situation with the church in China today. I take all of this as part of God’s sovereign, guiding hand.
The Conflict Between the Gospel and Chinese Culture
Yet even with this, I am hesitant to say the church has really crossed into Chinese culture and changed the narratives. In many ways, the church is still on the fringe of society. As we have worked closely with Chinese couples, we see many ways in which the gospel has not really changed deep parts of their worldview. (This would definitely be true in the U.S., too!) Often, when the gospel and culture conflict, culture wins. Expectations regarding marriage, relationships with in-laws, and even the roles of men and women have not been set free by the gospel, but still reflect the values of more traditional Chinese culture – even among believers.
How else can we explain the divisions in the church in Hong Kong in regards to the political issues of the past few years? People’s identity as a Hong Konger or a Mainlander is more important than their identity in Christ. (The same issue exists in the States. I also recently heard it exists in Russia as well, in relationship to how they view the war in Ukraine. Satan wants to sow division!) As we often say, we need to continually study the gospel.
I fear that confronting Chinese culture, to the point of changing the narratives, will be much harder than facing persecution from the government. The government is “outside”; the pressure from culture will come from families, more “inside.” This is the challenge those in Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist countries (such as Thailand) face. In so many ways, the church in the U.S. has not been able to change the narrative in American culture even after so many years. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the narratives of Chinese culture have not been changed after only about one generation. Rising nationalism in China will likely only make this change harder. Again, Satan does not want to give up his territory easily.
What does all of this say to us? We should be looking and praying for insights into how God is at work today. Is Covid another “loss” that could open hearts? Could events like the lock-down in Shanghai create a disillusionment that could create openness to the gospel? Will the economic difficulties China may soon face break the illusion China will always be growing and things will always be getting better? I don’t know. But I am challenged to begin looking around and evaluating. God always takes the initiative; we only act in response. The challenge is to continue to prepare ourselves so that when God opens doors, we are ready to walk through.
Otis is a pseudonym for a Westerner who works with the Chinese house church.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray that believers will pray and look for insights into how God is working in China today, so they may be ready to walk through any doors God opens.