It can be difficult to grasp the true state of a church from a distance. This is particularly true when we live many thousands of miles away and speak a different language! In recent years there have been reports of great movements of God in China. We hear of large numbers of converts to Christianity and frequent periods of persecution.
It is therefore helpful when the situation is assessed by someone who has researched it first hand and can provide a biblical perspective.
We reproduce below an edited version of a letter received from Phoebe Ma, former chief editor of the Chinese Reformed magazine Faith & Life. It supplies some frank and illuminating insights concerning the church in China.
I have been away from Singapore for close to three years. I have been to quite a number of provinces in China, such as Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Gansu, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi, Hunan, Zhejiang and so on. I must have covered many tens of thousands of kilometres; even then there are many places I have not been to, because China is so large.
My purpose of going to so many places is not for touring nor sightseeing. I have been following friends to their affiliate churches to get a better picture of the religious condition and practical needs of the churches in China. As these churches are scattered in different provinces, it took me quite a while to visit them.
The first type of church I came across is structured regionally. Many ‘meeting points’ make up a church, and each meeting point has 20 to 50 members. Meetings are held in the homes of believers known as the ‘receiving family’.
As membership grows, lack of space and security require incoming members to be transferred to another receiving family. As these members are very zealous in preaching the gospel, their numbers have grown greatly over the last 10 to 20 years.
Lack of labourers
However, these churches contain a high proportion of novices who are very superficial in their understanding of the truth. They are willing to believe, but cannot really tell what they believe in. They are not even clear about what it means to confess sin and repent, let alone being able to distinguish the conviction of sin wrought by the Holy Spirit.
As for the preachers, their understanding of doctrine is very deficient. Some are newly brought to the faith but, for want of labourers, are made church workers and even leaders although neither mature nor ready.
There is no one to guide and teach them. Though they are willing to suffer persecution for Christ’s sake (even to the point of imprisonment), they are not able to withstand the temptations of Satan, identify the cults and pinpoint their errors, or discern the spiritual disposition of believers … all because they lack knowledge of the Word of God.
Hence they encounter many problems in governing the church and pastoring the flock, not being able to meet their spiritual needs.
In fact, these church workers do spend a lot of time reading the Bible, even reading through the Bible many times. But they are still without understanding because nobody teaches them.
Of course, not everyone is so; I have heard some who preach quite well and whose doctrines are sound, but I cannot say more because I do not know them well enough.
Lack of discernment
These churches, having been around for more than 10 years, are beginning to realise the importance of being equipped with the knowledge of the truth. But able teachers are few.
Hence, when the opportunity arises, they invite overseas teachers to help train the locals, as well as to bring in spiritual books (published abroad). Much spiritual trash (mostly Arminian, Dispensational, Liberal and Charismatic works) has been introduced in this way and is slowly corrupting the unsuspecting Chinese churches.
When these churches invite overseas teachers to train them, they seldom know their backgrounds. All they see is teachers willing to make sacrifices in coming to teach them despite the low standards of living and hygiene in China, and they thank them for their love.
Not many churches have the spiritual discernment to perceive whether these people are a true help and blessing or not. I myself have listened to some of these teachers and I dare not hear them further. Some of them have the cheek to teach others when they themselves are heretics!
Lack of literature
Another church group I came across call themselves the ‘Gospel Mission’, but others label them the ‘Regeneration Sect’ or ‘Crying Sect’. The government calls them the ‘All Region Church’.
This group originated from Henan in the early 1980s. They are organised and disciplined, and their emphasis is on preaching the gospel. They may have as many as 2,000 gospel missionaries scattered across China, all serving God full time and spending long seasons away from home.
Although they have many gospel preachers, they still feel that their labourers are too few. They have their own training system for workers, including a short training course, a theology class on the life of Christ, and a grade 2 theology class on the study of the Old and New Testaments.
They asked me to help them buy certain books; but when I looked at their book list, many items they sought were of questionable value. China has a great need for good Christian literature.
Love for God
I came to know these people 10 years ago. From 1992 to 1995 many overseas churches sent workers to labour in their midst. However, the results were more negative than positive.
One of the main charges against overseas teachers was that ‘they had knowledge but without life’. Some of the teachers had bad testimonies and showed disregard for preaching. Hence, from 1996 onwards, they rejected overseas teachers and trainers.
They would rather read the Scriptures, pray, and train their workers themselves. I have heard some of their senior workers preach. They preach well with the unction of the Holy Spirit.
Among all the churches I know in China, the Gospel Mission’s regard for God and his Word is the most sober and upright. I am happy among them because of their single-heartedness and love for God.
These extracts from Phoebe Ma’s correspondence are sincere and humbling. The sheer size of China and its population is intimidating. As the scale of need threatens to overwhelm those who labour in this immense harvest field, all we can do is to look up in prayer and expectation to the Most High. All things are possible through the power of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.