Forty years ago, in 1966, Chairman Mao’s rampaging Red Guards closed down the last few city churches in China and Madame Mao boasted that Christianity had been put into a museum.
When I first visited China in 1973 there was no sign of Christian activity. Church buildings were derelict or turned into factories or schools. The sacrificial missionary work of Robert Morrison, Hudson Taylor and countless others seemed to have failed. Mao’s Little red book was outselling the Bible and evangelical Christianity belonged to a long-dead colonial era.
I was in China again in 1976 when Mao died, and over the next few years witnessed the country open up to the outside world. The new regime of Deng Xiaoping recognised that Mao’s left-wing utopianism had been a catastrophe. The stress was now on economic development and China has never looked back.
The church that never died
As part of the new ‘open door’ approach, a more moderate religious policy was introduced by the Communist Party in 1979. Churches were re-opened under State supervision through the ‘Three Self Patriotic Movement’. It was deeply moving to see Christians returning to worship for the first time in twenty years, and churches were soon full to overflowing.
It became plain that the true church of Jesus Christ had never died in China – it had been forced underground, meeting secretly in homes and in remote areas. The destruction of institutional religion had led to a remarkable grass-roots Christian movement.
The gospel was lived out and shared with family and close neighbours – before spreading like wildfire as political repression eased. Some parts of China labelled ‘atheistic zones’ by the Party in the 1960s now became known as ‘Jesus nests’ or ‘the Jerusalem of China’ because of the vast numbers of believers.
Just forty years after Mao supposedly eradicated Christianity from China, the gospel is flourishing in ways scarcely believable in the ‘post-Christian’ West. There are now 55,000 legally registered Protestant churches and meeting-points across China.
According to government statistics, the number of Protestants has soared from one million in the 1960s to 20 million today. There are also hundreds of thousands of unregistered house-churches who risk harassment and persecution to uphold the biblical principle that Christ, not the Party, is Head of his church. There may be as many as 50-70 million Protestants in China.
Over 40 million Bibles have been legally printed within China, and some Christian books are now published in small print runs – although many theological books still have to be brought in from Hong Kong or overseas to satisfy the ever-growing demand.
Both the registered ‘Three Self’ churches and the house-churches are overwhelmingly evangelical in character. The preaching of the cross; the uniqueness of Christ; his virgin birth and bodily resurrection – all are central to Chinese Christians who take their faith very seriously indeed. Bible studies and prayer meetings are well attended and every Christian is expected to share the gospel.
Hunger for the Word of God
Bishop Ding and government appointees have sought to politicise the State-run church, but their efforts have largely been resisted or ignored.
Persecution is sporadic but can be vicious – in 2006 a large house-church was demolished by the authorities in Hangzhou, and many house-church leaders have been arrested and some sentenced to long prison terms.
Nevertheless, the overall situation has slowly improved over the last twenty years so that many churches now evangelise openly and run Sunday school and children’s work (still officially forbidden to under 18-year-olds).
Chinese Christianity is dynamic and evangelistic, and based on a hunger and love for the Word of God. Sermons in most churches last around an hour. It is common for large city churches to baptise several hundred new converts annually.
Pastor Lin Xiangao in Guangzhou and the late Pastor Allen Yuan in Beijing, each baptised some 400 new converts every year in their flourishing house-churches.
The church is no longer growing just among the peasants, but among students and well-educated city people. A recent internal Party document lamented that millions of supposedly atheistic Party members had become Christians.
The Chinese church has the problems of rapid growth. Lack of biblical teaching means new converts can fall into extremism or one of the many cults. ‘Eastern Lightning’ preaches that Jesus has already returned to China – as a woman!
Nor is every ‘Christian’ influence from overseas healthy. Well-meaning Westerners can corrupt the Christ-centred faith of simple Chinese believers with offers of financial support.
Nevertheless, the gospel is growing vigorously in Chinese soil. Chinese are evangelising Tibetans, Uygur Muslims and other minority peoples within China. Some are preparing to evangelise overseas – several hundred zealous young house-church Christians are in basic missionary training.
In Britain, America, Australia, Japan and elsewhere, well-educated mainland Chinese students are turning to Christ. Many are returning to China where they will have a significant spiritual influence.
The word ‘miracle’ must not be used glibly, but it aptly describes the revival of the gospel in China over the last forty years. To God be all the glory.