God Reigns in China
Adapted and reprinted by pennission from GOD REIGNS IN CHINA by Leslie Lyall, published and copyright 1985. The Overseas Missionary Fellowship, London, England.
The story of one unusual church, told by one of its members, spans the whole period from 1949 to the present day:
This is a mining town, and we are some of the finest miners in the country. We hope our church is a good church. We belong to it, love it and want to share the Gospel with others. Everyone in town knows we are Christians and that on Sundays we gather for worship in the morning at ten, and, for those who have to go down the pits, in the evening. Out of four thousand miners and families, three hundred and forty six, at the last count, are members of the church. We are small in number, but you would never guess it if you came into this place on Sunday. You would think the whole town is Christian with people carrying Bibles and nodding to one another and smiling. Brother Tang i5 an extraordinary person, big and vigorous and, though in his sixties, never seems to tire. He began as a young man working in the pits, gradually moving up to the rank of supervisor. He has education, including a year studying theology at college. Then, so he told us, he had to quit because his father was forced by something or somebody to leave the city. So he settled in and became a miner. This was immediately before the Liberation" in 949. In the mine he got a Bible study going. The limes were chaotic. Brother Tang soon got into trouble with the management and was put in gaol several times. But the union always got him out. It had to because he was one of their leaders... We are fairly well informed of what is going on elsewhere. I think we could have a pastor, but then we have Brother Tang, who is more than a pastor to us ... We now have our own Bibles. I suppose almost every family possesses one. We share no Bibles in common. The most difficult period was 1968 when the Red Guards were against religion and against Bibles. So our church went without Bibles for two or three years and our people were circulating pages of the Bible. It was a sad and difficult time.
Such is the story of one church, a growing church, a church matured through suffering. Who could have believed when the missionaries sorrowfully left China in 1951 that a Protestant Church then numbering fewer than one million in the space of thirty years would have multiplied many times over? This extraordinary phenomenon, other than being a sovereign activity of God, needs explanation.
1976 was crisis year for China. First the highly respected premier, Zhou Enlai, died; then Zhu Dc, the veteran marshal of the Red Army; and finally, the revered Chairman Mao Zedong himself. Each was mourned by a nation whose destiny was suddenly placed in the balance. Anticipating the Chairman's death, the Gang of Four had been plotting the coup which would give them supreme power; but that coup failed, and all four Gang members were arrested and eventually tried for their towering crimes. Their arrest as the end of a disastrous rule was hailed with intense relief.
After the traumatic events of 1976 the atmosphere all over China underwent a marked change. The authorities became more tolerant towards religion, and Christians began to enjoy greater liberty than they had known for twenty years, becoming increasingly bold in their witness. They were no longer afraid of worshipping openly in their family gatherings or of summary arrest. They look back to 1977 as the year when the Church experienced God's care and mercy in a special way. In 1979 many Christians were released from labour camps after their long detention.
Very significantly, there developed at this same time a profound revulsion against the Cultural Revolution and a growing criticism of those who had been behind it. The Lint, Red Book and the Mao badges were discarded, the statues and portraits of the Chairman disappeared, and a slow process of "demaoisation" followed throughout the nation. The manifest failure of Marxism to raise China out of her backwardness and poverty had left a spiritual vacuum in the hearts of the people, especially young intellectuals. Articles in leading Chinese newspapers admitted that the nation was undergoing a crisis of faith, Professor Audrey Donnithorne, an acknowledged authority on Chinese politics, wrote, "People are yearning for faith in a new absolute!" And Paul Kauffman of Hong Kong said: "China, in the vacuum of a lost faith, is now more ready for a true spiritual awakening than it has ever been in its long history, There is a hunger for a faith beyond the grasp of the state." There .as no doubt about the vacuum, and young people in particular felt depressed and empty. But their hearts and minds were, by these means, being prepared for the Good News. As one listener wrote to the Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC):
In the year since my graduation, my soul has been constantly wandering as in a graveyard. Hatred, despair, distress and uncertainty mingle in my mind all day long. I ask myself whether there is a god to make me wiser, lead me towards the light, release me from my distress and the pursuit of the devil so that I can gain spiritual freedom and joy. What you preach today is about God who is able to set use free from hell! But what is God? In fact, is there a God existing in this world?
One estimate is that more than half of China's population, that is oo million, are under twenty years of age! These young people have had a specially raw deal, being the victims of ten years of tumult. A he generation 01 the Red Guards is a lost one whose confidence in their earlier political views has been shattered.
The long, anxious silence about the Church since 1966 was first broken in 1979, the year when, after years of isolation from the rest of the world, Zhou Enlai decided to open China's doors to the world again by inviting the USA to send a team of table tennis players to China. "Ping pong diplomacy" was the prelude to a personal visit to Peking and Shanghai by the American president himself, a visit winch culminated in the "Shanghai Communiqué" promising an early restoration diplomatic relations between the two nations. A year after President Nixon's visit in 1972, the Chinese Government opened a single place of worship in Peking as a concession to the wishes of the diplomatic corps. The appointed clergy were all Chinese, but only a small handful of their fellow countrymen ventured to join the Westerners in worship.
The first news of the real Chinese Church for nearly six years burst on the world in 1973, exciting all who heard it. Since the 1966 Cultural Revolution all churches in Fuzhou, the provincial capital of Fujian Province and one of the treaty ports, had been closed. Secret family worship had, however, been maintained, and these fellowships grew in number until in 1975 the arrest of leading members forced the meetings to be suspended. But it was then that Cod acted and visited His people with His quickening Spirit, and hundreds, mostly young people, again began to meet in private homes.
By 1973 a Christian community numbering over 1100 had grown up, and it was this thrilling news which cheered all who had been praying for China and her Christians. The authorities, alarmed by the large number of Christians, then ordered the meetings to cease. In igq five leaders were arrested, paraded in dunces' caps and imprisoned. On their release these men and women bravely continued their pastoral visiting, and the number of believers multiplied dramatically. By 5980 Bishop Peter Hsieh of Fuzhou, whose predecessor had been tortured to death, was able so report a community of 20,000 Christians in this single city of a million people! On one of his pastoral journeys the bishop had found 7,000 new Christians in seven remote mountain villages being taught by two elderly workers. The church in Fujian was clearly growing much faster than in the days when the missionaries had been present.
But it was not only in the Wenzhou district that the Holy Spirit was at work; Zhejiang Province has a long record of many very live churches or assemblies associated with missions or with the "Little Flock". After 5978, cottage meetings again began to multiply throughout the province, some starting in a small way but others, like the one in a village with i,ooo believers, growing to large dimensions. In one mountain region of to,ooo people one in three of the population had become Christians, meeting in fifteen church centres. Ten leaders were travelling from place to place expounding the Scriptures and instructing new believers, the services often lasting for four hours! A China Bible Seminary graduate who travels throughout the province teaching both old and new believers makes a practice of inviting two representatives from each house church to attend a week of meetings; so if 200 people arrive the indication is that there are at least too meeting places in that one area. In some communes the majority of the members are Christian, and in one commune of io,ooo people which is totally Christian thecommune officials have named the production teams "Jesus Team No. 1, Jesus Team No. 2" and won and even advised other communes to "emulate the Jesus teams", which have regularly reached high production levels.
In some rural areas over 90% of the population are Christian, a totally unprecedented statistic in the history of the Church in China.
Turning south again to yet another coastal province, we reach Cuangdong with its well known cities of Canton and Swatow, both among the original "treaty ports". Canton has, naturally, been influenced by its proximity to Hong Kong and by the thousands of Chinese from there who visit the city and other places in the provinces at special seasons.
It is here that most Bibles and other items of Christian literature enter China, an activity which creates great problems both for the government and for Christians. Large numbers have turned to Christ in recent years, in Canton itself and in the rural areas. A great spiritual awakening has occurred there: in one small town a church of only moo members actually baptised 300 converts or three times its own membership, and in one provincial university 200 students regularly meet for Bible study. In Swatow, north from Canton, where the church suffered so severely in 1966, membership has grown to 500, up to 80% of whom are young people
It is not surprising that the first reports of renewed Christian activities after the calamitous Cultural Revolution should have come from the coastal provinces, for it was there, in the treaty ports, that Christianity first took root and the first churches siere planted. Third' and fourthgeneration Christians might thus be expected to weather the storms of persecution more successfully than others. At first it seemed unwise to generalise on the basis of the encouraging situation in these provinces; in the absence of news fro.. the inland provinces, it could not be assumed that the remarkable religious revival taking place in the east of China was occurring elsewhere. But then tourists passing through Henan discovered, almost by accident, that the spiritual "explosion" was by no means confined to the coastal provinces.
If the most remarkable church growth has been taking place in Fujian, Zhejiang and Henan Provinces, all the other provinces have equally been experiencing unprecedented growth: from the barren, remote steppes of Mongolia to the high mountains and deep ravines of south west China; from the oases of central Asia to the rich rice growing region of central China; from Peking to Canton and from Chongqing to Shanghai. For example, in inner Mongolia, a notorious dumping ground for political unwanteds and where, sadly, many Christians have died or failed to return from labour camps, conversions have multiplied and the seed of God's Word has taken root and borne fruit. One area has twelve groups, each with about eighty believers attending; one entire production team, including the leading cadre, was Christian. A lady who was separated from her husband, a banished intellectual, for seventeen years and was herself chained, beaten, starved, paraded and forced to work long hours, eventually started a Bible class which has since grown remarkably. Christians released bum prison have often returned to find churches revived and flourishing with up to too people at each cottage meeting. Groups of Christians in she cities have been known to sing hymns on the busy streets, and some are reaching out to the Mongol population with the gospel. In one area where there are forty college meetings and 1,200 believers, baptismal services are held every Sunday and on public holidays. Even "rusticated" Red Guards have shown themselves to be open to the gospel.
At China's other extremity, in the mountain ranges of the south-west, tour guides who, in answer to tourists' questions, often profess ignorance about the presence of churches, freely acknowledge the existence of large Christian communities among the "minority" tribes. Of the present believers 95% have been converted since 1976, and there are ten times as many Christians today as there were in 1949. In one county alone where previously there had been only 400 Christians there are now 80,000. Christians among the Liso and Miao are said to number 100,000 and their religion is officially described by the Chinese authorities as "Christian", Their "chapel" is often a huge limestone cavern holding as many as 2,000 worshippers.
In the far north west thousands have believed in Chinese Turkestan or Xinjiang Province; and in Ururuqi, the provincial capital, several hundred believers meet for worship in seven or eight households. In another town it is reported that 120,000 new converts meet in 330 separate venues, many having been converted through the radio. How the veteran George Hunter and the Trio of inveterate ladies or even the young pioneers of 1932 would rejoice if they could return today! Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia and Shaanxi all report a tremendous upsurge in the numbers of believers, with seventy household churches in Xian, the Shaanxi capital, alone and attended by several thousand Christians. Converts are numbered in their thousands, and one church not far from Xian baptised 7,ooo in two years. Lanzhou, China's second industrial city, where my colleague of Loan days is still serving as a pastor (and has twice sent his greeting! by tourists), has go,ooo Christians, while Xining, capital of Qinghai, has thirty house groups.
In Sichuan, China's most populous province and major rice bowl, where during the Cultural Revolution workers in the capital Chongqing once fought one another with machine guns, artillery and tanks, many cottage meetings are known to exist, in the city and also the rural areas ' and Christians have been travelling thousands of miles from their base on evangelisticjourneys.
What has been happening, especially since 1978 when the churches began to enjoy a period of toleration, has been like a forest fire sweeping overChina. every spark setting another tree alight a glorious conflagration! "Never in one hundred years of Gospel presentation has there been such a widespread response to Christianity as today," Paul Kauff - man of Hong Kong has claimed. The impossible is happening at Party members, even Party secretaries, commune officials, Communist cadres and Youth League members join the new believers. A neighbourhood Party boss recently accepted a Bible from a visitor and, in the presence of a BBC correspondent, commenced: "You don't know it, but Christianity is spreading rapidly in China because people are disillusioned with Communism!"
Not surprisingly, these dramatic developments have drawn the fire of the national press, which goes out of its way to criticise religion. Marxism believes that under its scientific system and with proper education religion will ultimately wither away so when Party members begin to turn to Christianity, panic sets in! The press has gone out of its way to emphasise that no one can be a religious believer and a Party member at one and she same time; indeed, it was this situation which led to the 1982 government Statement on Religion, directed almost solely at Christianity.
We have already considered some of the causes of this extraordinary turning away from Marxism to religious faith, but how it has happened needs further explanation. Evangelism, at known in the West, consists largely of campaigns, crusades, rallies and missions. But one of these activities is possible under a Communist government; so how have these multitudes of people become Christians, if not through evangelistic services? The answer must be that it has been by encountering people who know the secret of peace of heart and are willing to share thatsecret. During theCultural Revolution the Church became identified with "the people" in a community of suffering. Likcjeremiah, Christians sat where they sat, "merging with the broad masses" and revealing secret strength in the midst of suffering. As Raymond Fung has written,' "within this very ordinary reality of' daily relationships, Christians have occasions and means to proclaim Christ." The Church todaycarries a stronger evangelistic impact because of its proximity to ordinary people. The changed lives of believers on a huge scale is speaking volumes to a spiritually hungry world. Christian witness is thus a person to person witness.
Another cause of growth /is the fact that God has been pleased to heal many sufferers in answer to prayer. This has been a major contributory factor in convincing the masses that there is a living God who loves and cares and with whom nothing is impossible.
Then, considering further the means that God has used to bring people to Himself, the influence of Christian radio muss be given high priority. Before 1978 the response from listeners to the Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC) and Trans World Radio (TWR) programmes was minimal; but in 1979, following the restoration of diplomatic relation, with the USA, listening to foreign stations was legalised. A flood of letters then began to pour into the offices of both agencies, testifying to the influence of their broadcasts.
China's twenty two provinces contain a total of 2,007 counties, and "house churches" are known to exist in almost all of them. There may be from View to 50,000 such groups altogether, representing, as they undoubtedly do, the mainstream of Christianity in China today. Is is estimated that in the three years following s98o as many as 27,000 people every day may have become Christians' something beyond the wildest dreams of missionaries shirty five years ago. This staggering truth can only be accounted for as the result of the world wide intercession of the fellow members of the Body of Christ and of the fact that God's hour has come.
Harold Hinton, China "expert" and author of Faashen, his once popular and enthusiastic description, written in ago, of post Revolution life in a Chinese village, then expressed the opinion that most Chinese Christians were "rice Christians" and that the Church was on its way to extinction. Hinton returned to China in 1980s, and has since admitted that he was very badly mistaken! In spite of the dark days of trial the true Church has not only survived but flourished, emerging from virtual invisibility to he seen clearly by all. It has moved from a position of weakness to one of strength and, like the fabulous Chinese phoenix, is rising again out of the ashes of burnt Bibles and the fires of persecution. Chinese Christians are showing themselves ready to meet the challenge of taking the gospel to their own people. The corn of wheat which fell into the ground and died such a painful death is now bearing much fruit. So perhaps we may regard the nineteenth century as that of the ploughman pioneers who tilled the hard soil of China. Then, in the early twentieth century, the sower, of the good seed followed, scattering their seed in all kinds of ground. Finally, we have arrived at the time, in the 1980s, when the reaper is gathering in the ripened harvest. As one Chinese leader has said: "God is mightily at work by His Spirit as a result of the much prayer in the dark days. Now it is harvest time!" One expert in "church growth" believes that what is happening in China may be the most rapid increase in the history of Christianity. The harvest is plentiful: the yield "some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty".