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Christianity in China

Book Review: Inside China’s House Church Network: The Word of Life Movement and Its Renewing Dynamic

Yalin Xin, Inside China’s House Church Network: The Word of Life Movement and Its Renewing Dynamic. Lexington, Kentucky: Emeth Press, 2009.

L
et me say from the outset that this book possesses unusual worth for all students of Chinese Christianity. Not only does it analyze a very important sector of the Chinese church, but also presents a model which, with some variations, is both inspiring and challenging.

The author declares his purposes: To describe the origins, growth, and inner dynamic of the World of Life movement; to interpret the movement in light of research on renewal movements, especially Howard Snyder’s so-called “mediating model” of such movements; and to suggest ways in which the Word of Life movement might have lessons for the worldwide church.

As Snyder, who wrote a Foreward, says, “The author’s perspective is unique… [because he is] a participant-observer and researcher conversant with both Chinese and English sources.” Yalin Xin, who grew up in the Word of Life Movement, is now a Research Fellow for the Center for the Study of World Christian Revitalization Movements at Asbury Seminary.

The rise of the house church movement

Dr. Xin opens with a brief, concise, and very helpful Protestant history of Christianity in China, especially in the 20th century, when the indigenization movements led by men like Wang Mindgao, John song, Watchman Nee, and the theologian Jia Yuming laid a foundation for today’s house churches, and then collided with the state-sponsored Three-Self Patriotic Movement after 1950. He traces the rise of the house church movement, focusing especially on the Word of Life movement, which is sometimes also called the Born Again Movement, since it was one of the earliest and became the largest. Other names for it are “New Birth” and “All Range” movement.

The author attributes the rapid growth of house church Christianity to a variety of causes: the Holy Spirit; the strenuous and intelligent efforts of the leaders; and three historical and social causes. First, after the Cultural Revolution, people faced an “ideological vacuum,” a “vacuum of belief,” prepared them for the Gospel. Second, the Cultural Revolution also “pushed the Chinese folk religions off the ground, particularly in rural China.” Finally, following Daniel Bays, he agrees that the “folk religiosity of Christianity” played a major role, as the faith showed “signs of syncretism with non-Chinese ideas and behaviors.”

In a later chapter, he adds other considerations, including the rapid social change, rise in disposable income and time, and relaxations of Chinese government religious policies in the 1980s.

WOL as a renewal movement: origin and history

For reasons which he explains at length, the WOL Movement can be classified as a “renewal” or “revitalization” movement, since it arose in conscious contrast to an existing Christianity, though it was not ever part of a larger organized denomination. Peter Xu (Xu Yongze 1940 - ) started the movement as a recovery of the “pure” gospel rather than submit to the “faith plus politics” stance of the TSPM. He deeply appreciated the work of evangelical Western missionaries like Hudson Taylor, as well as the indigenous Chinese leaders mentioned above. A fourth-generation Christian, Xu found himself “on the run” from government authorities early in life; wherever he went, he shared the gospel, and thus became an itinerant evangelist and the prototype for thousands more to follow in his steps.

In Chapter 2, Xin offers a comprehensive and enlightening review of the literature on renewal movements; Chinese Christianity in general; and the Word of Life Movement. The third chapter traces the history of WOL movement, starting with Xu’s own story, then moving through the “revival stage,” the “organizational stage,” the “mission-oriented stage,” and finally the “unity stage.” He points out the crucial role of Xu as leader and pioneer, as well as the critical part that training and theological education have played in the ongoing vitality of the movement. He notes the prominent role given to women, the tight multi-layered organization, and the indispensable activity of gospel bands.

Moving to the near present, he describes some of the divisions and re-combinations of the large house church movements; the loss of members to urban migration; the growing shortage of workers; and the divisive impact of foreign actors, especially Pentecostals and adherents of Witness Lee (the so-called “Shouters sect”).

Inner dynamics of WOL Movement

The most helpful section of the book describe the core values of the WOL movement, its organization, its nature as a renewal movement, and the possible implications of its huge success for other churches today. Chapter 4, presents in detail the “inner dynamics of” WOL, and finds that they correspond roughly to Howard Snyder’s “mediating model” for renewal movements, with then basic characteristics. Let us focus on these:

First and foremost, the WOL “rediscovered” the “nature of the Gospel,” which is the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the Cross for our salvation from sin, Satan, and death. When churches were either closed or co-opted by the government, some Chinese Christians returned to the essence of the faith, and began preaching the necessity of repentance, faith in Christ, and regeneration by the Spirit. They also spoke of the “way of the Cross,” which included both denying sin and being willing to suffer for Christ. Persecution was met with faith and fortitude, as a mark of the normal Christian life. These two elements form the vital core of the WOL.

Next came the recognition that New Testament Christians gathered weekly in homes, in numbers small enough for “more believers to participate in the life and ministry of the Body of Christ.” These little house churches multiplied by the thousands across central China, and today still form the basic unit of WOL, even though they are not necessarily required in areas where government restrictions are looser. Small groups meet weekly; take time for fellowship; and include teaching, worship, singing songs with Chinese tunes, and prayer.

Training takes place both through the traditional master-apprentice discipleship method familiar to Chinese, as well as in carefully-designed classes that rise from elementary Christian doctrine to advanced theology for leaders at higher levels.

The whole movement is united around “The Seven Principles,” a statement of the main beliefs which have guided them from the beginning. These are worth citing: 1. Salvation through the Cross. 2. The way of the Cross. 3. Discerning the “adulteress” – namely, the state-controlled TSPM. 4. Building the church as a body of born-again believers. 5. Providing for life by teaching the Scriptures as the Word of God and essential spiritual nourishment. 6. Interlink with other house churches in the movement and fellowship with churches in other localities, as well as with leaders of other movements. 7. Frontier evangelism, the sending out of evangelistic teams throughout China and now, Back to Jerusalem.

Though not part of the TSPM, WOL seeks to maintain unity with the worldwide church by adherence to orthodox Christian doctrine and, when possible, fellowship with Christians in other countries. In 1998, leaders of WOL and three other large house church movements “came together and drafted an official Statement of Faith of Chinese House Churches,’ with the expert help of the late Jonathan Chao. This statement identifies these house churches as fully orthodox, despite some TSPM and government suspicions to the contrary.

Largely because of its rural background, WOL members remain close to the poor – a hallmark of renewal movements – and demonstrate compassion by seeking to meet practical needs of their neighbors.

Several features of WOL receive repeated emphasis: The absolute authority of the Bible in the role of both individuals and corporate life; constant reliance on prayer, especially corporate prayer, along with a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit to transform lives, empower witness, and work miracles; and the centrifugal force of a missionary passion that has now spawned the Back to Jerusalem Movement (BTJ).

The BTJ vision originated among Chinese Christians in the 1940s, and was renewed in the 1990s, with Peter Xu sensing God’s leading to make this a high priority. After being arrested and released several times, in 2002 Xu left China for the U.S., where he now lives and serves as leader of the BTJ Movement, headquartered in Southern California.

Evaluation of WOL

Xin himself comments on several weaknesses of WOL: Especially in the past, too much emphasis was placed upon profuse weeping as a necessary sign of true repentance and a heartfelt sense of God’s forgiveness. The training of evangelists has been criticized for being “too narrow,” and “not encouraging self-reflection”; the “discipline revolving the training… is also strict, to the extent that the freedom of marriage is strictly restrained.” Some evangelists “did not have any chance to support or even visit their parents for years.”

The pietistic tradition of the leaders has meant a lack of full-orbed teaching on the sanctity of work and the duty of believers to serve as salt and light in the general society; organized ministries of compassion have been slow to develop. And there has been difficulty with divisions inside the movement since the 1990s, with different theological emphases producing separate networks.

Despite my own very high admiration for WOL as described in this book, may I venture to add three other comments, in a spirit of deep respect? First, WOL sent out pairs of young women as evangelists. The result was often highly emotional and subjective preaching, the conversion of multitudes of women, a yawning disproportion between women and men in the house churches and thus the availability of Christian men for them to marry. Had Jesus’ method of sending men been followed, this problem might not exist today.

Second, while the highly-structured organization has produced lasting stability and constant growth, the expansion of groups of house churches into a multi-province network has produced a vast pyramid structure with a few people at the top, led by Peter Xu. Not only does this worry the Chinese government, which is always paranoid about potentially competing national organizations, but it places a huge amount of authority in the hands of a small group, and makes temptations to power and prestige almost unavoidable. Autonomous county-wide networks in communication with each other would have been sufficient, if the New Testament is any guide.

Finally, though the silence about Xu’s divorce and remarriage is not surprising, the book makes little mention of other criticisms which have been directed at him by other house church leaders, perhaps because he has corrected some earlier mistakes. While he is obviously a great Christian leader, with profound personal and worldwide influence – one of his disciples is Brother Yun of “Heavenly Man” fame –some of the statements in the biographical sketch of Xu on the BTJ website appear a bit problematic. Has he really trained 100,000 evangelists? Is he truly still the “leader” of WOL, and is WOL still – intact – the largest house church network in China? Xin’s book itself seems to indicate otherwise.

Overall, however, despite a large number of spelling and grammatical mistakes, this is a stirring book about a remarkable man and an amazing movement. It challenges both the luke-warmness of the Western church, and also the growing shift from home meetings to large gatherings in big buildings in the urban house churches, as well as the political emphases of some prominent urban house church leaders. I highly recommend it.

For a brief look at some implications for ministry among Chinese today, go to www.chinainst.org