The Coming Chinese Church: How Rising Faith In China Is Spilling Over Its Boundaries
Author Paul Golf admits candidly that it is “almost impossible to present a generalized picture of what God is doing among 1.4 billion people, and many differing opinions abound both within China itself and among the International Church community . . . So while the scope of this book may seem grand, it only seeks to be one piece of the puzzle” (9).
The book itself is “an eclectic mix distilled from countless interviews, ministry trips, and late night conversations with a wide spectrum of individuals, some of which have involved me, but all of which have involved Pastor Lee,” who is head of Love China International. The author met Pastor Lee soon after studying Chinese at Oxford University (8).
Based in the United Kingdom, Love China International began as the BTJ (Back to Jerusalem) Foundation in 2003, which in 2009 merged with Life Impact Ministries in a mission to “support the Chinese House Church in their Back to Jerusalem vision” (189).
Pastor Lee often travels to China in support of Chinese Christians there, the last few visits (at the time of publication) being in preparation for the writing of this book. He believes that the Chinese house churches have been given two main weapons: praise and worship, and prayer. Grateful for the contribution made by Western missionaries in the past, he believes that their sacrifices have left a model for Chinese believers to aspire to, and hopes that this book will “link the Chinese and Western churches in the pursuit of the ‘Back to Jerusalem’ vision” (12).
In the Foreword, Brother Yun, “the Heavenly Man,” likewise seeks to “thank and honour the Western missionaries who went out into China sowing in tears, paying the price for the gospel of Jesus Christ with their own blood, but also to give glory to God for the missionary vision handed down to us from Him through those Western missionaries many years ago – Go West with the gospel . . . This is the heart of the Back to Jerusalem vision!” (13).
He believes that the Western Christians are the “spiritual Abraham” of Chinese believers today, but also that “Western nations have misused religion, politics, and the power of man so that those ancient living wells of faith have seemingly been blocked up by dirt and stones. Because of their faith in Jesus Christ, the Coming Chinese Church is like your spiritual Isaac, come to help re-dig those ancient wells so that the living stream of life would once again flow freely!”
So much space has been given to these prefatory remarks because (1) they show the nature and purpose of this book, and (2) they contain classic statements of the convictions of many Chinese Christians today, convictions which are driving and shaping their self-understanding and their missionary movement beyond China.
Chapter 1: China’s Kairos Moment
The book opens dramatically with a story of how a Chinese house church leader, “Pastor Gao,” went to Europe to preach the gospel, so that the church could be revived. He believes that “the thing that the Chinese Church most needs right now is spiritual fathers, and we are looking to the Western churches with many generations of history to come alongside us” (21). Later, the author tells of how another house church pastor said to him that China needs Elijahs, that is, Western Christians seeking to witness to God in a secular society, to come alongside them, providing spiritual nourishment as well as receiving spiritual refreshment from the Chinese.
The author believes that an estimate of 80 million Christians in China is “ridiculously low.” Such tremendous growth in the number of believers comes from three things: “They know how to believe, they know how to pray, and they know where they came from” (29).
The rest of the book follows a careful structure, “based on Israel’s rebuilding of the desolate towns in 2 Chronicle 14:7. These are the building of walls, towers, gates, bars for the gates, and finally the taking of the land” (29) .
Chapter 2: The Hundred Million Revival
“While there is a great deal more freedom and openness in Chinese society now than almost ever before, the past has all too often been filled with hardship and persecution . . . and many Chinese church leaders believe that a fresh wave of persecution is again on the horizon” (33). Written before the recent tightening of control over public expression of opinion and of NGOs, the first part of this statement is still true.
He quotes a Chinese pastor who divides the history of the modern Chinese church into three seasons: “a period of intense suffering and persecution,” from 1949 to 1979; 1979 to 2000, “when China was opening up and undergoing reform;” and the period since then, “the era of world mission for the Chinese Church” (31).
During the second period, building on the legacy left by missionaries and preserved by faithful believers, a new generation began to spread the faith, often instructed by radio broadcasts from outside China, sometimes in the face of fierce persecution, but almost always by the power of the Holy Spirit. They saw many miracles as they fearlessly traveled around rural China and ignited the fires of revival through home meetings and public evangelism.
Golf says, “The wall of persecution may have been an obstacle in some ways, but in other ways it was a form of protection, allowing the Church to grow indigenously without outside influence, maintaining a purity of faith and conviction that is so easily lost in the modern world” (45). Sadly, the lack of sound biblical teaching also fostered the growth of heresies and cults. Chinese church leaders acknowledge their need for biblical and theological guidance from the West, but the author wonders whether Western Christians have “become so preoccupied with being wise and persuasive that we have missed the power of the Spirit” (48).
Chapter 3: The Foundations for Mission
Briefly and succinctly, we are introduced to the foundations laid by the “Nestorian” Christians, Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit and Roman Catholic missionaries after him, Hudson Taylor, James O. Fraser, and others like them. The words of Pastor Ezra Jin are quoted, as representative of the beliefs of many Chinese believers: “We need to give recognition to the Western missionaries who came to China and acknowledge that the reason they came was because of the gospel, not out of an agenda to spread imperialism. They are our spiritual fathers” (53-54). Today’s Chinese sense a heavy responsibility to receive and pass on what has been given to them at such great cost.
Golf says that there are basically three types of Chinese “house” churches today: Traditional house churches whose leaders had had direct contact with missionaries, and who steadfastly endured suffering in order to preserve that heritage. “Their teaching particularly emphasizes suffering for the sake of the gospel and the cultivation of one’s inner spiritual life” (57).
The second group are the newer rural house churches that grew out of the great revival that began about 1979. This very de-centralized movement was “almost exclusively centred around the uneducated peasant class” (57). It was fed by profound disaffection with Communism. Necessarily isolated from each other, many groups developed heretical, even bizarre doctrines and practices. As a result, any churches that emphasized vigorous evangelistic work were severely opposed by the government.
After the Opening and Reform initiated by Deng Xiaoping, however, a huge migration to the cities forever changed the Chinese demographic landscape, including the rural churches. Their people flocked to urban centers, laying the groundwork for the third type of “house” churches, the urban churches, which are the focus of the rest of the book.
First, however, we must understand the crucial role that outstanding 20-century preachers like Wang Mingdao, John Sung, and especially – in the eyes of the author – Watchman Nee have played in the formation of churches in the cities. He believes that Nee’s emphasis upon inner spiritual intimacy with Christ, coupled with real spiritual intimacy among believers, is the model the West needs to emulate.
Chapter 4: The Urban House Church
The next phase in modern Chinese church history is the building of “towers,” that is, churches with a high profile that make no attempt to remain hidden behind “walls.” These congregations are led by an entirely new corps of pastors, mostly educated, who believe that Christians should boldly gather and worship in “public” spaces like office buildings, hotels, factories, restaurants, and the like. When police come, they receive them cordially, and cooperate as much as possible, though gently standing up for what they consider their constitutional right to freedom of belief and public expression of their faith.
The new leaders believe that the Christian faith has applications to, and implications for, all domains of social existence. They speak often of “kingdom,” and think that the witness of believers will be used to transform Chinese society. Though they remain outside the official Three Self Movement, that is not because they are unwilling in principle to cooperate with the state, but because they do not think that the church should be subordinate to a secular state. In other words, unlike the persecuted rural churches and traditional urban churches, they see themselves as potential partners with the state in building a better China.
Most of the chapter is taken up with the story of Ezra Jin, pastor of Zion Church in Beijing. Typical of many educated urban church leaders, he thinks that Christian churches should be like “a city on a hill,” prominently bearing witness to Christ in a highly visible fashion. Though he does not neglect spiritual concerns, Jin’s church also includes a team of lawyers to press for greater legal freedom of religious expression.
Chapter 5: God’s Lighthouses
Now the author turns to the construction of “gates” for the “city” of the church. He sees these as the means by which God’s grace is “to be released into China at large” (90).
The disastrous Wenchuan Earthquake of 2008 provided a dramatic opportunity for Chinese Christians to demonstrate their love for all their countrymen by mobilizing thousands of believers to go to the devastated area and provide essential relief for them. Since then, many Christians have remained, while others who brought temporary help have gone home.Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of churches have followed this path by engaging in social service projects of all sorts, convinced that they should “reveal God’s glory through demonstrating His love to society in the midst of crisis, and to show the government that the Christian Church is a blessing and not a threat” (91-92).
Of course, most of them still place evangelism at the top of their list of priorities; what is different now is that they are engaging in open, and often open-air, evangelism. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Chinese find Christ when they go overseas to the West for advanced study.
In a further step, Chinese Christian ministries, like Love China International, are sending teams to Europe, not only to spread the gospel and strengthen the churches there, but to mobilize teams of Chinese Christians to take the Christian faith around the world.
Chapter 6: Power in the City
As part of their vision for “kingdom,” some urban house church leaders engage in prayer for the sick and see miraculous cures. Many more, however, initiate works that seek to meet urgent needs in society more naturally, such as “healing, counseling, discipleship, and equipping them to witness to their friends, family, and colleagues.” They expect that the “gospel will both multiply and adapt to the different cultural, social, and work environments in which citizens of the twenty-first century find themselves. In order to transform a nation Christian testimony has to be found in every sphere of influence and on every level of society” (108).
Most tellingly, however, Golf emphasizes that (1) healings and other demonstrations of God’s love are of not much lasting worth unless they draw people’s attention to “a miracle-working God”; (2) discipleship can only take place when those encounters with God’s power are allowed to translate into a lifestyle that shapes the direction of the Christian community "that includes personal evangelism"; and (3) such evangelism must be accompanied by “authentic, real-life testimony of . . . Christians who have laid down everything to follow Jesus” (110-111).
Chinese believers are confronting a revival of belief in the old “gods” and demons of traditional religion. They respond by confronting Satan’s power with faith in the greater power of the Risen Lord Jesus, and often see dramatic deliverance from demonic possession in answer to prayer, frequently followed by the conversion of the formerly afflicted and their family members.
Chapter 7: The Western Pilgrimage
This chapter tells the familiar story of the origin of the Back to Jerusalem vision, a vision which Golf says has now become universal among Chinese Christians. It differs from earlier accounts, however, in showing how much more difficult it will be for Chinese to take the gospel through Muslim lands than they had originally thought. Now, they realize that they are in a preparation stage, in which the government’s encouragement of Chinese businesses to move to Xinjiang, and the construction of the “New Silk Road” are seen as God’s providential support for what will eventually become a major missions outreach.
Chapter 8: From Xi’an to Zion
Beginning in 2006, pastors from all sorts and sizes of “house church” fellowships began to meet together to bridge the gaps among them. They recognized that persecution and pride had led to the formation of hierarchical networks with a strong and sometimes domineering leader at the top. The result was a group of “silos” with little inter-communication.
What Golf calls a spirit of being “orphans” has caused many Chinese Christian leaders to fight for success, convinced that they must make it on their own. They need, he says, spiritual “fathers” to show them the unconditional love of God for them in Christ. The “Homecoming Conference,” which has grown to include thousands, has helped to bring them together as one family.
Fifteen of these leaders formed a team to drive from western China to Israel in 2008. This remarkable journey, which has been documented in a film series, expressed the “Back to Jerusalem” vision. Golf admits, however, that the vision needs maturing. For one thing, Chinese need to see that the Great Commission includes the whole world, and that Chinese need to open their eyes to their obligation not just to go “West” to Israel, but “South” to Africa, and to all nations.
Still, we can see that the “gates” of the church have been opened, and blessing is beginning to flow through them to the world.
Chapter 9: Securing the Gates
The chapter begins with a quotation of Pastor Jin asserting that government policy needs to change. “We need the space to be able to grow, just as in other countries” (155). The implication is that the “gates” of the church are now being guarded – and often barred – by the Chinese government.
Reflecting the view of many urban house church leaders, Golf asserts, “Perhaps the most crucial stage we are currently witnessing unfold in this grand process is the Church contending for a legal identity within the nation” (157).
The urban house churches are “now becoming positioned more than ever to exert influence in the nation,” because (1) their members and leaders are educated; (2) they have an “active and engaging stance towards social reformation rather than a passive one and are placing as much emphasis on pastoral care as on evangelism, and (3) they are not afraid to present a united front in actively campaigning for a change in the law and continuing to keep the discussion of religious freedoms in the open” (158-159).
Not surprisingly, this has made the government a bit nervous, as seen in its restrictions upon the Shouwang Church in Beijing, and the crackdown in Zhejiang and other places since then.
Still, evidence of a growing presence in society includes positive presentations of Christianity in the state-controlled media; permission for online Christian publications to spread news and the gospel; the rapid increase of Christian business fellowships; and reports of high-ranking officials who have become Christians.
As a consequence, many Chinese Christians “are genuinely expecting the gospel to overtake the entire nation of China,” though there is still a long way to go (170-171).
Chapter 10: Looking to the Future
Nevertheless, as stated before, not a few leaders believe that a new wave of persecution may be coming – a sense that has proven to be prophetic since the writing of the book.
Partly for that reason, more and more of them are becoming convinced that they should not emulate “a Western/Korean megachurch model,” but should meet together “in small groups in each others’ homes,” in an organic growth that would both be true to their roots and also harder to exterminate (175).
Meanwhile, the Chinese church presents the church in the West with an example of how to grow in a hostile environment, while it still needs the wisdom, prayers, and support of mature Western Christians. A moving section on the daunting challenges faced by Chinese pastors reminds us just how much we must pray for them.
Golf ends with a vision of a Chinese church that is united, energized, revived, persecuted in the near future, purified further to evangelize the nation and then the world, and joining with a revived Western church to glorify God among the nations. China’s Coming Church’s powerful conclusion should be read in full, as indeed, should the whole book.
Though the book is only 190 pages long, this review, which only touches upon highlights, gives a taste of the wealth of its contents. Along with Brent Fulton’s China’s Urban Christians, it should be required reading for all who want to understand, pray for, and partner with Christians in China.
Of course, no book will receive complete agreement from all readers.
Coming from the charismatic wing of the church, Golf uses terms like “revelation” to refer to impressions of God’s will that come to “apostolic and prophetic leaders” among the house church Christians, vocabulary which may raise some theological eyebrows. Likewise, the term “Christian nation” will cause some with a knowledge of how this phrase has been used in the West to pause, as will the strong “political” flavor of some passages.
Many will wonder if Golf’s fulsome praise of not only Watchman Nee but also Witness Lee and his Local Church should have been tempered with frank admissions of the faults of both of those leaders and their movements.
Others may find the idea that Chinese Christians must engage in high-profile, visible social work, legal action, and public worship in order to reach its full potential unbiblical. Even more problematic for some might be making the goal of influencing, even transforming, society as a priority for the church. They would prefer to say that the church’s goal should be to glorify God, with social impact coming as a consequence.
Despite these and other weaknesses, the book is thoroughly researched, well written, well organized, and marked with energy, passion, remarkable balance, and extremely valuable as an expression of what many Chinese Christians believe about themselves – their history, their present condition, and the mandate God has passed on to them.
For some thoughts on what Western Christians can learn from this book, go to our essay at Reaching Chinese Worldwide.