THE UNQUENCHABLE FLAME
By Anthony G. Bollback
No one could have imagined in 1950 as the last of the missionaries evacuated China, that by the end of the century the Church in China would be exploding in spectacular growth.
Mao Zedong’s atheistic government that took over the country in 1950, calculated that they would obliterate the relatively weak Christian community and bring to an end the Church they considered a lackey of western imperialism. They almost succeeded, except they did not, and still do not understand, the awesome power of the Holy Spirit who can never be expelled from any land.
As the Bamboo Curtain came crashing down, pastors were herded into prison camps ostensibly for re-education. The Communist leadership fully anticipated that these men would not endure the cruel suffering meted out to them, and that they would recant to save their lives. They did not reckon with the courage and fortitude of thousands of pastors who boldly declared that they would choose long terms of imprisonment in prisons unfit for any human being rather than give up their faith in Jesus Christ. These men, filled with the Holy Spirit, counted it a privilege to suffer for Jesus and boldly stand up for Christ in the most inhospitable circumstances.
But something unusual has been happening in China. Christianity is bursting out everywhere—in registered churches, in the amazing expansion of unregistered house churches, in government circles, and even the Communist Party membership. In a most unusual article in Newsweek Magazine dated May 10, 2006, Sarah Schafer began her article by declaring: “Chinese missionaries are winning souls across the Middle Kingdom—and plan to spread even farther.” In this most amazing article, she probably gives the best summary of the condition of the Church in China that can be found anywhere. She says:
“All across China, more and more people are turning to Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior. The numbers have been growing for years, encouraged by the personal freedoms that have slowly accompanied the country’s economic reforms. Protestantism—especially evangelicalism—appeals to many Chinese in rural areas that have been left out of China’s economic miracle. Now China has at least 45 million Christians, the majority of whom are Protestants, according to Chinese academics. Western observers say the numbers are much higher. Dennis Balcombe, a preacher from California who has made hundreds of mission trips to China since the late 1970’s, and Western researchers put the number at close to 90 million.”
Daniel Bays, a historian of Chinese Christianity at Calvin College in Michigan says of the fantastic growth of Christianity, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Christianity has grown faster in China than anywhere else in the world in the last 20 years.”
Marvin Olasky in World Magazine’s cover article on June 24, 2006 states, “With small house churches multiplying in cities and influential economists coming to faith, Christianity is growing so fast in China that Communists officials are having a hard time keeping up.”
CHRISTIAN BOOK STORES OPEN IN CHINA
In The Christian Post dated June 9, 2006, Johnny Li, minister-at-large for Open Doors U.S.A. reported on his latest trip to China. “Many Christian bookstores have opened in urban areas, such as Shanghai and Beijing” with Bibles, theological books and resources for the family and marriage being openly sold. He reports that there are around 70 such stores in China providing translated versions of renowned spiritual publications such as the biographies of Hudson Taylor, Mother Teresa, The Story of Jesus, and even some pro-family resources by James Dobson.
The growing Christian influence is not confined to churches or bookstores. It is invading the influential arena of the business world. A World Magazine article on June 24, 2006 reports that more and more Chinese companies are headed by Christian CEO’s, and in fact in one area more than 30 Christian CEO’s meet for fellowship and encouragement. One testified that since he became a Christian, his company treats employees fairly and with love, and his company pays taxes honestly. This is unusual in a country where two sets of books are a common practice. Another testified that now he provides Bible-based character training sessions every morning, and that most of his employees have become Christians. Still another testified that now his company only has one set of books, no longer has mistresses or wins contracts by proffering prostitutes to customers. No real names were revealed since the “semi-liberty these CEOs have is only possible within certain defined rules of the government that could be changed arbitrarily” and could produce repercussions for the men.
An explosion of faith is rocking the student world as well several people report. Johnny Li reports that “university students are really open to the Gospel, They are thirsty for God’s Word, and when they read the Bible, they believe it. They tend to ask very deep spiritual questions that students in Hong Kong and Taiwan do not think of. The questions are not asked to challenge the Christian faith, but to confirm that the Bible is the only Truth.”
BACK TO JERUSALEM
A decades-long goal to reach out beyond the boundaries of China to reach the world in cross-cultural ministries is beginning to take shape. The Chinese Church has been successfully reaching out cross-culturally to the 56 minority groups scattered in the mountainous and rural regions of the country. But the house church leadership has higher ambitions—they hope to reach all Asia and the Middle East in what has been generally dubbed the “Back to Jerusalem Movement.” It is not confined to any one network of churches nor to any one specific group associated with overseas Christians, but it is touching the imagination of many Chinese groups and mission organizations. Schafer in Newsweek states: “The initiative calls for Chinese Christians to spread the Gospel in every country and to every ethnic group between China and Jerusalem.” If you look at a map you will immediately notice that this will follow the old Silk Road of Marco Polo and include the 60 countries in the 10/40 Window. Most are Muslim countries that are violently opposed to Christianity, but this ground swell within the Chinese church demonstrates that those who move out to accomplish this mighty task are willing to suffer and even die for this vision.
According to this article, leaders will be combing the Silk Road this summer searching for locations to set up house churches and seminaries for the training of missionaries. One house church group says they have already sent more than 100 believers to overseas training centers in preparation for ministry in Muslim countries and the Middle East. Some of these training centers have graduated students who are presently engaged in ministry in very dangerous places.
A COMMUNIST PARTY CHALLENGE
All of these developments present a serious challenge to the Chinese Communist Party which has sought to contain Christianity by requiring believers to worship only in officially sanctioned registered churches known as TSPM churches or The Self Patriotic Movement churches. The problem is that these churches are experiencing skyrocketing growth pushing the official figure upwards of 15 million members in Protestant churches and 6 million in Catholic churches. It is not uncommon to find these churches filled with several thousand people and some with multiple services.
The situation is further complicated by the exploding growth of house churches, or unregistered churches, which the government is desperately trying to control. These churches are made up of people who refuse to register with the government and oppose all state controls believing that to do so would be to compromise their faith. What is incomprehensible to the government is that these groups have grown into huge networks of churches numbering into hundreds of millions of people. Attendance formerly was in clandestine locations at all hours of the night to avoid detection, but with the loosening of controls, even house churches often number into the hundreds and thousands, and many meet openly, but under the constant threat of police raids and arrests.
With house churches growing with lightning speed, the government is cracking down hard on their leadership. Several well-known leaders of these networks have been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms for printing Bibles and Christian literature which the government considers illegal and activities of an “evil cult.” This seems strange to outsiders since Bibles are officially printed by Amity Press, the one printing press of the registered church allowed in the country. Last year, they printed more than 2.5 million Bibles in cooperation with the American Bible Society which provides all the paper without cost! In 20 years, Amity Press has printed more than 40 million Bibles! The fact is that 40 million Bibles printed over a period of 20 years are woefully insufficient to meet the insatiable need for Bibles by the growing number of converts. House churches and overseas associates believe they should meet the demand of millions of people still waiting to own a Bible even though there are great physical risks of imprisonment.
The government’s crackdown on the leadership of unregistered house churches and sentencing them to long prison terms has also included bulldozing their meeting places. According to Schafer in the Newsweek article, last June a group of house church Christians in Guangsi Province who had applied for registration, arrived at the police station to complete the process, only to be arrested on the spot and sentenced to re-education camps. Although they were eventually released, there are scores of others who have not fared as well as the government seeks to destroy what they consider “evil cults.” A house church evangelist changes her cell phone number every two or three days to avoid detection.
In the June issue of China Clippings, my monthly e-mail publication, I wrote: “With the Chinese church setting such an exemplary example to the rest of the world, will other believers respond to the challenge? Will the church in North America respond?
HERE ARE SOME THINGS URGENTLY NEEDED
* A deep sense of repentance. We urgently need to turn back to God in a new commitment of love and devotion to Jesus that will overcome the materialism and coldness of our lives.
* A new sense and commitment to prayer for the lost in our communities and the suffering church around the world.
* A willingness to once again live a simpler lifestyle that will enable us to support the work of extending the Kingdom of God around the world.
* A desire to be part of this advancing, dedicated group of people who live wholeheartedly for Christ regardless of personal cost or persecution
HERE IS HOW YOU CAN BECOME INVOLVED:
* Pray earnestly for this movement of God to evangelize the 10/40 Window.
* Regularly support your own church's missionary organization, and specifically their efforts to help in the training of cross-cultural missionaries for the 10/40 Window.
* Support other reputable groups that give a good accounting of their resources who are engaged in printing Bibles, training people for cross-cultural ministries or church planting.
* Contact Chinese churches in your area or denomination and ask for prayer requests about their activities to prepare people for overseas ministry. Many Chinese churches are deeply committed to planting churches overseas and are actually participating in this movement by sending their own people on short term mission trips to train Chinese young people.
* Regularly log on to www.ChurchInChina.info for a comprehensive, daily report on what is happening in China.
We have the unusual opportunity of getting in step with the Holy Spirit in China and Asia through prayer and support. We know that even if Beijing doesn’t allow real religious freedom, Chinese Christians will continue to spread the word, at home and abroad because it is something they are willing to die for. The question is will The Christian and Missionary Alliance and the North American Church be part of it?
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