By 1952, the ascension of Chairman Mao Zedong meant Western missionary presence in China would cause more harm than good to the Chinese church. It was the end of 150 years of strenuous Protestant missionary endeavour. Many thought this also signalled the end of the Christian faith in China, which, to quote one academic, had been ‘swallowed up in the overwhelming tide of Maoism.’ For many years it looked like the pessimists had been right. The Chinese Church entered a dark period of persecution under the atheist regime. ‘Three Self Patriotic Movement’ was set up to oversee the church and to bring it under the ideology of the Communist Party. By 1958 ninety per cent of China’s churches had been closed down.
Then in 1966 Mao unleashed the ‘Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution’. Fanatical Red Guards desecrated any remaining churches. Many Christians were martyred or sent to labour camps. The visible church was totally eradicated.
But then God worked a wonderful thing. Faithful Christians went underground, daring to meet in twos and threes for small prayer-meetings. As most Bibles had been confiscated or destroyed, Christians memorised whole chapters of the Bible.
I was in China when Mao died, in 1976. Not a single church was open for Chinese believers. But things began to ease. In 1978 I had the joy of giving a Bible to a young man in Shanghai who remembered it as ‘a good book’ from back when he was able to attend Sunday School. In the spring of 1979 I witnessed the reopening of the TSPM churches in Beijing. Elderly believers wept as they took Holy Communion for the first time in 20 years or more. Week by week numbers grew as people flocked back to churches. Something significant was happening.
The Chinese Church had not died. Marxism, failing to deliver the promised atheistic paradise, had opened many people’s hearts to seek God.
Even before the TSPM churches opened, house-churches began to proliferate across the country. The sacrificial testimony of men and women who had suffered twenty years or more in labour camps for their faith was now bearing fruit. Elderly saints emerged unbowed from prison; Wang Mingdao and Li Tian’en in Shanghai, Allen Yuan and Moses Xie in Beijing, Pastor Lamb (Lin Xiangao) in Guangzhou, Sister Yang Xinfei in Xiamen and many others. Dozens and even hundreds squashed into small courtyards and homes as I can testify. Young and old were hungry for the Word of God, so long forbidden to them. In rural areas, preachers travelled by bike or on foot to spread the gospel, they found poor farmers whose lives had been blighted by poverty and famine, but ready to hear the gospel.
By the early 1980s many parts of China were experiencing rapid church-growth, even revival. Government statistics show that the Protestant Christians numbered less than one million in 1949 on the eve of the Communist takeover. By 2015 numbers have soared to at least 70 million.
The TSPM now have over 60,000 registered churches and meeting points. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s the message preached is overwhelmingly evangelical. Statistics show that over 23 million believers worship in TSPM churches now – the remaining 50 million or more attend unregistered house-churches. This spiritual awakening, by any sober reckoning, is the greatest church-growth since Pentecost, and it is still continuing.
Government researchers recently warned the Party leadership that if unchecked, the number of Protestant Christians in China could reach 200 or even 300 million over the next few decades.
2014 saw a massive crackdown in Zhejiang province with the demolition of newly built mega-churches (even government approved ones) which had held thousands of worshippers, and the forcible removal of crosses from over 400 churches.
A new nationalism is stirring and some of those in power still see the Church as a potentially subversive threat. In fact, most Christians in China are apolitical and concentrate on being ‘salt and light’ in society and winning people to Christ. They have the goodwill of the majority of people and despite continuing pressure and even persecution the Church is likely to continue to grow.
A mature Church is developing, attracting people from every level of society. China now has the largest evangelical community in the world. Many young people including students, graduates and professionals, are offering themselves for missionary service to unreached people within China and to the Muslim communities of Central Asia and the
In 1865 Hudson Taylor paced Brighton beach before founding the China Inland Mission. Today the wheel has come full circle as grateful Chinese Christians commit themselves to God’s mission. A new era of world mission is beginning in which the Chinese Church will play a major role.