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Miracles, Persecution, and Transformation in China: An interview with Dennis Balcombe

Dennis Balcombe has been sharing the story of Jesus in China for over 50 years. Read what this veteran missionary has to say about following God’s call, cultural immersion, watching revival unfold, and how you can be part of the work God is doing wherever you are. You were called to missions while you were young, please tell our readers how old you were and what you did to prepare yourself for ministry in China after you received the call?

Pastor Dennis Balcombe: I was brought up in the Methodist Church, but in the USA this denomination is extremely liberal and I never heard the true Gospel until I went to a Spirit filled Assembly of God church at age 16 (1961). For the first time in my life, I saw and heard many testimonies of miracles and healings.

People in the church spoke in recognizable languages having never studied them (French and Hebrew), and many testified to healing after prayer. I was so impressed, and that night as I was praying I heard the Lord speak to me. I had been praying since I was 3 years old, but only then did I clearly hear His voice.

He called me to go into the ministry and to be a preacher. I argued with the Lord that I would believe and follow Him, but I could not be a preacher: I had planned a career in science, my family of 9 was financially poor, I was extremely introverted and not qualified for public speaking, etc.

But the Lord continued to speak to me almost every night, that I must surrender and go into the ministry. For nearly 3 months, I did not get much sleep, because I would argue with God every night. Then I visited the same church for the second time, and the pastor’s wife who was leading the meeting had a Word of Knowledge.

Though she never met me, she said a young man was in the meeting who had been called to the ministry, and he needed to come forward, repent and get right with the Lord and obey Him. She said she would not lead any more songs, the pastor would not speak, the choir would not sing until that person repented.

I of course knew that was me. I went forward to pray in which I gave my life to the Lord to go into the ministry. In those days, churches really respected the Holy Spirit, and from the time I went forward about 11:30 am to 1:30 pm, the Sunday meeting just became a huge prayer meeting, for many others also came forward to pray.

I began to preach the next day, Monday, sharing my testimony in every class in high school. After five days I led my first convert to the Lord, the saxophone player in the school band that I was a part of. I took him to church on Sunday and he prayed for the Baptism of the Spirit, and people testified that he spoke in several different recognizable languages.

Two weeks later, the Lord revealed to me that I was to go to China, the PRC (we called it Red China in those days). I was doing homework and in the encyclopaedia I saw a picture of a young Chinese boy living in the PRC, and I heard the Lord say, “I want you to take the Gospel to him.” I knew from that second that I would go to China.

The next Sunday I told the pastor’s wife (Marjorie McKay), a highly spiritual woman, that God called me to China and I must go right away, in a few weeks. She told me that the Lord had revealed the same to her when I gave my life to the Lord, but I must first receive training and have experience in practical ministry before I could consider going to China. She said it would be at a future date, but I would not have to wait that long. Only 8 years later, I found myself in Hong Kong as a missionary.

My first ministry experience began right away in weekly street evangelism, weekly door-to-door evangelism and preaching in a skid-row mission in Los Angeles. I was invited to share in the youth group meetings, and got involved in all the ministries of the church.

In 1963, I joined the Assemblies of God Bible School in S. California, then called Southern California College (now called Vanguard University). Several months later, some of the students began to attend special “laying on of hands and ministry of the presbytery” meetings in Long Beach at a church called Bethany Chapel under Pastor David Schoch. He was undoubtedly one of the most powerful prophets in the 2nd half of the 20th century.

This church was part of the Restoration Movement, which was also called Later Rain. They came back with amazing testimonies of the prophetic ministry and I decided to attend. The ‘prophets’ would call people out to the platform, and as they knelt there, 5-8 prophets (mostly pastors of large and successful churches) ministered in prophecy using Words of Knowledge and imparting gifts of the Holy Spirit.

We were amazed, for they prophesied to over a dozen of the students, whom they had never met before. They spoke in great detail of God’s calling on their lives, spoke about their particular personality and area of ministry, and sometimes spoke words of loving rebuke from the Lord.

We could not deny this was genuine, for there was no possible way they could know so much about so many people they had never even met. And many began right away to operate in the gifts imparted. Some would begin to prophecy right away; others who received the gift of healing would then lay hands and heal people right in the meeting.

We were amazed, for they prophesied to over a dozen of the students, whom they had never met before. They spoke in great detail of God’s calling on their lives, spoke about their particular personality and area of ministry, and sometimes spoke words of loving rebuke from the Lord.

When it came to me it was clearly confirmed that I was not only called to be a preacher, I was called to be a missionary, I would go to Asia and later would go to “Red China” as the doors to that nation would open. Nobody in their right mind would say such a thing in 1963 because China was at the height of the Cultural Revolution and totally closed.

At that time in order to be more accepted by “good and educated” people, some of the Assembly of God churches in the area played down praying in tongues, over-expressive prayer and worship as they did not want to scare away these “good” people.

This came to the Bible College and that year during a period of time we were told not to pray out loud or in tongues, as the State Education Accreditation Association would be visiting and they did not want to lose their chance of accreditation by “wild religious manifestations.” They did get their accreditation, but perhaps the Holy Spirit lifted off that school. It was set up first in L.A after the Azusa Street Revival and the founding of the Assemblies of God to train pastors and missionaries.

Thus after one year, in 1964, I moved to Long Beach and joined Bethany Chapel. They had a tremendous practical training program, but it was in the evenings and weekends. I got a job as a cook on the local State college. For 4 years, I followed this man of God and sat under the ministry of some of the most powerful apostles and prophets of that age, learning so much through both the classes and the practical outreach ministries.

In 1967, I was drafted into the US army, trained as an infantryman and sent to Vietnam. Though I was trained as infantry, due to my previous secular job as a cook, I was assigned to the mess (kitchen) with the 1st Air Calvary, and only seldom had to do actual patrols or get involved in the fighting.

Pastor David Schoch, who was a well-known prophet, prophesied the Vietnam War would spread to Cambodia and that the USA would pull out in defeat. I determined if the Lord helped me, I would never kill anyone in Vietnam and had great faith God would protect me.

Therefore, I carried no ammunition for my 45-calibre pistol and M-79 grenade launcher. I also encouraged the other soldiers in my unit to never deliberately kill anyone, unless it was for self-defense. I told them we Americans would eventually come back to Vietnam after the war ended to travel and invest, and we would be friends with this nation even after it became Communist. That is what is happening now and I have been back many times doing missionary work.

This prophet also said during my tour in Vietnam the Lord would protect me and “not one hair of my head would be harmed,” for after Vietnam I would eventually go to China as a missionary. I had great faith in that word and experienced “perfect peace that passes all understanding.”

As the Army Chaplain was a liberal theologian that did not believe or preach the Bible, I started my own church for the soldiers, and also did some evangelism to the Vietnamese. I would take the excess food the soldiers did not need, and deliver it to the villagers with Vietnamese Gospel tracts.

During that year, I made a trip to Hong Kong for R&R and the Holy Spirit led a prophet from Australia, Paul Collins, to come and sit beside me during the ferry crossing from Kowloon to Hong Kong. This was a miracle, because in 1967, there were 4 million people in Hong Kong and he had no idea where I was or how to contact me, and it was the same for me.

Deng Xiaoping in 1979, with US President Jimmy Carter in the background.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The situation in Hong Kong looked dire. There were severe riots in Hong Kong, an overspill of the Cultural Revolution in China. It seemed likely China would soon invade Hong Kong. It was so bad that many churches had closed and missionaries and pastors were fleeing.

However, he prophesied that God would protect Hong Kong, the riots would stop, and eventually the doors to China would open and I would be one of the first foreign missionaries to enter China. The Lord through him said I was to come back here as soon as possible after leaving the Army, start a church and prepare for China’s open door.

I was discharged from the Army in April 1968 and I returned to Hong Kong in March 1969. It took me about 7 months to learn enough Chinese to preach, and I started our present church, Revival Christian Church in October 1969. The doors to China opened under Deng Xiaoping’s policy and I was perhaps the first missionary to enter China in the Spring of 1978. How many churches or individuals supported you when you first set out for China?

Balcombe: My main support was from my home church, Shiloh Church in Oakland. It was a small church of less than 100 when they sent me to Hong Kong, but due to its support of missions and evangelism, it is a now a large church of 3,000. The congregation is mostly African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians, while white Caucasians are just a small minority.

Hundreds of churches and individual Christians back home in N. America and Europe have stood behind us in our ministry to the Body of Christ in China.

Every three years we would return to the USA for 3 months and travel to many local churches in the Restoration-Revival fellowship. Some of them would commit to small but regular monthly support, and a few are doing that to this very day.

The main support came as we began the ministry of taking Bibles to China, called “Donkeys for Jesus” in 1969. For many years we would have several hundred to several thousand ‘couriers’ come to help to deliver Bibles and other solid teaching materials, and we have estimated to have taken in over 10 million such books. Many were pastors and church leaders, and they would take the vision of missions back to their home churches, and often these churches would provide support of our ministry.

In 1997, at the time of the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC, we set up another ministry, Revival Chinese Ministries International, which replaced the old Bible courier ministry of our church, Revival Christian Church.

Now we have offices or representatives in many offices in Asia and other nations, and for the past couple decades have had an effective ministry to people in many nations around the world. One of the responsibilities of the overseas offices is to arrange for speaking engagements for me or our staff to travel and share the China ministry. Another is to arrange local courier teams to come to Hong Kong to deliver Bibles to China. You have spent about 50 years on the mission field. What are some of the lessons you have learned while serving on the field?

Balcombe: The first and utmost to do mission work is to totally bond with the people you are called to minister to. This means you learn to speak their language fluently, take on their culture and lifestyles, eat the food they eat, and spend as much time as possible with these people.

This was the pattern of Jesus (John 1:14) and the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Just to make this effort will win you many friends and eventually many converts. You will probably make many mistakes in the language at the beginning, but as long as people see you trying to improve yourself, they will get right behind you. It shows to them that you must really be dedicated to reach them with your Gospel message if you will go to that effort, and is a testimony that there is truth to your religion.

In China missions, most successful former missionaries did that, the most notable being those of the China Inland Mission under Hudson Taylor. Thus, most Chinese churches today can trace their roots to the work of his missionaries. However, few modern missionaries immerse themselves in the culture they are trying to reach, their denomination often providing translators, and they have no motivation to do so. Thus, many are less than effective in their ministry.

Secondly, there is nothing more important than the prayer life of the missionary, and this is of course is directly related to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit where people can pray in the Spirit, often hours a day.

I have yet to see a really successful missionary or local worker who did not have a solid and consistent prayer life to back up their ministry. Some who are not skilled orators or speakers of the local language, are not good administrators and even lack overseas financial support have still been amazingly successful. This can be related to their prayer life.

The third is to delegate. Within months of starting a new work, you must begin to give ministerial authority to others. This will give the young people coming up in the ministry a chance to mature, and the people in the church or ministry will realize this is their church, not that of the foreign missionary. Then the missionary will be free to go to other locations to start new works, set up a Bible School, or start other ministries. What advice would you give to someone who feels that the Lord has called them to serve in a country other than their homeland?

Balcombe: First, learn all you can about that nation or people group without having to travel to that nation. Most nations have been evangelized to a certain degree, and there are many books and historical documentaries on YouTube and other video or audio formats that can introduce you to that nation and the history of missions in that country.

The Balcombes in April, 1976.

Most nationalities and lingual groups are represented in almost every major city, such as Chinatown, Japantown, the Hispanic part of the city, etc. If possible, visit these areas, meet with the people, especially the churches. Make contacts, make friends, and learn some of the language.

As in my case, write to the missionaries (now you can send emails) on that field to get advice from them about the people, their culture, needs, and advice on how to prepare for future ministry.

If you have the finances, try to make at least one trip to that country to make contact and learn before you go as a full time missionary. Check out language schools, living costs, renting homes, and learn about the state of Christianity in that country.

The most important is to be a part of a local church in your homeland that believes in missions and will send you. See Romans 10:15. Even if they do not have the finances to support you, you will be sent as Paul and Barnabas were in Acts 13. That church will provide you with a spiritual covering. In addition to preaching salvation in Jesus, the baptism in the Holy Spirit is a major emphasis of your ministry. How has the message of Spirit baptism been received in China?

Balcombe: In general, this message has been well received throughout China, in both home and official churches. The only exception is where people have followed the teachings of Reformed Theology as represented by John MacArthur in N. America and Stephen Tong in Asia. It is only in the last 10-20 years that these teachings have begun to infiltrate the Chinese Church, and those leaders who receive this often turn against everything Pentecostal/charismatic.

April 3, 2011.

The key is the operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are a result of a Spirit-filled life. As one house church leader expressed to me, “Before you came and taught this to us, we would see many miracles. They were simply the result of prayer, fasting and preaching the Gospel. But now we have been baptized in the Holy Spirit, and many of the preachers operate in one or several gifts of the Holy Spirit. Miracles have increased fourfold, but so has persecution.”

Healings and other miracles always cause the church to grow, which always bring persecution against the church.

Persecution leads to more prayer and unity, which results in more people being baptized in the Holy Spirit, which results in more miracles. It is a cycle repeated throughout church history. Tell us about a significant move of the Holy Spirit you have witnessed in your ministry.

Balcombe: September 1992, I and two Chinese sisters and one Chinese brother from Singapore and Malaysia were teaching 160 house churches in Henan on worship and praise. I preached the first night, but the Lord led me to preach on persecution, and I heard myself saying, “Tomorrow there will be a great persecution but it will result in a great revival.”

In the Chinese church, the real qualification for ministry is to have spent time in prison. It proves God really called you.

The next morning, as the Singaporeans were leading the worship, the church elders informed me the PSB (Chinese police) were coming to arrest us. Immediately, they put me in my most common mode of transportation in the rural areas, a casket.

They had only carried the casket with me in it a block when they met the police, who demanded they open the casket to check it. But the Christians said, “This man died of HIV AIDS disease.” That was when people thought the HIV virus could be conveyed through the air, and the police told the Christians not to the open the casket.

Henan Province in China.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Singaporeans looked like the other local Chinese, but the police asked their names, and when they heard their accents they knew they were not local people. One of the Singaporean sisters, Eunice, was able to escape.

She said she needed to go to the bathroom, which was a hole in the round by the back wall. There was a bamboo curtain around the ‘toilet’ and once she was inside, she jumped over the wall and ran away. I later caught up with her, and though there was an all-points bulletin by the police looking for us, a local farmer had us dress up like local farmers, and took us out of the area on his bicycle.

The others from Singapore and Malaysia were released after only a month, but 120 of the local Christians were not released until the middle of December of 1992. Of the 160 preachers, 40 were mostly middle aged or older men who had been in prison before and were always very cautious, and when they saw me leave and heard the commotion outside, they took off.

The other 120 were mostly young people, the majority being young women who had not been arrested before, because that local area had seen relative freedom for many years. But then as now, the real qualification for ministry is to have spent time in prison. It proves God really called you.

So these believers were rejoicing that finally they could suffer for the Lord and spend time in prison. Because they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, they used this as an opportunity to preach the Gospel. Many of the other women in prison were murderesses, prostitutes, drug pushers, or addicts.

Through the gifts of the Spirit, these women preached the Gospel, cast out demons and healed hundreds of sick prisoners. During those 4 months, we smuggled Bibles into the prison and they began Bible studies. Even many of the prison guards and prison officials became Christians.

While it resulted in a model prison with almost zero problems with discipline, the head of the prison department in Zhengzhou, Henan, a hard-line Communist, was very upset when he heard his prison had become a church. He instructed these Christians must be released, lest the ‘Christian religious fervor’ spread to other prisons.

This was a time when China was relatively open and free, before the hard-line policies of the past few years. Because no one had signed a confession of committing a crime, and there was no real proof of a crime, they released them in December 1992.

Persecution leads to revival.

A few weeks later was the Chinese Lunar New Year of 1993, which usually lasts for one whole month. Knowing the police would be hesitant about arresting them, they encouraged everyone in the church to spend every day of that month in evangelism. All meetings were cancelled and everyone, young and old, spent much of every day sharing the Gospel and healing the sick.

I want back in March 1993 and they showed me a document which listed the numbers of new believers baptized in all the districts in Henan and Anhui Provinces from this Gospel outreach, and it was a total 46,500. That was an amazing miracle.

Then the next year, February 1994, I was arrested in the same general area with 6 other overseas Chinese. We were in prison for less than a week, and our release became a world-wide news item reported by every major news agency.

As a result, I was able to address the USA Congress (House of Representatives), meet the assistant Secretary of State in Washington, and address the House of Lords in the Parliament in the UK. I was interviewed by many news agencies and I spoke on the BBC.

In my interview with the BBC, I spoke in English, Cantonese and Putonghua (Mandarin). The last was officiated by a young Spirit-filled Chinese Christian sister working for the BBC, but sent from Beijing, and she encouraged me to use this time (close to an hour) to preach the Gospel, which I did.

The day after I met with him, the Assistant Secretary of State in Washington, D.C. flew to Beijing where he had a scheduled meeting with the leaders of China. They had not been made aware of this situation, as it was a local matter that local PSB did not want to be made known in Beijing. Their real intention was to get money from me, our group and the local Christians. In addition, they broke the law for they are required to notify the US embassy in 3 days of the arrest of an American, which they did not do.

The Chinese officials in Beijing told the Henan PSB to release the several dozen key house Church leaders which they did. Knowing they would not be arrested again, as this was now a major diplomatic affair, they were very bold in preaching the Gospel.

In a little over 3 months, by June 1994, approximately 120,000 people were added to the churches in Henan and Anhui.

Once again, it was proven persecution leads to revival. Please share a transformation story of how you have seen God change a family or a community.

Balcombe: This is more the testimony of what God has done through others, not so much through me. One of my first ministries in the USA was working with Teen Challenge under David Wilkerson. At that time, the book The Cross and the Switchblade was very popular.

When I first came to Hong Kong while I was pioneering my first church here, I also worked with another similar ministry that ministered to drug addicts, alcoholics and others addicted to substance abuse.

A well-known Christian missionary from the U.K., Jackie Pullinger, arrived in Hong Kong a few years before I did, and started a ministry called St. Stephen’s Society. She began a ministry in the Kowloon Walled City among drug addicts and saw countless addicts set free from drugs and other addictions. Her powerful story is told in the classic book, Chasing the Dragon. [Editor’s note: see also Missionary David Joannes account in “The City of Darkness.”]

An aerial photo of the Kowloon Walled City taken in 1989.
Image: Ian Lambot / Wikimedia Common

Recently we have seen a proliferation of teachers producing videos and holding conferences that attack the very fundamentals of our Christian faith. They base these claims on supposedly recently discovered ancient manuscripts (which often are simply Gnostic gospels), archaeological or historical documents or higher criticism of Scripture.

Hearing these attacks is often a challenge to my faith because I don’t have the academic or even theological training to refute these teachers. But when I have doubts, I simply look at proof of the power of the Gospel in changed lives.

Irrefutable proof of the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: changed lives.

Over and over we have seen addicts pray, repent, believe in the Lord, and receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In most cases, they immediately were set free of their addictions, many experienced powerful healing to their minds and bodies, and whole families were saved from destruction.

These testimonies are so common, widespread all over the world with irrefutable proof of the power of the Gospel that this demonstrates beyond a doubt the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true. No other religion anywhere can produce the same results. What are some of the most meaningful ways that pastors and churches back home have helped you keep going even in difficult times?

Balcombe: Hundreds of churches and individual Christians back home in N. America and Europe have stood behind us in our ministry to the Body of Christ in China. This has been primarily in providing financial support and courier teams to provide Bibles and teaching materials for the Chinese church.

Many of these Spirit-filled minsters have sacrificed to travel to Hong Kong and even to enter China to assist in teaching leaders and conducting large conferences in Hong Kong. Many of them, such as Bill Johnson, have had their excellent books translated into Chinese and provided them free to the Chinese Christians.

Dennis Balcombe speaking at the Empowered21 Asia conference in 2017.

Many churches have us on the church prayer list and we provide frequent prayer requests. Any success we may have had is related to their prayers.

While many in the West have recently been spewing out hateful words attacking China, primarily for it’s role in the spread of COVID-19, others have been showing their love for China and its people in prayers and by providing financial support to meet the needs of the church in China and other developing nations.

The United States has been the most powerful world power since the 20th Century, just as the United Kingdom was for hundreds of years before that. It all relates to missions—sending out missionaries, supporting missionaries and supporting churches overseas. The Lord has blessed us so that we might bless others, and when we stop doing that and want to be great and rich at the expense of others, we will in the end loose it all. What are some of your plans for the future?

Balcombe: Through the disaster of COVID-19, the churches have learned the power using the internet and virtual meetings such as Zoom conferences, Facebook, etc. to conduct meetings, preach the Gospel and minster to people near and far including people who would not be able to attend a church meeting.

Daily we are teaching countless numbers all through China and other nations using on-line conferences and meetings. Whole Bible College courses can be done on-line, and still people can interact with others and develop close relationships.

In China, Hong Kong and most of Asia COVID-19 has almost been defeated and everything is opening up, including church meetings. The church is stronger than before, and now we have a new tool to reach even more people. The church is investing in the equipment and necessary technology to produce high quality teaching and preaching videos whereby every member in the church can receive Bible College training and the Gospel can be widely preached.

Having said that, we will still be planting more churches all over China, focusing on reaching the ethnic minorities that have been neglected in the past.

While we certainly do not believe in Communist ideology, we recognize God has allowed China to have a Communist government, and we will do whatever we can legally to obey the Great Commission. We do not hate the Chinese government, nor do we think they are a threat to world-peace as some American Christians claim.

There have been major political problems in Hong Kong from demonstrations that arose from a proposed extradition law that was withdrawn. But now we have the Hong Kong National Security Law that is even more threatening to basic freedoms.

Thus the USA no longer recognizes Hong Kong as a separate part of China under the ‘one country, two systems’ formula, and says Hong Kong is just another city in China. If that is so, Hong Kong still is and still will be the freest city in China, continuing to be a base from which to evangelize the estimated 1.3 billion people in China who have never heard the Gospel.

There is, of course, a possibility that hardliners will tighten their control of Hong Kong and even try to take back Taiwan. In that case, we will simply become a true underground church movement, as much of the Chinese church of some 100 million already is.

We will not immigrate, not leave under any circumstances for this is our home, our calling and our ministry. Whatever happens there will be a great spiritual harvest of ingathering of many Chinese souls, and we expect to be a part of it.


Pastor Dennis Balcombe
Hong Kong


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Category: Fall 2020, Ministry

About the Author: Dennis Balcombe knew he was called to be a missionary to China while he was a teenager, and was one of the first to enter the mainland when it opened to the West in the 1970s. He founded Revival Christian Church in Hong Kong in 1969 and continues to plant churches, travelling and ministering in China and internationally. He shares his story in One Journey, One Nation: Autobiography of Dennis Balcombe, Missionary to China (2011) and he is the author of China's Opening Door: Incredible Stories of the Holy Spirit at Work in One of the Greatest Revivals in Christianity (Charisma House, 2014). Revival Chinese Ministries International

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