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Robert Menzies: Is the Chinese Church Predominantly Pentecostal? Part 3: Gaining Perspective

Author’s Preface
Is the Church in China Predominantly Pentecostal?
Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: The House Church Networks

Part 3: Gaining Perspective: A Contextual Assessment


The strong Pentecostal orientation of the Church in China is striking, but it should not surprise us. In fact, when the recent revival of Christianity in China is viewed against the backdrop of its historical, global, and sociological contexts, this is precisely what we would expect. Let us examine each of these contexts.


The Historical Context

One of the striking aspects of Christianity in pre-1949 China was the emergence of strong, vital indigenous churches. These churches were founded and led by Chinese Christians. They were established and operated entirely independent of foreign finances, control and leadership. Although these groups were largely overlooked by missionaries and have been neglected by historians, it is evident that these groups were extremely significant. More recently, Daniel Bays, a noted historian of Chinese Christianity, has highlighted the significance of these groups. Speaking of these independent Chinese Christian groups, Bays writes, “I believe that this sector [of the Christian Church] was far more interesting and significant than it might have been thought.”[1] Bays estimates that by the 1940s these indigenous groups accounted for between 20-25% (or 200,000 believers) of all Protestants.[2] Furthermore, Bays notes that these groups have exerted a tremendous influence on the Christianity that has flourished in China since the 1980s:

Moreover, judging from what we know of the churches in China today, it is clear that a great many of the older Christians whose experience dates to before 1949 came out of these indigenous churches.[3]

The largest of these groups, the True Jesus Church, was and remains Pentecostal in character. Bays has established important links between the Azusa Street revival and the key founders of the True Jesus Church.

One of the striking aspects of Christianity in pre-1949 China was the emergence of strong, vital indigenous churches.

Alfred Garr, one of the first pastors at the Azusa Street revival to receive the baptism of the Spirit and speak in tongues, felt called to go as a missionary. He and his wife arrived in Hong Kong in October of 1907. The Garrs were joined by a small group of Pentecostals and they began to minister in Hong Kong. Garr’s interpreter, Mok Lai Chi, received the baptism and the gift of tongues. Mok became the founding editor of a Chinese monthly paper, Pentecostal Truths (Wuxunjie zhenlibao), which was first issued in January of 1908. This paper “directly influenced the North China founders of the first major Chinese Pentecostal church, the True Jesus Church.”[4]

Another link between the Azusa Street revival and the True Jesus Church can be traced through a Mr. Bernsten, a missionary serving in China who was profoundly impacted by his experience at the altar of the Azusa Mission. After his experience at the Azusa Mission, Bernsten returned to China and, along with a small group of Pentecostals, opened an independent mission station in Zhending (just north of Shijiazhuang) of Hebei Province. In 1912 this group began to publish a newspaper, Popular Gospel Truth (Tongchuan fuyin zhenlibao). This paper, along with the Hong Kong paper noted above, provided inspiration for the early founders the True Jesus Church. Additionally, two of the key Chinese founders of the True Jesus Church, Zhang Lingshen and Wei Enbo were impacted in Beijing by members of the church Bernsten’s group had founded, the Faith Union (Xinxinhui).[5]

These two men (Zhang Lingshen and Wei Enbo), along with Barnabas Zhang, all of whom had Pentecostal experiences that included speaking in tongues, determined that they would form a Pentecostal church in China. They founded their first church in Tianjin in 1917. The church grew quickly and spread to Shandong, Hebei, Henan, Zhejiang, and other provinces. Its key areas of strength were in Hunan, Fujian, and Henan. Hunter and Chan note that the church’s “estimated membership was at least 120,000 by 1949” with 700 churches throughout China.[6]

The series, “Is the Chinese Church Predominantly Pentecostal?” is an excerpt from The Church in China. Robert Menzies used a pen name, Luke Wesley, to write The Church in China: Persecuted, Pentecostal, and Powerful (Baguio, The Philippines: AJPS Books, 2004).
Read the 2023 Author’s Preface to this series.

Another large indigenous Chinese Church which was also Pentecostal in nature was the Jesus Family. The Jesus Family was founded in the 1920s by Jing Dianyin in the village of Mazhuang (Taian County) in Shandong Province. The Jesus Family’s worship was marked by prayer for healing, speaking in tongues, prophecy, and other spiritual gifts. The Jesus Family also featured a communal way of life in which everything was shared. The Jesus Family was especially strong in the poorest parts of China. Hunter and Chan provide a wonderful description of the church from a present-day believer’s perspective: the church was “a love fellowship, a meeting-place for the weary and a place of comfort for the broken-hearted…where you are, there is our home, and our home is everywhere.”[7] In its heyday in China the Jesus Family totaled over a hundred communities and around six thousand members.[8] The church still continues today in Taiwan.

The Spiritual Gifts Church (Ling’en hui) was a loosely knit independent church movement that emerged in the early 1930s. The movement centered in Shandong Province and was linked to the famous “Shandong Revival,” which impacted and divided a number of mainline churches and missions organizations. Bays notes that the Spiritual Gifts Church was composed of Chinese churches and pastors “who broke away from denominations or missions that refused to approve their controversial Pentecostal doctrines and practices.”[9] The church did not develop organizationally and it is difficult to ascertain its strength or influence.

There were, of course, other indigenous churches that were non-Pentecostal in character, such as The Little Flock (Xiao qun) established by Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng) in the mid-1920s. And there were certainly a number of non-Pentecostal Chinese church leaders of stature. Wang Mingdao, for example, apparently had a Pentecostal experience in 1920, but later “backed away from full Pentecostalism.”[10] Nevertheless, the fact remains that of the three largest independent Chinese churches that sprang up in the early part of the twentieth century (The True Jesus Church, The Little Flock, and the Jesus Family), two were Pentecostal. And one of these Pentecostal groups, the True Jesus Church, was by far the largest single indigenous Chinese church group of that era. This fact, coupled with the significant impact of the Pentecostal form of revivalism that swept through China in the 1930s, indicates that the majority of Chinese Christians prior to 1949, when able to develop their own Christian identity, gravitated to Pentecostal forms of worship and doctrine. It is worth noting, then, that indigenous Chinese Christianity was predominantly Pentecostal.[11]

Tony Lambert points out that today the Church in China is generally strong in those areas where historically the missionaries were most active; that is, in the eastern coastal provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu. However, Lambert goes on to note that the Chinese church is also very strong in some provinces where the missionaries were not as active, provinces like Henan and Anhui. He offers no rationale for the growth of the church in these regions, but does note that “the witness of independent, indigenous churches, such as the Little Flock and the Jesus Family, are also vital factors to be taken into account.”[12] What Lambert does not state, but what is especially striking is this: strong, indigenous Pentecostal churches were active in these regions prior to 1949 and today, strong, indigenous Pentecostal churches have blossomed in these same regions. It is difficult to deny that the legacy of these early indigenous churches lives on in the Christians and churches birthed in the revivals of the 1980s.[13] This legacy is conspicuously Pentecostal.

In the light of these historical facts, I would raise this question: If the majority of indigenous Chinese Christians prior to 1949 gravitated to Pentecostal forms of worship and doctrine, why would we expect it to be any different today? The lessons of history suggest that the predominantly Pentecostal character of the contemporary Chinese Church should not surprise us.


The Global Context

If we step back and look at the current revival of Christianity in China from the vantage point of contemporary trends in the global Christian community, again we see that our description of the Chinese Church as predominantly Pentecostal is precisely what we should expect. Historians and researchers of Christianity all agree that one of the most significant religious phenomena of the past century (and many would say the most significant) is the astounding growth of the modern Pentecostal movement.[14] At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Pentecostal movement did not exist. Today, there are over 200 million denominational Pentecostals and over 500 million charismatics and Pentecostals around the world.[15]

This movement, which ranks as the second largest family of Christians in the world (after the Roman Catholic Church), has experienced staggering growth, especially in the developing countries of the world.[16] Over 70% of charismatics and Pentecostals worldwide are non-white and 66% are located in the Third World.[17] Today, in continents like Latin America and Africa, a large majority of evangelical Christians are charismatic or Pentecostal. David Barrett estimates that there are now over 126 million charismatics and Pentecostals in Africa, and over 140 million in Latin America.[18] Charismatic and Pentecostal groups have also grown rapidly in Asia, where they now number over 134 million.[19] Barrett suggests that over 54 million charismatics, neo-charismatics, and Pentecostals (which he defines largely in ecclesiastical terms) now reside in China.[20] And, speaking of the Han Chinese worldwide, Barrett claims that by 1985 over 25% were tongues-speakers. Furthermore, he sates that the proportion of all Han Chinese Christians who are “phenomenologically” Pentecostal or charismatic may be as high as 85%.[21]

Historians and researchers of Christianity all agree that one of the most significant religious phenomena of the past century is the astounding growth of the modern Pentecostal movement.

Even if one remains skeptical regarding the precision of some of these statistics, the magnitude of the movement and the general nature of recent trends cannot be questioned. In view of these trends worldwide, particularly in the developing countries of continents like Africa and Latin America, we would expect that in China too charismatics and Pentecostals would represent a significant and even dominant force within the larger Christian community. This is certainly the case if Barrett’s numbers are anywhere near correct. Although this study has attempted to provide more specific, theologically defined, categories for analysis, our conclusions are very much in line with these global trends in general and Barrett’s assessment of China in particular.


The Sociological Context

The reasons for the growth of Pentecostal Christianity worldwide are complex and one should resist the temptation to view these developments totally in terms of naturalistic explanations. Nevertheless, sociologists may provide insight into some of the factors which have encouraged this amazing growth. One of the most striking features of contemporary China is the startling pace of its modernization and economic development. Strange as it may sound, this process of modernization and development may represent a major factor in creating a context conducive for the growth of Pentecostal Christianity.

Ryan Dunch, in a very perceptive article, notes that modernization does impact the religious makeup of a nation. However, he suggests that rather than “producing a straightforward decline in religion,” modernization tends to change its nature. More specifically, Dunch suggests that religion, as it meets modernization, tends to become more voluntary (rather than acquired at birth), individualized, and experiential. These shifts in turn force religious institutions to change accordingly. Dunch views the Pentecostal movement as especially well-suited to minister to the needs of people in societies, like that of China, which are shaped by industrial market economies:

Pentecostal movements, once routinely presented as reactions against modernity, are now being reevaluated as especially reflective of these forces, in their emphasis on the self, and in equipping their adherents, especially in the developing capitalist societies of Latin American and South Korea, with the ‘values of ascetic Protestantism…so essential for social mobility in a capitalist economy.’[22]

We have already noted that Pentecostal doctrine and praxis were particularly appealing to indigenous Chinese Christians in the 1920s and 30s. Certainly many Chinese were attracted to this new form of religion, “which preached good conduct, promised fellowship with divinity, afforded healing and exorcism and offered forms of worship that could be corporate or individual according to the circumstances.”[23] And, as Hunter and Chan recognize, “the religious revival of the 1980s suggests that these are still deep needs.”[24] It is not unreasonable to suggest, then, that the forces of modernization have, in part, enhanced this sense of need. All of this suggests that China, like other societies being shaped by modernization, represents fertile ground for the seeds of Pentecostal revival.



We are in a position to summarize our findings. I have analyzed the theological orientation of the five largest house church groups in China. My analysis was based on my own personal conversations, the findings of fellow researchers, and selected written documents. I have concluded that these five groups should be categorized as follows:

  1. China for Christ: largely classical Pentecostal, partly Pentecostal
  2. China Gospel Fellowship: largely Pentecostal, partly charismatic
  3. Yin Shang Church: largely Pentecostal, partly charismatic
  4. Li Xin Church: largely Pentecostal, partly charismatic
  5. Word of Life Church: largely non-charismatic, partly charismatic

These conclusions suggest that the overwhelming majority of the Christians in China today are at least charismatic, this would include 90% of house church Christians and perhaps 80% of the total Christian population in China. Furthermore, it is also apparent that a significant majority of the Christians in China today are not only charismatic, but also Pentecostal in their theological orientation. Approximately 75% of house church Christians and 60% of the total Christians population in China would fall into this category. Finally, while it is evident that classical Pentecostals represent a minority of the believers in China, it is a significant minority, encompassing approximately 25% of house church Christians and 20% of the total Christian population in China.

I have also suggested that these findings should not surprise us. Given the strong history of Pentecostalism within the Chinese indigenous churches prior to 1949 and the dramatic growth of Pentecostal churches around the world in recent years, particularly in developing countries, this is precisely what we would expect. I have also noted that Chinese society, which is to a significant degree shaped by the forces of modernization, appears to be particularly fertile soil for the growth of Pentecostal Christianity. Thus, historical patterns, global trends, and sociological factors all serve to strengthen our conclusions.

The strong Pentecostal orientation of the Church in China is striking, but it should not surprise us.

By way of conclusion, I might add that this description of the Chinese church is generally not acknowledged in evangelical publications. A case in point are the two generally excellent and well-researched volumes produced by Tony Lambert, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church (1994) and China’s Christian Millions (1999). In these volumes Lambert consistently describes the Chinese Church as evangelical, exhibiting a conservative theological, warm experiential piety, and an openness to the miraculous (especially healing).[25] However, the strong charismatic and Pentecostal orientation of the Chinese Church, expressed in its doctrine and praxis, is consistently neglected. This neglect is evidenced in a variety of ways.

First, there is Lambert’s curious description of the house church: “There is a strong wing who are charismatic or Pentecostal, but they are not in the majority.”[26] Lambert makes this claim and yet he fails to define the crucial terms, charismatic and Pentecostal, or to offer any supporting evidence.

Secondly, Lambert rather consistently refers to charismatics and Pentecostals in a pejorative way. He links Chinese charismatics and Pentecostals with divisive extremists,[27] uncritically cites a very negative assessment by a TSPM pastor of a prophetic utterance,[28] refers to the “hyped artificial atmosphere of ‘healing meetings’” in the West,[29] perhaps implies that the teaching of classical Pentecostals is “extreme”,[30] and speaks of some charismatic (and evangelical) churches in the West where “preaching is at a discount” and the focus has shifted away from the Bible to “the shifting sands of subjectivism and emotionalism.”[31]

Finally, Lambert generally refuses to refer to Chinese groups and individuals as charismatic or Pentecostal even when they clearly are. This is especially striking with respect to the indigenous Pentecostal groups which emerged in pre-1949 China, the True Jesus Church and The Jesus Family. Lambert discusses these groups in both of his books, but, with one exception, fails to mention that they are Pentecostal.[32] Lambert also cites two testimonies that almost certainly come from Pentecostals. The first testimony is cited as illustrating “the authentic spirit of spiritual revival” and offering “insight into the deeper evangelical spirituality of the house-churches.”[33] Any reference to the Pentecostal nature of this believer’s faith or church is conspicuously absent. The second testimony is so dramatically Pentecostal that Lambert feels compelled to comment: “Not all Christians in China would be as Pentecostal or charismatic as the writer of this letter…”[34] This testimony is reproduced in condensed form in China’s Christian Millions, but with all of the overtly Pentecostal content discretely edited out.[35]

Image: Christian Lue

My purpose here is not to denigrate what are by all accounts two well-researched, highly readable, and extremely valuable books about the Church in China. I simply want to suggest that many evangelical researchers appear loathe to acknowledge the dramatically charismatic and Pentecostal character of the Chinese Church. I do believe that this is an omission that needs to be rectified. This is particularly the case since the most capable and prolific researchers writing on the Chinese Church for western Christians are evangelicals with apparently non-charismatic leanings, such as Tony Lambert and Jonathan Chao. I trust my comments will be understood in the larger context of my great appreciation for these men, their gifts, their dedication, and their writings.

So, it would appear that a clearer, more objective assessment of the theology and practice of the Chinese Church, at least when it comes to charismatic and Pentecostal issues, is needed. I hope this essay represents a small step in that direction. We all are inclined to see only what we want to see. This was certainly the case with many of the missionaries who were contemporaries of those first indigenous Chinese Christians. As Hunter and Chan, speaking of this largely Pentecostal revivalist movement, note:

The missionaries perhaps failed to appreciate the significance of these expressions of popular religiosity, which they compared unfavourably to the quieter and more orderly forms of worship they advocated themselves. As we look back from the 1990s they seem a quite natural form of religious behaviour among peasant communities and recent immigrants to cities.[36]

I do hope that our generation will not make the same mistake. I trust that we will acknowledge and respect the significance of this powerful, indigenous, and largely Pentecostal form of Christianity that has emerged in China over the past two decades.




This excerpt is part of Chapter 3 from The Church in China: Persecuted, Pentecostal, and Powerful (Baguio, The Philippines: AJPS Books, 2004). Used with permission.



[1] Daniel H. Bays, “The Growth of Independent Christianity in China, 1900-1937,” p. 309 in Daniel Bays, ed., Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).

[2] Bays, “Independent Christianity,” p. 310; for similar estimates see Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 134, n. 60.

[3] Bays, “Independent Christianity,” p. 310.

[4] Daniel Bays, “Indigenous Protestant Churches in China, 1900-1937: A Pentecostal Case Study,” p. 129 in Steven Kaplan, ed., Indigenous Responses to Western Christianity (New York: New York University Press, 1995).

[5] Bays, “Indigenous Protestant Churches,” p. 130. Bays also traces a link with a Pentecostal group associated with Pastor M.L. Ryan of Salem, Oregon, which established a Pentecostal center in Shanghai (pp. 130-31).

[6] Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 121.

[7] Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 121; on the Jesus Family see also Bays, “Independent Christianity,” p. 312.

[8] Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 121; Bays, “Independent Christianity,” p. 312.

[9] Bays, “Independent Christianity,” pp. 312-13. See also Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, pp. 129-130.

[10] Daniel Bays, “Christian Revival in China, 900-1937,” p. 171 in Edith Blumhofer and Randall Balmer, eds., Modern Christian Revivals (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).

[11] Murray Rubinstein states that the “churches of the Holy Spirit” in Taiwan “have come the furthest toward creating a Christianity that is congruent with basic patterns of traditional Chinese religion” and feels they are on the “cutting edge of Christian progress” (Murray A. Rubinstein, “Holy Spirit Taiwan: Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in the Republic of China,” p. 366 in Bays, ed., Christianity in China (1996).

[12] Lambert, Resurrection, p. 154.

[13] See also Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 140.

[14] Vinson Synan notes that “some historians refer to the 20th century as the ‘Pentecostal century’” (Vinson Synan, The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal [Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001], p. 2). See the similar judgment issued by William and Robert Menzies, Spirit and Power: Foundations of Pentecostal Experience (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), p. 15.

[15] Synan, Century, p. 2. The global statistics are conveniently chronicled in D.B. Barrett and T.M. Johnson, “Global Statistics,” pp. 284-302 in The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (NIDPC). See also Synan, Century, especially chapters 14 and 15.

[16] Synan, Century, pp. 1-2.

[17] Synan, Century, p. 383.

[18] See the NIDPC, p. 287.

[19] See the NIDPC, p. 287.

[20] See the NIDPC, p. 58.

[21] See the NIDPC, p. 297.

[22] Dunch, “Protestant Christianity,” p. 215 (citing Andrew Walker, “Thoroughly Modern: Sociological Reflections on the Charismatic Movement from the End of the Twentieth Century,” p. 36 in Charismatic Christianity: Sociological Perspective).

[23] Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 140.

[24] Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 140.

[25] On the evangelical nature of the Chinese Church, see for example Lambert, Resurrection, pp. 282-83 and China’s Christian Millions, pp. 30-33, 68, and 188. Note also his positive assessment of miracles and healing in the Chinese Church in Lambert, Resurrection, pp. 112-114 and China’s Christian Millions, pp. 117-20.

[26] Lambert, China’s Christian Millions, p. 45.

[27] Lambert, China’s Christian Millions, p. 48.

[28] Lambert, China’s Christian Millions, p. 111.

[29] Lambert, China’s Christian Millions, p. 120.

[30] Lambert, China’s Christian Millions, p. 64 and note our discussion of Lambert’s interpretation of the house church Statement of Faith above.

[31] Lambert, China’s Christian Millions, p. 188.

[32] See Lambert, Resurrection, pp. 14, 154, 158, 246, 271; and China’s Christian Millions, pp. 49-55. The one exception is found in China’s Christian Millions, p. 49, where Lambert indicates that one of the founders of the True Jesus Church, Paul Wei, was “inspired by the Pentecostal movement.” He also mentions various practices of the church, including speaking in tongues. Lambert goes on to discuss the Jesus Family at length (pp. 50-52) without a single reference to their Pentecostal roots or orientation.

[33] For the testimony see Lambert, Resurrection, pp. 159-62; the first quote is from p. 159, the second from p. 162.

[34] For this testimony see Lambert, Resurrection, pp. 163-67; the quote is from p. 168.

[35] See Lambert, China’s Christian Millions, pp. 171-72.

[36] Hunter and Chan, Protestantism, p. 135.

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Category: Church History, Winter 2023

About the Author: Robert P. Menzies, PhD (University of Aberdeen, Scotland), has lived and served in China for over twenty years. Robert is currently the Director of Synergy, a rural service organization located in Kunming, China. He is editor at the Asian Center for Pentecostal Theology and the author of Speaking in Tongues: Jesus and the Apostolic Church as Models for the Church Today (CPT Press, 2016), Pentecost: This Story is Our Story (Gospel Publishing House, 2013), Making Pentecost Your Story: 50 Days of Reflection and Prayer (Xanesti Creative Solutions, 2015), Spirit and Power: Foundations of Pentecostal Experience (Zondervan, 2011), The Language of the Spirit: Interpreting and Translating Charismatic Terms (CPT Press, 2010), Empowered for Witness: The Spirit in Luke-Acts (Sheffield, 1995), and co-editor of Pentecostalism in Context: Essays in Honor of William W. Menzies (Wipf & Stock, 2008), The Spirit and Spirituality: Essays in Honor of Russell P. Spittler (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2004), Robert Menzies, Christ-Centered: The Evangelical Nature of Pentecostal Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2020), and Robert Menzies, The End of History: Pentecostals and a Fresh Approach to the Apocalypse (Hong Kong: Asian Center for Pentecostal Theology, 2022).

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