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Robert Menzies: Is the Chinese Church Predominantly Pentecostal? Author’s Preface

Author’s Preface: “Is the Church in China Predominantly Pentecostal? An Answer from the ‘Golden Years’ of the Chinese House Church Movement”

By Robert P. Menzies

The essays that follow are not descriptions of the current state of the church in China.[1] Rather, they represent a slice of Chinese church history, albeit an important slice. Dr. Kevin Xiyi Yao of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary has described 1990 through 2010 as the “Golden Age” of the church in China,[2] an assessment with which I concur. This was a period of rapid growth, missionary endeavor, and, in terms of the political and social environment, relative openness. The following essays, drawn from my book, The Church in China: Persecuted, Pentecostal, and Powerful, were written around 2000 and reflect the situation of the Chinese house church movement during this Golden Age (more specifically, in the 1990s).[3] Thus, they are now out of date and do not describe the current state of the church in a fast-changing China. Due to urbanization, changes in leadership, fragmentation, and increasing political pressure (especially since 2018), the five house church networks that I describe is these essays either no longer exist or have significantly changed. Nevertheless, this slice of history is important for it describes a particularly vibrant and dynamic period in the history of the Church. Furthermore, the essays that follow represent an early, pioneering effort to describe an aspect of the Chinese church that was often not acknowledged, let alone described. I refer to its Pentecostal character.

A number of more recent works have added important context and detail to my early study and largely support its central thesis that the Chinese house church movement of the 1990s was predominately Pentecostal. I think here especially of the writings of David Aikman, Paul Hattaway, and Dennis Balcombe.[4]

Robert Menzies used a pen name, Luke Wesley, to write The Church in China: Persecuted, Pentecostal, and Powerful (Baguio, The Philippines: AJPS Books, 2004).

The same may be said of more recent academic studies, with one important caveat. The strong experiential nature of Protestant Christianity in China, and particularly the emphasis in the house churches on healing, exorcism, and prophecy, has led many scholars to describe the dominant form of Protestant Christianity in China as Pentecostal. While Tony Lambert describes Chinese Christianity as “biblical supernaturalism,” others, such as Gotthard Oblau, Edmond Tang, and Chen-Yang Kao speak of the specifically Pentecostal features of the church in China.[5] Scholars do, however, disagree concerning how we should define the term, Pentecostal.[6] The general charismatic and Pentecostal orientation of the Chinese house church movement is widely acknowledged as the key to its rapid growth over the past four decades.[7] Nevertheless, sociologists like Oblau and Kao tend to minimize the significant role that the Bible or theological convictions play in shaping the praxis of these “Pentecostal” Chinese Protestants.

In the following essays, I presented at an early date evidence for the Pentecostal nature of the house church movement that grew so rapidly during what is now understood as the Golden Age of the church in China. While, as I have noted, some scholars downplay the role of the Bible in shaping Pentecostal practice in China, and thus they also deny that Chinese Pentecostals possess a clear theological identity, these essays challenge this assessment.[8] Certainly, not every Christian that prays for the sick, exorcises demons, or prophesies, would affirm a baptism in the Spirit distinct from conversion that is marked by speaking in tongues. Nevertheless, there are a significant number that do.[9] And their influence, as well as the clarity of their biblical convictions, should not be underestimated. The common thread that unites Pentecostals in China with other Pentecostals around the world is their sense of connection with the apostolic church as reflected in the book of Acts. Chinese Pentecostals pray for the sick, worship with joyful abandonment, speak in tongues, and seek the enabling of the Spirit for bold witness in the face of persecution because they find all of these experiences described in the New Testament. The message and methods of the early church are models for their lives and ministry. I sought to demonstrate this thesis through an analysis of five of the largest house church networks in China during this remarkable period. I will leave it to others to assess the extent to which these earlier networks have influenced contemporary house church groups; but, from my vantage point, the impact is evident.



Part 1: Introduction



Image: Christian Lue

[1] For a more contemporary, but now slightly dated description, see Robert P. Menzies, “Pentecostals in China,” in Global Renewal Christianity: Spirit-Empowered Movements Past, Present, and Future , vol. 1: Asia and Oceania, ed. by Amos Yong & Vinson Synan (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2016). See also my blogs on “Pentecostal Theology and the Chinese Church” (Jan. 21, 2015); “Urban Churches in China: A Pentecostal Case Study” (June 26, 2015); “The Seed of the Church and the Modern Missions Movement” (Feb. 21, 2022). [Editor’s note: See David Bradnick’s review of Vinson Synan and Amos Yong, eds., Global Renewal Christianity: Spirit-Empowered Movements—Past, Present, and Future, Volume 1: Asia and Oceania]

[2] In his March 27, 2021 ChinaSource presentation.

[3] The essays are drawn from Chapter 3 of my book, written under the pen-name, Luke Wesley, The Church in China: Persecuted, Pentecostal, and Powerful (Baguio, The Philippines: AJPS Books, 2004).

[4] David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2003) [Editor’s note: see Tony Richie’s review]; Paul Hattaway, The Heavenly Man (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2003), and The China Chronicle Series [Editor’s note: see Paul Hattaway’s author page and reviews of books from The China Chronicle series including Guizhou, Zheijiang, and Tibet]; Dennis Balcombe, One Journey One Nation (Chambersburg, PA: eGen Co, 2011) and China’s Opening Door (Lake Mary, Fl: Charisma House, 2014).

[5] Tony Lambert, China’s Christian Millions (London: OMF/Monarch Books, 1999), 112; Gotthard Oblau, “Pentecostals by Default? Contemporary Christianity in China” in Allan Anderson and Edmond Tang, eds., Asian and Pentecostal: The Charismatic Face of Christianity in Asia (Costa Mesa: Regnum, 2005), 411-36; Edmond Tang, “‘Yellers’ and Healers: Pentecostalism and the Study of Grassroots Christianity in China” in Asian and Pentecostal, 467-86; Chen-yang Kao, The Cultural Revolution and the Post-Missionary Transformation of Protestantism in China (PhD thesis, University of Lancaster, 2009).

[6] I agree with Simon Chan, “an adequate definition of Pentecostalism cannot be restricted to phenomenological description” (Chan, “Wither Pentecostalism” in Asian and Pentecostal, 578).

[7] Kao, Cultural Revolution, 99.

[8] This is true of my earlier book, The Church in China (2004), from which these essays are drawn, but also of my more recent study, “Pentecostals in China,” in Global Renewal Christianity (2016).

[9] I define Pentecostals, then, as those who believe that: the book of Acts serves as a model for contemporary Christian life and ministry; the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) is a post-conversion enabling for ministry; and speaking in tongues marks this experience. Neo-Pentecostals affirm all of the above except they reject the notion that tongues serve as a normative sign of baptism in the Spirit. For more on Pentecostal identity and related definitions, see Robert Menzies, Pentecost: This Story is Our Story (Springfield, MO: GPH, 2013), 11-20.

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Category: Church History, Summer 2022

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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