It's Your Revival, Too
In 2002 it was my privilege to spend a weekend with 10 top house-church leaders in China. What I heard changed my life.
But it was what I smelled that made the first impression. These men had not washed in months. They preach often for eight hours a day, sleep on a floor, and travel the next day to do it all again. They carry one suit of clothes, which they rarely have time to launder, and the reek of unwashed bodies and bad socks roared up my nose like a cavalry charge. After a couple of days, though, you stop noticing.
These 10 were amazing. I knew the brother who had begun the ministry in 1987. He saw 200 converted in the first year. When I visited him in 1991, there were 30,000 in the movement; now, he estimates there are 750,000 members!
You would think that with this kind of growth these leaders would be leaping and dancing. When they told me about the growth, I shouted, "Hallelujah." They smiled, then promptly burst into tears. "What am I missing?" I asked.
"You are missing the reason we are gathered here this weekend: to ask God why he brings people to himself far faster than we can disciple them."
If this sounds ungrateful, consider their challenges. Last year over 10,000 of their membership left to join a vicious cult called "Lightning from the East." As one leader explained, "We can only ask new converts to disciple new converts, and it results in so much bad teaching that we are beginning to fear that the gains of the revival could be undone."
Another said, "This revival looks statistically incredible, but it is spiritually vulnerable. Millions of Chinese Christians are just one unanswered prayer away from moving on to another religion."
As many know, the largest and longest revival in the history of Christendom took place in China in the past 30 years. The church has grown from a couple of million in the late 1970s to upwards of 60 million today.
And yet the Chinese church has precious few resources to disciple the millions of new converts. This is partly because they are a persecuted community, where it is hazardous for independent house-church movements to maintain links with Western churches, and partly because the growth is so overwhelming.
The 10 were studying the history of revival. I had brought them a syllabus from my old professor, and as we went through all the revivals two points became clear.
First, revivals don't last very long. They are temporary phenomena. "We may not enjoy this growth very much longer," said one of the group, "because the revival killer is coming: consumerism." In the words of Li Tien En, a famous Shanghai pastor, "Consumerism makes you think you don?t have to suffer to follow Jesus. It makes you think you can have lots of things, and Christ as well. In reality, you just end up with lots of things, and most of the time you don't even realize Christ has gone." China is experiencing rampant capitalism. Everyone wants to get rich quick, and many are.
Second, revivals do not necessarily have a long-term impact. Some revivals disappear without a trace. Think of the Welsh revival of 1904. What has Wales got to show for that but empty churches today? These men were all concerned and asked us for our help: "This is the Chinese church's most urgent need–for the Western church to enable us to turn new believers into mature believers, so that this revival will change Chinese society."
Said one of the leaders, "Westerners seem to see China's Christians either as an entirely persecuted church – which it isn't, or as an entirely free church – which it isn't either. Torture happens, but not to most of us. Make a hue and cry about torture by all means, but don't be distracted from realizing what the Chinese church really is and needs – we are a revival church, and we need your assistance with the blessing and burdens that revival brings."
He added, "Remember, it's your revival too. You prayed for it as much as we did, and we will come to you with the blessing as China opens up more in the future."
Ron Boyd-MacMillan works for Open Doors International [www.od.org], a ministry that offers an in-depth leadership and Bible-training program to over 5,000 Chinese teachers a year. They also deliver desperately needed Bibles and Christian literature extensively throughout China. This article was featured in the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of PRISM Magazine, which looked at both the persecuted church in China and the new religious freedom flourishing there.