Pastor Dennis Balcombe: Chinese Churches, Receive the Baton of Taking the Gospel to the Nations

A picture of Pastor Dennis Balcombe
A picture of Pastor Dennis Balcombe
By Karen LuoSeptember 28th, 2023

Editor’s note: Originally born in California, the United States, Pastor Dennis Balcombe, the founder of Revival Chinese Ministries International and Revival Christian Church in Hong Kong, felt the calling to China after attending a Spirit-filled church at the age of 16. On a rare vacation occasion in Hong Kong, he came to the place where he would stay for the next two decades to reach the people on the mainland. Like Hudson Taylor and other western missionaries to China, the man "born for China", learns Chinese, lives, and befriends the locals to win them for Christ. In an exclusive interview with China Christian Daily in August, Pastor Balcombe shared his recent insights about churches in China, Pentecostalism, overseas Chinese churches, and the global church.

China Christian Daily: Can you introduce yourself and your ministry?

Pastor Dennis Balcombe: I was born in California in 1945 and raised in a traditional Methodist church that did not preach the gospel, but at the age of 16, I attended a Spirit-filled church and received a call from God to become a preacher. I gave my life to God to be a preacher, but I asked God which country I should go to since most of the American people had heard the gospel at that time. I felt the Lord speaking to me and saying that I should go to China. As China had not opened in 1977, I served as a soldier in Vietnam and preached the gospel there. Then I spent the vacation in Hong Kong, which then had a population of four million. A prophet said beside me, “One day the doors to China will open. You must come back and start a church here because you will go to China when it opens.” After receiving such confirmation, I returned to Hong Kong in 1969 and started a church named Revival Christian Church. Praise the Lord that Deng Xiaoping opened China in 1978. We began a ministry of taking Bibles into China because Bibles were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, then taught about the Holy Spirit across China. 

China Christian Daily: As a foreign Christian, you have been living in Hong Kong for more than 50 years. What’s the difference between Chinese Christians and foreign Christians from your perspective?

Pastor Dennis Balcombe: There is a difference between Christians in mainland China, especially in rural areas, and those outside China: they have a great love for the Lord and the Holy Bible. If you teach them anything, they want to know if it is in the Bible. In China, there are not many denominations like in the West, but Chinese Christians want to confirm if what Western churches and denominations bring is really the Word of God. If not, they reject it. There are also false cults in China, one of which is called Eastern Lightening or Almighty God, deceiving some believers who don’t check the Bible, but many Christians really honor the word of God.

Another distinction is the prayer life of Chinese Christians. When I went to villages in the late 1980s, I found that every church had a prayer meeting in the morning. There is a famous Chinese song called “Five O’clock in the Morning in China”. Quite often, before 5 a.m., they were on their knees, praying and crying intensely to the Lord. 

Third, Chinese Christians have a great desire to share Jesus with other people. Sometimes it is not easy to do this, but they sent people to other villages and even to the minorities to preach the gospel. 

China Christian Daily: What are the characteristics of the church in China at present? What challenge does it face? What should it stick to and change?

Pastor Dennis Balcombe: Unlike Hong Kong and many Western countries, the churches in mainland China are under the governance of the rules of religion. The government in mainland China wants churches to be registered, and there is a large organization called the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. For historical and doctrinal reasons, many Christians do not desire to go to the official church; they meet at homes, and we call them “home churches.” But people may have misunderstood them as cell groups. Nobody knows the exact number of Chinese Christians, but we estimate that there are 70 to 80 percent of Christians in China meet at home churches.

Because of the regulations of religion, I encourage them to register, if possible, to have a good relationship with the government. Since China varies in different areas, it is not easy to register in some parts. My suggestion would be that they should do their best to register and obey the law, depending on their relationship with the authorities. But no matter what, they should meet together and divide the congregations into other areas to evangelize people. I’m optimistic that China will have more freedom over the years, and that Christianity will be a great contribution to the people of China.

China Chrisitan Daily: There are many Pentecostal churches in mainland China. What have been their changes over the past decade? The church in China has seen the revival of Pentecostalism and the rise of rational theology. There are many problems with some Pentecostal churches. How should the church in China treat Pentecostalism to avoid the unnecessary winding course?

Pastor Dennis Balcombe: Also called the Charismatic Movement, Pentecostalism believes that Christians can be baptized by the Holy Spirit. Most Pentecostal churches believe that speaking in tongues is a sign of being filled with the Spirit. Chinese Christians would rise early in the morning and pray for one or two hours in the Spirit. Praying in the Spirit includes interceding for other people, which contributes to church growth. The vast majority of Protestant Christians and even some Catholics in China are filled with the Spirit or at least open to this. There is a great move in God’s work across the world, as there are 700–800 million Charismatic or Pentecostal Christians among about one billion Protestants. 

But there are also problems, such as giving false prophecies or getting money from others. Coming from extreme or heretical sects, they came to China after the country opened up. For example, they emphasize spiritual warfare that focuses on principalities in the air, but we believe true welfare is preaching the gospel, healing the sick, and casting out demons. We have not been given authority from those principalities, but we have the authority to preach the gospel, heal the sick, and cast out demons. As more people believe in Jesus, the principalities and the powers of the air will lose their influence. 

Unfortunately, many evangelicals have rejected the whole Pentecostal movement because of those extremes.  For example, Hong Kong has the United Pentecostal Church, which only baptizes people in the name of Jesus and claims that people can only be baptized in their church to be saved and must speak in tongues. There is a similar church on the mainland named True Jesus Church, which rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and meets on the Sabbath. The same problem is that “we are the only true church.” So one of my main ministries is teaching the Word of God and good, solid evangelical doctrine.

Personally speaking, the greatest problem with Christianity in China is not persecution at all, because persecution unites us through more prayer and helps us grow. The problem is the teaching against the Holy Spirit or Reformed theology in an extreme form of Calvinism. Calvin was a great teacher, but people took his great book, the Institute of the Christian Religion, to an extreme, which caused many problems in China. People overestimated the predestination of the TULIP doctrine and claimed, “Once saved, always saved.”

Besides, cessation believes that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit cease until the last apostle John died. Also, a group called Hyper Grace teaches people that if they believe in Jesus, they don’t need to repent of their sins or live a holy life, since all their past, present, and future sins are forgiven. The hyper-prosperity gospel basically refers to the idea that the more you give to the preacher, the more money God will give back to you. 

Those things from the West identified with the Pentecostal or Charismatic churches are not truly Pentecostal because Pentecostalism is about the Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth. 

China Christian Daily: You used to train Christians in mainland China. Their needs have been changing over the past decades. What do you think Chinese Christians need from the world?

Pastor Dennis Balcombe: There has been a tremendous change in China since the opening up in the late 1970s and 1980s. During that period, most people lived in an agrarian society, working on farms in rural areas, but now, the majority of them moved to cities. In the city, one must have a skill and work hard, and young people must receive education to get jobs, which have tremendously influenced urban Christians in general. Over the past decades, Christians in cities have become more materialistic than before. Satisfied with their simple life without many conveniences, rural Christians only wanted to live for Jesus and lead as many people as possible to Christ; everyone was a missionary. I noticed that once they became grounded in cities and got more education and jobs, they became very materialistic. The prosperity gospel was also coming to China, claiming that “God will bless you” rather than “you bless other people” and “serving the Lord”.

The answer to this challenge is that people should be truly baptized by the Holy Spirit and be filled with the Spirit. Acts 1:8 says that when the Spirit comes upon you, you receive power that pushes you forward to the Lord’s witness in Jerusalem, Samaria, Judea, and to the ends of the earth. Basically speaking, we need a revival in the church because the global church is becoming so materialistic in a way that people have more love for the things of the world: getting married to have a family, a house, and a vehicle. Jesus even warned of the dangers of materialism in the Bible: Be cautious of greed and cravings, the love of the world. My burden is to go back to the gospel, preach Jesus, and talk about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. 

China Christian Daily: Today, the largest church in the world still pays close attention to the Chinese church. Since you have been serving the Chinese church for decades, where do you think the Chinese church can make contributions to the global church? What's the significance of the Chinese church for the development of Christianity across the world? 

Pastor Dennis Balcombe: The Chinese churches can certainly make great contributions to the church worldwide. For example, they can teach us prayer, love for the Bible, and evangelism. Chinese Christians called me “teacher” instead of “pastor” for security reasons, but they were my teachers. They can teach me “practical theology”: how we live the life of a Christian. First of all, take up your cross. They do take up their crosses in China and remain faithful to the Lord, particularly in the face of persecution. 

They are also enormously contributing to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Many Chinese Christians have migrated overseas and attended international conferences. Our revival church in Paris has around 800 members, most of whom are from Wenzhou. While we call the Chinese the Jews of the Orient, Wenzhou people are the Jews of the Chinese. Usually involved in business, many Wenzhou people are part of the “Back to Jerusalem” vision.  Chinese Christians are engaged in evangelism, scattering around the world, such as in Europe, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. In the last few days, God has raised Christians in Asia, including China, Korea, Indonesia, and even India, and almost every Asian country has seen church growth. Around the world, the Chinese are the most responsive people to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

China Christian Daily: The vast majority of missionaries in Hong Kong have never learned the language well enough to preach in it and have very little understanding of or appreciation of the Chinese culture. Why is it that you and a small number of missionaries will totally bond with the people in language and culture and plant churches among the Chinese?

Pastor Dennis Balcombe: There is a missionary principle of bonding. The book Bonding and the Missionary Task by the late E. Thomas Brewster basically claims that when any foreign missionary goes to another nation, he should bond with the local people. When I came to Hong Kong, I did not have much money and could only speak a little Cantonese. The local people invited me to their house, and I became friends with them. I was told to learn Cantonese at a university and where to rent a cheap apartment. I bonded with the Chinese, which was what Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission did—they bonded with the Chinese so much that they looked like the Chinese. They dressed like the Chinese, learned the language, and lived with the rural people. 

But over the years, I found that the vast majority of missionaries in Hong Kong did not bond with the people. They never learned the language or understood the Chinese culture. The best way to learn a new language is to live with the locals instead of attending language classes. Missionaries are like Jesus, and the word should become flesh. In my situation, I was determined to become Chinese. It took me seven months to learn Cantonese, and it took my wife, who was born in Thailand, one year to acquire Cantonese. We speak Cantonese at home with our children. When I came to Hong Kong, I determined that it was my calling place for a lifetime. Some missionaries are always saying, “It’s so hard to understand Chinese” and “Why do the people do this?” As a result, many of them are unable to minister to the Chinese and without great love for them; they only minister to people who speak their language. Maybe they will invite interpreters to translate their preaching into the local language, but it was not the same as the CIM missionaries. We need to go back to what the mission is about: go to the nations, become one with the people you were called to, and learn the language and culture to reach the people of those nations. 

China Christian Daily: You have been traveling to different countries over the years. Share with us what you have seen there, especially about those overseas Chinese churches. Do they share similarities with those in China?

Pastor Dennis Balcombe: I have traveled to most nations in the world. Since our ministry provides Bibles for Christians in China, quite often, I’m invited to speak about China and the mission.

There is a great need for missionaries for the Chinese people, who constitute 17.5% of the global population. Chinese has been spoken as the most common mother tongue across the globe, but Christians in China may only make up seven to eight percent of the country’s population, meaning that most people have not been reached.

It’s not easy for foreigners to travel to China, but there are many ways to do missionary work. Our ministry provides Bibles that are legally obtained from Amity Printing Press for evangelism, as well as an online Bible teaching school for different Christians in China. We encourage the overseas people to reach the Chinese in their communities. Every major city around the world, such as London and New York, has tens of thousands of Chinese, many of whom are non-Christians. There are Chinese churches there, but many do not have a burden for reaching the people in mainland China, though they have friends and relatives there, nor do they provide financial aid and training resources for Christians in China. Sadly, many of them don’t pay attention to the real situation of the unsaved Chinese people living in China. The opposite is that many Western churches pray for China with great passion that Chinese will be saved, but it is more difficult for Western Christians to do any ministry in China. 

One reason is that most overseas Chinese churches in North America and Europe, though they are evangelical in doctrine, they are not open to the Holy Spirit. They do believe in the Bible, but they don’t preach about the work of the Holy Spirit. Most of the church members are well-educated professionals, but they don’t reach Chinese working in restaurants, petrol stations, laundry shops, or even those sleeping on the streets in their community. The less-educated, poor Chinese may also not want to go to these kinds of churches. 

One of our great challenges is to encourage overseas Chinese churches to have a passion for reaching other Chinese in their communities.  Being truly evangelical means preaching the gospel. They should consider China for they can easily come here to speak with people, offer disaster relief, and help poor people and orphans. 

China Christian Daily: After your more-than-40-year ministry for China, many native leaders have risen up, so what is your role now? What do you expect from those leaders and Chinese churches?

Pastor Dennis Balcombe: There is an English saying: “Pass on the baton.” (薪火相传) It means that I give you the firewood and the fire so that you can carry on in this relay race, which started from the time of Jesus to the Pentecost until now. The current challenge is to give the vision, the anointing, and the tools of training to the young leaders who have the greatest influences. The church across the world is becoming old; in other words, you don’t see many young people. Due to education systems, churches’ policies about LGBTQ+ and abortions, and their opinions about evolution and creationism in Europe, many young people don’t attend church after graduation. 

But thank God that there is a revival in young people. We have a Spirit-filled group of Christian artists in Hong Kong who are singing and producing videos and movies. We often have youth rallies where young people from many different churches are engaged in singing, worshiping, repenting, and being commissioned to preach the gospel together for several days. 

My pastor told me not to continue to the role of the senior pastor beyond the age of 60. He gave his church to his son at 60, and I gave my church to my daughter and son-in-law at 59. Now they are planning to give it over to the young generation. We need to train young leaders and release them—let them lead the song service, and preach on Sundays, take part in administration, and especially take them on mission trips to other nations. We have had a ministry named “Donkeys for Jesus” for years, which brings the Bibles to China. Young people from the West, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, and even China participate in mission teams to deliver the Bibles to China. Because of this experience, many of them want to be missionaries in China and return to study in language schools on the mainland or in Hong Kong. 

China Christian Daily: Do you have any words for the Chinese Church and Christians? 

Pastor Dennis Balcombe: I believe the Lord has chosen the Chinese Church to take the gospel to nations and back to Jerusalem. Christianity began in Jerusalem and Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas planted a church in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), and churches in the East grew to seven, as recorded in the book of Revelation, and continue to grow. In the book of Acts, Paul had a vision with the man from Macedonia: “Come to Macedonia and help us!” So the gospel went to the West instead of the east. After the Reformation, the gospel continued to prosper in the West, Africa, and the United States. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the West sent missionaries to China, Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc. Amazingly, the Asian people, who account for two-thirds of the global population, are responsive to the gospel, and the churches here are growing. So today’s mission is to take the gospel to unreached nations, like India, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan. It appears that the gospel will go back to Jerusalem because, at the very end, the Jews will turn to the Lord and look at Him whom they pierced. This mandate has come to the Chinese Church: your country has good relationships with people in the Third World nations. We need to pray that the doors will continue to open and that the Chinese Church will have this vision to bless the nations of the world.

Watch the interview video episode 1 and episode 2

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