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Area Studies

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Deborah Xu: The Story of a Catalytic Leader in the Chinese House Church Movement

Yalin Xin is an associate professor of intercultural studies at William Carey International University. He was formerly a research fellow at the Center for the Study of World Christian Revitalization Movements and Senior Editor for the  William Carey International Development Journal.  His research interest includes Christian renewal and revitalization movements and Christianity in China.

Yalin Xin is an associate professor of intercultural studies at William Carey International University. He was formerly a research fellow at the Center for the Study of World Christian Revitalization Movements and Senior Editor for the William Carey International Development Journal. His research interest includes Christian renewal and revitalization movements and Christianity in China.

WCIU Journal: Area Studies Topic

July 2, 2017

by Yalin Xin

Editors’ Note: Evangelicals around the globe have rejoiced over the burgeoning of the Chinese House Church movement over the past several decades.This case study gives us a better perspective on some of the significant issues in China from an evangelical perspective.

History has witnessed the phenomenal church growth in China for the past three decades from almost ground zero at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 to the estimated 70-80 million Christians now. Prominent in the midst of this growth are the house church networks in central China, which have grown to be significantly large in membership. The Word of Life (WOL) church is one of the largest house church networks that originated in Henan Province three decades ago. It is also among the most dynamic Christian movements in the history of the Chinese church, with its network of house churches extending to all 23 provinces in China, its ministry covering significant portion of China’s rural population, and its membership in tens of millions (Johnstone 2001, 160; Hattaway 2003, 63; Aikman 2003, 86).

One of the key elements in historical Christian renewal movements is the role played by key leaders (Snyder 2004, 209-36). Women leaders at all levels in the WOL have been the backbone of the movement since the beginning three decades ago. Transformed by the Spirit of God, these women dedicated themselves as ready vessels to God and played important roles in this dynamic Christian movement among the rural population. Among these female leaders, Deborah Xu stands out as the recognized “aunt” of the network, who has had significant influence on the direction, operation, and result of the movement.

Deborah Xu served in the WOL movement as an evangelist, teacher, counselor, leader, theologian and a model. She started to engage herself in Christian ministry in her teenage years and has served in the house churches for five decades. She made herself available for Christian ministry as she felt called of God and became catalytic in the WOL movement. She is looked to as the top female leader of the movement, an inspiration to those in ministry, and a model for many female Christians in the network.

Early Years and Family Influence

Deborah was born in 1946 in a well-to-do family in Nanyang, Henan Province in central China. Her grandparents became the first Christians in the family during the time when Marie Monsen, a Norwegian missionary, was ministering in Henan. One of Deborah’s great aunts was discipled through Marie’s ministry and became a strong believer who in turn influenced the rest of the family. Deborah’s grandmother and mother were both strong holders of faith and set examples for the younger generations such as Peter Xu and Deborah Xu. (Peter Xu is Deborah’s elder brother who is recognized as the founding leader of the Word of Life Movement. He is presently residing in the US and serves as the president of the Back to Jerusalem Gospel Mission.) In her early childhood, then, Deborah was fully imbued in the teaching, preaching and hymn-singing of the natural house church in her house as well as the Christian witnesses of the adults in the family.

Historically, the development of Chinese Christianity has been intimately interwoven with the theological cross-fires of the time. Denominationalism became a more relevant reality for the Chinese Church from the second half of the nineteenth century when over sixty different mission societies from the West sent their missionaries to various parts of China. At the turn of the twentieth century, however, the theological division between the modernists and the fundamentalists also drew lines within the Chinese Church. This was going to have great implications later on as history witnessed that the gap was only getting wider by the decade, especially after the creation of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) in the early 1950s, whose leaders were chosen primarily from the Modernist camp. TSPM, then, became the officially sanctioned organism to supervise the affairs of the Christian churches in China. The house church network of which Deborah became a leader would be in direct contrast as non-TSPM sanctioned and therefore often subject to suppression from the authorities.

While the modernist-fundamentalist controversy was going on in China in the early 20th century, Marie Monsen’s ministry seemed to have left more distinctive marks on the parts of China she served for the majority of her missionary career – Henan Province, where Deborah was born and grew up. Though Deborah was never able to meet with Marie Monsen in person, Marie’s influence as a powerful revivalist and teacher in Henan and northern China greatly inspired Deborah even at the beginning of her faith journey. Characteristics of Marie’s theology and ministry were evident in Deborah – a tradition, or ripples of renewal, that was passed on to her through family members of faith who were fruits of Marie Monsen’s ministry.

Marie Monsen: Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Missionary to Henan

In conversation with believers among the WOL movement about the history and stories of the church, the name of Marie Monsen is often and commonly mentioned with appreciation, as someone who dedicated herself to mission in central China as well as a model in ministry that has had significant impact on the WOL movement.

Who was Marie Monsen? The Norwegian Journal of Gender Research has this to say about Monsen:

One prominent Scandinavian woman missionary who became a successful religious authority in her own right was Marie Monsen (1872–1962) in the Norwegian Lutheran Mission. Her Christian calling and personal religious experience legitimized her own roles as a preacher for men as well as for women and children in China, and as spiritual counselor for male Christian leaders (Okkenhaug 2004).

Marie Monsen was born and grew up in Bergen, Norway. Her mother was among the advocates in the popular movement led by Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771–1824), which inspired women in ministry and an evangelical missionary movement (Soltvedt 1999). Marie responded to the missionary call and joined Norwegian Lutheran Mission (Det norske lutherske Kinamisjonsforbund, later called Norsk Luthersk Misjonssamband) (Mikaelsson 2003, 121). She went to China in 1901 and was stationed in Nanyang, Henan Province. She engaged in educational ministry there, running a girl’s school and training Chinese Bible women. In the later part of her time in China, because of evacuation of the Norwegian Lutheran Mission (NLM) from Henan due to social and political instability, Marie Monsen travelled extensively in Northern China, preaching in churches and organizations, instrumental in “instigating a religious awakening among missionaries and Chinese church leaders” (Mikaelsson 2003, 125).

Marie Monsen was regarded as the catalyst for the famous Shantung Revival that swept multiple cities and counties in Shantung Province and sent its ripples back to Henan Province where she had served in the previous years. Marie Monsen was known for her stress on repentance and born-again spirituality, which left a long-lasting mark on the spirituality of Christians to whom she ministered. Leslie Lyall comments on the role of Marie Monsen,

The pioneer of the spiritual “new life movement,” the handmaiden upon whom the Spirit was first poured out was Marie Monsen of Norway. Her surgical skill in exposing the sins hidden within the Church and lurking behind the smiling exterior of many trusted Christian – even many a trusted Christian leader – and her quiet insistence on a clear-cut experience of the new birth set the pattern for others to follow (Lyall 19611, 21).

One of Deborah Xu’s great aunts, who came to faith through Maria’s ministry, often shared with Deborah about how Maria Monsen was empowered by the Spirit of God leading revival meetings and ministering among women in Nanyang, Henan. In her ministry, Maria always stressed the confession of sins. After each revival meeting she would talk with members of the congregation one by one, checking to make sure that one was saved and finding out those who only pretended to be saved by imitating others in their confessions. Marie stressed what she called the experience of “suffering from the disease of sin” – that after one, on hearing the message of the gospel, felt it spoke to the heart and became troubled by it. And from this “disease” one started to regret ever having had previous misconduct and bad behavior. “Maria always made sure that a believer was filled with the Spirit, and born again, receiving the baptism of the Spirit, just as what happened in Acts. The foundational work in a person’s coming to faith is to be, first of all, filled with the Spirit” (Personal interview with Deborah Xu, 2009).

Marie Monsen was one of the most important female figures among the missionaries in Norway. Her ministry embodied ‘an unusual blend of feminist commitment, religious fervor and educational zeal ... Marie Monsen’s career is a demonstration that spirituality is a sphere open to be negotiated by women, provided they have the charisma or the type of religious experience that is acknowledged as valid and reliable also by the powerful men in their organization (Mikaelsson 2003, 123).

Family and Extended Family

In rural China, family, and sometimes extended family, live under one roof or in close vicinity. Children imitate and learn from adults from an early age in participation of their share of responsibility of farm and housework within the family. They also, in the meantime, pick up religious beliefs and ethics from the teaching and modeling of the adult members of the family. By the time Deborah was born, her family had been Christians for three generations. Those family traditions and examples of faith would help ground Deborah solidly as a follower of Jesus Christ as she grew up and became one of the most dynamic female leaders of the house church network.

GREAT AUNT, MRS. LIN
Deborah’s great aunt, Mrs. Lin, was an eager student of Marie’s teaching and often attended the chapel where Marie was ministering in Nanyang. Mrs. Lin would often share with Deborah her conversion experience through the ministry of Marie Monsen, which naturally shaped Deborah as she grew in knowledge and faith. Deborah today vividly recounts her great aunt’s born- again experience:

One day she felt ‘caught’ by the Spirit, feeling urged to confess all the sins in her life. She was not able to open her mouth, however, and her face was pale, obviously under attack from the devil. She struggled so much, recognizing herself as a pool of filthy water, shining on the surface, and yet rotten and stinky under. The Spirit had just made a stir of that dirty water, and she was feeling sick. After this experience, she felt completely released from the bondage of sin and was born again, laughing and rejoicing (Personal interview with Deborah Xu, 2009).

Mrs. Lin became a transformed person through Marie’s ministry. In the midst of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), Mrs Lin bore witness to her fellow villagers how Jesus could bring peace and joy even in the difficulties and hardship of life. China was experiencing great national turmoil and people were on the brink of despair, losing confidence in the government for providing solutions to natural and human disasters in the Chinese society. The rural population took the harshest blow when natural disasters, mixed with the consequences of government policy errors, left people with hunger and poverty.

Deborah recalls, “even in the 1960s, my aunt would always sing hymns wherever she was, working in the fields, doing housework at home, visiting neighbors, and made she every opportunity to share the gospel with people. She started to hold meetings in her house, and people would gather around her listening to her telling the Bible story. Often times at the house church meeting, she would heal people of sickness and command the evil spirits to leave the demon-possessed” (Personal interview with Deborah Xu, 2009). As Deborah often followed her aunt to the meetings, she would serve alongside her aunt, reading from the Bible, teaching, praying and healing. Sometimes when needed, Deborah would go to the neighbors herself to teach and conduct healing on behalf of the sick, an important experience of internship for young Deborah.

GRANDMOTHER
Another figure in the family who had had great influence in Deborah’s faith is her grandmother. Grandma came from a big family with some of its members working as local officials. She was good in Chinese literature, well versed in ancient Chinese poems, and was able to quote freely from Chinese classics. Grandma became a Christian during the time when Marie Monsen was serving in the region, and was inspired by Marie’s championship in both education and feminism. Grandma was known as an advocator of feet-unbinding and education for women, and was respected in the area as an educated, righteous, and good Christian. As an educated and influential woman in the neighborhood, Deborah’s grandma always drew attentive ears to her sharing from the Bible. Deborah was among the best audience of her grandma’s preaching. “She often emphasized words and phrases such as ‘life’, ‘born again’, ‘repentance’, and ‘sin’. She would also often sing and teach people to sing from a Lutheran hymn book” (Personal interview with Deborah Xu, 2009). All of these were identifiable characteristics of Marie Monsen’s ministry.

Rural people were sensitive to the evil spirits which, they believed, were often involved in disturbance, sickness, and misfortunes. Local remedies for these problems generally included appeasing the evil spirits by burning incense in the local shrines or temples. Grandma, however, bore witness to power of God over evil spirits in her reaction to such incidence. Deborah recalls,

When my grandma heard the village bells ring during the night – an indication, which was generally believed by the locals, that the evil spirits was making a stir, she would sit up the whole night long singing Jesus’ acts as recorded in the Bible. When the evil spirits disturbed, she would command them to leave with authority. At night when crossing the fields grandma would sing ‘Jesus’ Soldiers’ at the disturbing evil spirits so that people would not fear, recognizing Jesus had power over the evil spirits (Personal interview with Deborah Xu, 2009).

As a woman of strong faith, Grandma was a great influence on Deborah as well as on the rest of the family. Deborah’s brother, Peter Xu, was full of gratitude when he remembered his grandma and called her the Abraham of the family and a witness for God.

Every night Grandma would lead the whole family to kneel down and pray to God, she would always end the family prayers with a hymn: ‘I now lie down to sleep peacefully. Pray that our heavenly Father will sustain me until morning. If I am called to leave this world tonight, please save me to return to your paradise.’ Every morning when she woke up, she would begin the day with prayer. And prayer accompanied her throughout the day: when she was walking, she prayed that ‘my feet will walk in the truth of your word’; when she washed her face, ‘water cleanses the face, and blood cleanses the heart. Worshiping the true God, I am cleansed inside out’; when she swept the floor, ‘cleanse my heart of all filth’; when cooking, ‘fuel my spiritual fire’. All day long I heard her call on the name of the Lord. And she did so all her life (Xin 2009, 78).

MOTHER
Deborah’s mother was also active in evangelistic work in the neighborhood. She was very good at teaching hymns in the house church meetings and instrumental in spreading the gospel in the neighborhood. When Grandma was old and could no longer walk on her own, Deborah’s mother would carry her on her back to worship in the local chapel that was four miles away. People were touched by their faith and testimony and even years later they still talk about how the mother carried the grandmother on her back and walked for miles in order to attend Christian meetings.

Growing up in such a family of faith, Deborah was presented with good examples to follow even from a very young age. Her own faith grew even as she naturally imitated the adults in the family in what they exemplified in life and ministry. She received much support in her faith journey because of the opportunity she had to be born in such a family of faith.

Beginning of Ministry

“I grew up in a Christian family, and it was only natural for me to follow the models of the women in the family and to dedicate my life for Christian ministry. As a teenager I did not think of anything else in terms of my future vocation apart from being a preacher or an evangelist” (Personal interview with Deborah Xu, 2009).

Deborah stood out in the family and in the village as bright and gifted. Coming to Christian faith at a very young age, Deborah was known for her kindness toward others and seriousness about her faith. Siblings would often find her on her knees in the dirt of the fields or behind the hay, committing herself to long prayers, totally oblivious of the things that were going on around her. Her older sister recalls, “she would always unreservedly point out the sins in us and urge us to repent before the Lord in prayer. She would also encourage us to have faith. She was an encourager, sometimes like a big sister instead of a younger sister” (Personal interview with Deborah’s elder sister in Shanxi, China in 2010).

Deborah would also give up her own things to her siblings or whoever she saw as in need without ever seeming to be concerned for her own need. She would sleep on the hotel floor so that others in company could sleep on the beds. Once Deborah saw Sister M appearing cold on a winter day. She went quietly inside the room, took off her own sweater and offered to Sister M, who, when putting it on, still felt the warmth in the sweater (Personal interview with Deborah’s elder sister in Shanxi, China in 2010).

In 1963, at the age of seventeen, Deborah prayed a prayer of dedication to the Lord as she later wrote down on one of the calendar pages: “Lord, you love me so much. How can I repay the love you have shown to me. I promise you this day that I will remain celibate all my life to serve you” (Personal interview with Deborah’s elder sister in Shanxi, China in 2010.). Her brother, Peter Xu, found the note folded in a Bible by accident. Tears ran down Peter’s face when he read this prayer note (Personal interview with Peter Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2010). Peter was appreciative of his sister for her dedication and the blessing she brought to ministry: ”I’m extremely thankful that the Lord made my sister as my spiritual partner. She was called by the Lord when she was 17 years old and dedicated her whole life to the Lord. She serves as a beautiful example in the front lines. Brothers and sisters [designate] her as a mother of the church” (Christianity Today 2004, 2).

As a teenager, Deborah took over the responsibility of teaching the children after school. Every afternoon, children in the neighborhood would gather around in the yard waiting for Deborah, who would tell Bible stories, teach songs of praise, and share from the Word of God. Many of these children were to become future evangelists and co-workers among house churches. These early exercises in teaching and leadership were important experiences for Deborah as she devoted herself to more pervasive involvement in the house church ministry once churches started to grow significantly in number and size in a wave of revivals during the 80s.

Like everybody else in rural China, as a young adult Deborah would go to work in the fields daily with the rest of the villagers. Her maturity and kind- heartedness won her the trust and support of the young girls and their parents in the village. They respected her as an older sister with wisdom and character. So young girls would come to visit Deborah with questions and open hearts, which provided an opportunity for Deborah to teach these young girls from the Bible and lead them to faith in Jesus Christ. Soon, some twenty girls became regulars in the house church meetings with Deborah being the leader, where they would engage in prayer, singing, and listening to what Deborah would share from the Bible.

Hymn singing was a lot of fun for the young girls in the village. Deborah taught them note by note, often accompanied by body movement as well, providing an opportunity for the girls to be expressive in a context where such activity was not always encouraged. They soon learned enough hymns to sing along whenever possible, so that one would often hear hymn singing in the village. The teenagers were so enthusiastic and joyful about learning hymns and the Bible that they would keep copying the hymns and Bible verses during and after the gathering. “It was like a scene in the Millennium,” Deborah recalls (Personal interview with Deborah Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2010).

God allowed trials to come across Deborah’s path, preparing Deborah for the challenges in ministry later on. After she had made the promise to the Lord to remain single in order to serve him wholeheartedly, she would often encounter temptation that would stir some inner struggle – “spiritual conflict” as she would call it. In order to win over the conflicts, Deborah would create ways to deal with the situation. She once even cut off all her hair so that she would look like a boy and even asked her niece to call her “uncle” (Personal interview with Peter Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2010). Her determination influenced a lot of girls who would later learn from Deborah’s example to remain celibate in ministry. Deborah’s dedication was later to be a model that was encouraged and promoted among the WOL leaders and evangelists.

Later on, young people from other villages also came for the meeting at Deborah’s place, and it became necessary that meetings be organized in multiple places to meet the growing need. Deborah then took some helpers with her to the neighboring villages to organize house church meetings. These meetings were always filled with people.

As more house churches were established in the nearby villages, Deborah started to make itinerant visits to each of these house churches within the county boundary. The teaching in the house churches revolved around the theme of the cross. She always identified God as the source of revivals as the house churches started to grow. “The Spirit of God worked mightily in these meetings, drawing people to the house church meeting from every home.” Very often the house was filled with people, in the sitting-room, bedrooms, walkways, and courtyard. People would use loose bricks as stools in the yard. As the crowd grew when there was no longer any room inside the yard, loud speakers were used so that people sitting outside the house could hear.

The presence of the Spirit was evident. Some sick were healed as they were still on their way to the meeting place. The weeping of those in repentance was loud and touching as the Holy Spirit “made a stir in the hearts of the people. Open confessions were commonplace in the revivals and people came out of the meetings completely changed. This was how the Spirit worked in the house church gatherings in the 1970s.” (Personal interview with Deborah Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2010).

This was the period of time that was also referred to as the period when “revival furnaces” multiplied in the early 1970s. Revivals started through Deborah’s (and her mother’s) ministry were like a “revival furnace,” producing heat to its surroundings and drawing people to it. Soon “the whole neighborhood became Christian and became a spiritual center. Without notice, the ‘revival furnace’ spread outward and more ‘furnaces’ were created” (Xin 2009, 83-84).

When the local authorities started to come to disturb the meetings and make arrests, Deborah and her co-workers would move from place to place to avoid being targeted. Wherever they went, they would continue leading the revival meetings. Thus more house churches were established as they ministered in new areas.

Leader of the House Church’s First Trans-provincial Mission Team

The basic and foundational structure of the Word of Life (WOL) movement is the house church, established through the evangelistic ministry of itinerant evangelists sent by the Gospel Band, which is closely related to and supported by Theological Education (underground seminaries or training schools). Thus the Established Churches, Theological Education, and the Gospel Band form a solid support for the whole WOL movement, often intimately illustrated by Christians as an ancient Chinese cooking vessel supported by three solid legs. The three constituent parts of the WOL work closely together to keep the ministry wheel spinning outward, thus enlarging the WOL network (Xin 2009, 137). This movement dynamic gradually took shape in the early 1980s after the first WOL trans-provincial mission.

In the early 1980s, the churches in Henan experienced great revivals and the house churches expanded outwards. Nanyang district in Henan where Marie Monsen was based during the first quarter of the 20th century became the center of the revived house churches and the base where future ministry was directed. Leaders of the WOL received requests from various parts of China for evangelistic teams to be sent to the regions. In prayer and fellowship the WOL leaders decided to send out their first trans-provincial evangelistic team to Sichuan Province, the hometown of Xiaoping Deng, then paramount leader of China.

In the early 1980s, seventeen young evangelists were chosen to form the first trans-provincial evangelistic team to enter Sichuan province. Deborah was the leader of the team of evangelists who were then designated as ‘Messengers of the Gospel’ (hereafter, MGs). This may have been the first trans-provincial mission team sent from the house churches in China.

They got on the train with one-way tickets to Sichuan. The team had one contact in Sichuan. Their aim was to share the gospel with the people in Sichuan. They did not have a guaranteed financial provision for the duration of their mission; neither did they have money for the return tickets. What they had was prayer and trust in the Spirit of God. It may have looked like a doomed mission humanly speaking, with only a goal and direction, leaving the rest to the leading of the Holy Spirit. But the result was a big boost for the faith of believers and encouragement for further mission efforts in the years to come.

As soon as the team arrived at Sichuan, they started to busy themselves in preparation for the work. Through arrangements the team was received into a hospitality family where they started to host evangelistic meetings as well as sending out evangelistic pairs to the neighboring villages. (Hospitality Family [jie dai jia ting] is a term commonly used among the house churches in central China referring to devoted Christian families that open their houses or other properties for the purpose of holding various house church meetings, trainings, and receiving co-workers, etc.) Deborah went with local Christians to the homes of new believers and seekers to get rid of the idols such as paintings and clay idolatry figures. This was an integral part of the house church ministry at that time because it was common for rural homes to have idolatry images and altars even after the households had begun coming to faith. The WOL leaders ruled that it was unacceptable to have images and altars which hindered work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of new believers and seekers. The team also evangelized people on the streets and entered every home where they were invited to share the gospel message. All of these MGs carried portions of the Bible, hymn booklets, and gospel tracks on their backs as they went from place to place, distributing them as they saw needs.

Deborah and her teammates were in prayer most of the time as they walked to a new village. They took every opportunity to share the gospel message with anyone they met, on the streets, outside peoples’ houses, and even in the fields. Sometimes, after interacting with people for a while, they were invited into the house. Often the host family would go out and invite extended families and neighbors to the meeting, who were eager to hear the Christian message. “This was where we bore most of our evangelistic fruit. People would come to a house church meeting, being taught the truth from the Bible, opening their hearts to the Lord Jesus and being saved, being given the portions of the Bible and other materials. We then laid hands on some who already had the calling and gifts for leadership roles. Thus a house church was established” (Personal interview with Deborah Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2009).

In less than a month, sixteen house churches were established through the ministry of the evangelists (Xin 2009, 87). Even the village’s Party Secretary’s house became a house church. Hospitality families were established so that future evangelists could be received and discipleship trainings could be housed there. Deborah attributed the result of the evangelistic effort totally to God, ‘The hearts of the people were wide open to the gospel at that period of time. This was of course the work of the Spirit who heard our prayers and already went ahead of the team and prepared the hearts of the people.’ Seekers and new believers were all eager to receive the Christian materials and request contact information from the team members for future guidance (Personal interview with Deborah Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2009).

Then one day all seventeen MGs were arrested in Sichuan after they were rounded by the local police. One female team member claimed responsibility for the Christian literature in the team’s possession. As they were detained in the local police station, all seventeen MGs fasted for seven days and nights appealing to God in prayer for each other and for the situation. They were then sent back to the detention center in Henan where they served terms of differing lengths. All of them were released before the Chinese New Year in 1983. This was the beginning of the Gospel Band in the WOL church as it started to explore strategic evangelization into the surrounding regions and provinces. The stories and examples of the church’s first trans-provincial mission have become part of the training and reference for future MGs.

Upon release, the MGs came together for fellowship and reflection, and felt God was teaching them the spiritual value and significance of service and ministry in the Lord by means of chains and imprisonment. “Our faith increased because the mark of the cross, which we saw as a reward, was added onto our physical bodies. And the Macedonian call became louder to our ears” (Personal interview with Deborah Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2009). After that evangelistic teams were dispatched back to Sichuan on many occasions. Deborah was able to reflect on this mission experience and use it in her teaching and training of evangelists in the years to come as she found herself speaking at leadership training sessions, co-workers’ retreats, and providing counsel to female evangelists.

WOL Training Manuals

The WOL house church network is known for systems of training and organizational structure that were developed to meet the need of the growing house churches under its umbrella. It is sometimes referred to as the “Full Scope Church” by the authorities because of extensive regions in China that it covers. The training system started from evangelistic meetings, after which it moved on to Life Meetings, Truth Meetings, and underground seminary trainings of different levels. There was also training for pastoral and administrative elders of local house churches that were called Pillars’ Theological Education.

This training system was supported primarily through Theological Education (TE), one of the three constituent parts of the WOL movement. As the network started to grow significantly, there was great need for training manuals that could be used in training and teaching. Commissioned by the church, a committee was formed, with Peter Xu as the leader and Deborah as the primary contributor, to reflect biblically and theologically, write and edit the first training manual for the house church. The work came out in handwritten form in 1984, titled, “Seven Principles.” It basically addressed seven areas of theology and ministry that the WOL Christians judged as important and relevant: (1) salvation through the cross, (2) the way of the cross, (3) discerning the adulteress, (4) building the church, (5) providing for life, (6) interlink and fellowship, and (7) frontier evangelism.

When the manual came out, it was immediately hand-copied into multiple copies and used in leadership trainings and retreats, and received very positive responses. Soon the manual was revised for print, so that, from 1985 on, thousands of copies were available at network conferences for leaders from various regions to take back to their home areas for teaching and training purposes. The manual was designed to be used in all levels of ministry within the WOL network, from Life Meetings, Truth Meetings, short-term training, to all levels of TE training. From time to time special committees were organized for revisions and additions to the manual as Christians in the network constantly reflected on the Word of God in ministry.

As a recognized leader and mentor in the network, Deborah was always sought out by younger co-workers in the network for sessions of consultation on both spiritual and physical concerns. Almost on top of the list of common questions and doubts that many young evangelists had was about marriage. As a simple matter of fact, the backbone of the WOL house church network was the young adult evangelists, and the majority of these young adult evangelists were female. It was only natural that these young evangelists became interested in fellow co-workers of the opposite sex and started dating. And issues would then emerge.

The WOL church encouraged those serving in different levels of ministry to remain celibate while in service. Leaders of the WOL network, such as Deborah and many other female leaders, including regional, district, and even area leaders primarily consisted of those who were committed to remain celibate for the sake of ministry. The rationale for this appeal was based on practicality and not on theology. “When remaining single in Christian service, one would devote himself/herself more wholeheartedly to the work without being distracted by issues that families tended to have” (Personal interview with Deborah Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2009). Of course, the theological stress on imminent eschatological expectation at least played its role here as well in a community whose theology leaned toward a pre- millennium, dispensationalist view.

The WOL church had passed a “Co-workers’ Code of Behavior” that clearly discouraged casual dating and marriage proposals without first seeking God’s will and the approval of the church (Ye di shen xue yuan gen zong bao dao zhi er 1987). Sometimes young evangelists were disciplined and stopped from their ministry for dating without consultation with leaders of the church. This caused a lot of frustration among the young co-workers. In the face of these issues and concerns, Deborah went on her knees praying to God for wisdom and instruction. She studied the biblical teaching on the topic and reflected on the reality of the WOL church of the time, before she committed herself to writing a training manual, Marriage and Celibacy, that was later pervasively used in the house churches. Issues were dealt with and agreement was achieved in the community.

In Marriage and Celibacy Deborah recognized that marriage was instituted by God as a blessing for humans and should not be treated lightly. She referenced biblical teachings in God’s blessing on marriage to humans as they were found in Matthew 19:4-6; Genesis 2:18, 24-25; 1 Corinthians 7:1-3, 9-28; Proverbs 18:22; and Proverbs 19:14. She warned against casual pursuit of the opposite sex as it was modeled in Genesis 6:1-3. The booklet paid attention to culture and cultural traditions as it addressed various aspects in marriage including the significance of marriage, the objective of marriage, proposal in marriage, engagement, and wedding from a biblical perspective.

On the emerging reality of disproportional ratio of male and female Christians, thus posing a problem for marriage within the Christian community, Deborah examined the reality of the situation and asked God to raise more brothers in the church. In conjunction with the church’s call for more devoted ministry through celibacy among its leaders, she made a practical appeal: “May there be no marriage in the church that is outside the biblical principle and God’s will. If God does not change the reality of the shortage of brothers, sisters need to accept this blessing and dedicate themselves to Christ as virgins, so that Deborah’s wish be fulfilled a hundred fold” (Deborah Xu, “Marriage and Celibacy,” unpublished booklet).

Teacher, Revivalist, Leader and Model

In 1983 the Chinese authorities launched a nation-wide counter-crime campaign in which the house church leaders became targets of opposition. Deborah was the team leader in the mission trip to Sichuan and was the natural target. So she left home and stayed with hospitality families wherever she went. Because of her strong faith, knowledge of the Bible, and experience in walking with the Lord, she and several other co-workers took the responsibility of leading the first training classes of the underground seminaries that were to be established in the next few years, first in Henan, and later into other provinces.

Unique in the WOL network, leaders stressed biblical and theological training in ministry. The initial organized training started in the beginning of 1980s when five- to seven-day intensive training sessions were often organized to equip committed believers for effective evangelism and church ministry. The trainees would then return to their home churches to involve themselves in evangelism as well as discipling new converts. This went on until the time was ripe for establishing more formal theological training schools. Toward the end of 1985, the first house church seminary, locally termed Theological Education, was established in S County, Henan Province. It was a three-month intensive training program and was known as ‘the Seminary of the Field’ through published literature on the underground church (Ye di shen xue yuan gen zong bao dao zhi yi 1986).

Seminary and Theological Education

Deborah was actively involved in taking charge of the ministry of establishing the seminary. This included meeting with potential trainers for fellowship and interviews (and often times this involved a time of training), finalizing location, organizing prayer support chains, and supervising the recruiting of student trainees, etc. She both gave leadership to Theological Education and taught at the training sessions. Often these trainings took place in hospitality families in more remote villages. Students were in the closed-up location for the entirety of their training, totally immersed in the learning, devotion, prayer, worship, and community. As the teacher of the seminaries, Deborah would also take on the responsibility of counseling the student trainees. God had given her the gift of counseling even when she was still a teenager in the village, and now the experience had helped her to be more effective in mentoring these devoted young Christians who would soon go out as MGs into frontier evangelism.

Revival

The mid-1980s was a time when Christianity experienced a phenomenal revival in various parts of China. There was the gradual freedom in the air when the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) ended. “The church in many areas of China is growing at a staggering rate, as we have seen...the spectacular growth of the church in many parts of China is evidence of a remarkable work of the Holy Spirit” (Lambert 1994, 156).

The WOL church was able to make use of the freedom of the time to engage more broadly in evangelistic ministries in Henan and surrounding areas. As the church sent out evangelistic teams to various regions, with some ground work done, they would organize evangelistic meetings, followed by Life Meetings, Truth Meetings, and short-term training. In the process house churches were established, local leaders were chosen, and dedicated believers were selected for more training to be future MGs. Thus, a cycle of ministry was gradually taking shape that was to become the norm of WOL ministry in the years to come.

Revival was taking place in multiple regions among the WOL house churches and the ripples of revival naturally expanded outwards. Typically in the ministry pattern of the WOL system, MGs were instrumental in the revivals as they travelled from place to place ministering among the people. “The hearts of the people were ready for the gospel before it was preached to them. In revival meetings, co-workers needed to pick out those from the family who were ready for the message to participate in the meetings. Sometimes people in the family fought to be included in the meetings. All wanted to participate and yet it was up to the decision of the responsible co-workers” (Personal interview with Deborah Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2009).

Deborah provided support for the MGs who were responsible for leading the revival meetings, typically through prayer and encouragement as she identified prayer for God’s Spirit to work in these meetings as basic to yielding of fruits. So she was on her knees multiple hours a day on her own and with fellow co- workers petitioning and interceding. Fasting was a common practice for the WOL co-workers in ministry like this. Very often those who were involved in leading the revival meetings would fast 2-3 days before the events ever took place. ‘Without prayer, there is no power’, as Deborah often stressed.

Deborah recalled one of the series of revival meetings in the mid 80s in Henan,

Every night baptism in hundreds for 2 months. Sometimes when the Holy Spirit had already prepared the hearts people were saved even before the preaching. Hospitality family would cook all day long with smoke coming out of the chimney all the time. Police noticed and came to disturb. When they entered the courtyard, they were overwhelmed with headache. One police head was sickened with cancer. A believer went to evangelize him, asking him to cry out to God for healing and help, and he came to faith (Personal interview with Deborah Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2009).

Deborah was a model for many women leaders of the WOL network and other house church groups. She was often looked up as gifted, devoted, and empowered for ministry. She was also a big sister, aunt, and someone who was always ready to others. Many of those who came to faith through Deborah’s ministry eventually became co-workers in the house churches. “She was a trumpet of God, calling people to service. She was an encourager of believers for ministry,” as one of the former MGs said. The MGs who came back for retreats would always gather around Deborah with stories and questions to share with her. And Deborah would always deal with the questions in Bible studies she led in retreats (Personal interview with Sister M in Henan, China in 2010).

Persecution

After Peter Xu was arrested in 1988 due to plans to meet with Billy Graham, the task of leading the movement naturally revolved around Deborah, who sought every decision from God in prayer and fellowship. Deborah, together with Sister J, took on the leadership role in the network, organizing national and regional co-workers’ meetings, directing training affairs, visiting with leaders of various levels, etc., when Xu was not around.

When opposition became fierce, revivals took place all the more as house church gatherings were intensified and underground training strengthened. Deborah travelled from place to place, holding leadership meetings, teaching at training centers, and preaching in revival meetings. The news of Peter Xu’s arrest in 1988 actually became an encouragement for Deborah, as well as for others serving in the network, to persist in what she felt called to do, ready to bear marks of persecution. She had already put fear behind her facing the fact that, as a top leader of the WOL network, she was in constant danger of being targeted by the authorities. And she had indeed been arrested on multiple occasions and put in detention or under house arrest.

Leadership

In trials like severe external opposition against the church and internal difficulties, Deborah demonstrated herself as a leader of great wisdom and strong faith in the Lord. She encouraged fellow Christians with examples of the early church in Acts, how, in prayer, fellowship, encouragement and support, Christians stood in solidarity with one another. In one of the interviews Deborah shared the story of one female MG, Sister L, who was planning to return to her hometown for a visit with elderly parents and siblings after years of ministry away from home. On hearing of the news that Peter Xu was arrested, Sister L immediately gave up the furlough opportunity and continued her ministry where she was. To WOL Christians, harsh times as such were the moments when they especially needed to stay with “family.” Deborah explained, “I was in the leadership of organizing training/meeting/fellowship during the time when Peter was not around. Sister J was another leader of the church, organizing the fellowship meetings and training. Whenever unexpected difficult situations arose among members of the house churches, people would come to me for advice and counseling. This just came naturally over the years” (Personal interview with Deborah Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2009).

On one occasion, in the mid-1990s, Deborah had to leave J City, where she had been teaching, to N City to organize a month-long annual conference that involved representatives of WOL pastors from across the country. Deborah was responsible for coordinating the speakers for the conference, making sure of the hospitality family and supplies for the event, security precautions, making necessary communication, etc. During conference, Debora led prayer meetings as well as participating in fellowship and consultation with pastors from different regions who came with reports as well as questions. This was typically a time when the network examined the work in different parts of the country and reflected on the ministerial experience. Visions and directions of the movement were also shared in the meetings as participants engaged in reflecting on the Word of God together. Deborah’s room was always full of people day and night, sharing, consulting, studying the Bible, praying, and singing.

When Peter Xu was released in 1991, he went to P City for a leadership meeting. After hearing reports from regional leaders, Peter realized that the WOL network was growing even while he was locked away in the three years between 1988–91. Persecution is often identified as a factor for church growth. Christian solidarity, however, in times of opposition, and persistence in ministry empowered by the Holy Spirit, preaching, evangelizing, teaching, serving and loving spoke volume to believers.

Deborah’s teaching and preaching often stressed the repentance of sins and importance of possessing new life in Christ through rebirth. One of verses she often quoted in her sharing was from Acts 2:37, “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’’ She would train those serving in the house churches to prepare sermons that allowed the Spirit of God to cut right to the hearts of the congregation, to convict and revive. In time this stress naturally became a measure by which believers evaluated preachers – whether or not the message cut to the hearts. Deborah recalls, “everyone wanted to hear more when the message cut right to the hearts, and felt disappointed when it did not” (Personal interview with Deborah Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2009).

Deborah shared from her experience of identifying those who did not possess new life through the rebirth experience. “You find such in all levels of the church ministry who seem to be able to teach and speak, and yet without life, sooner or later they will fall into temptation and bring damage to ministry. So it is important to identify those who need to be born again before they can be trusted with any forms of ministry of the church” (Personal interview with Deborah Xu in Los Angeles, California in 2009). As a frequent speaker in leadership training sessions and retreats, Deborah made sure that those serving in the ministries of the church got the message so that not only leaders themselves reexamine themselves constantly of their relationship with God as they serve, but also they would, in their ministry, partner with God in producing born-agains rather than the merely ‘saved’ Christians.

This emphasis seems natural when we take into consideration of the legacy left by Marie Monsen in her ministry in Henan and her role in Shangtung Revival in the early 20th century, when she was known for her radical insistence on a thorough repentance of one’s sins and being born again of all true Christians. It was then quite common a phenomenon that in revival meetings she conducted, ‘The people were struck to the bone with God’s conviction, were sickened by their sin, and revival broke out’, while Christians were renewed through a thorough repentance and rededication of their lives to God (Hattaway and Hattaway 2002, 4).

Prayer

Deborah is known as a woman of prayer among fellow house church believers. For almost all her life she has been on her knees for extended long prayers and intercession everyday. Even as a young teenager, Deborah was already exercising intimate communion with God in her unique style, spending time wherever and whenever she could on her knees. This was often witnessed by her siblings and peers. She cultivated a habit of communicating with God multiple times a day, praising God, letting God know her inner thoughts and struggles and questions, asking God to show His will in decisions she needed to make, blessings on the things she intended to do, and interceding for the needs of others, spiritually and physically.

Later on as she started to take on more responsibilities of the network as it grew significantly in size and influence, her prayer life became more evidently witnessed and appreciated by co-workers around her. ‘She would seek God’s will in prayer for everything before she makes any move or decision, which is also an emphasis of the WOL teaching, that in everything seek the will of God in prayer until the Spirit brings unity in community so that everyone is on the same page as to what measures should be taken’, said Sister S.

In almost every kind of meeting of the house churches, i.e. prayer meetings, Bible studies, co-workers’ meetings, retreats, leadership meetings, fellowship meetings and underground seminary training, people would often find Deborah already on her knees in prayer well before the meeting started. And fellow Christians respected Deborah as a powerful prayer warrior because in her prayers she was able to engage God’s promises in Scripture. ‘She prays with the Bible’, as one of her fellow co-workers said. Years of prayer on her knees left clear marks on Deborah as well as many other believers of the WOL: thick callous on the knees. To Deborah, and others in the house churches, praying on her knees is a natural expression of humbleness when approaching a holy God in honor and respect.

Confession of Faith of House Churches in China

In 1998, Deborah, representing the WOL house church network, participated in the drafting of the “Confession of Faith of House Churches in China.” Representatives from four large house church networks came together in Beijing studying, praying, and reflecting on the Word of God for the sake of drafting a united declaration of faith. The rational behind this effort was, first of all, a practical step in the unity process. After separating from one another for more than a decade, leaders of house church networks came back together for fellowship and unity. “A spirit of unity prevailed among them, believing that it pleases the Lord for them to come together as members of the same body of Christ and to promote spiritual unity among them for more effective evangelism in the next century” (Aikman 2003, 295). Since then, there had been some collaboration in ministry across the different house church networks such as joint training sessions and mutual fellowship meetings. Secondly, this Statement served as clarification over controversies, primarily fabricated accusation from the authorities against these large house church groups.

In order to arrive at a common standard of faith among house churches in China, in order to establish a common basis for developing unity among fellow churches in China and overseas, in order to let the government and the Chinese public understand the positions of our faith, and in order to distinguish ourselves from heresies and cults, top leaders of a few major house church groups have come together in a certain village in North China in November, 1998, to pray together, to search the Scriptures, and to draft the confession of faith as shown below (Chao 1999, 2-4; Aikman 2003, 297).

The Confession dealt with seven doctrinal categories that reflect the basics of orthodox historical Christianity: The Bible, Triune God, Christ, Redemption, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the Last Days. Jonathan Chao, the late president of China Ministries International, helped organize and facilitate the important work. The committee of representatives convened for three days, reflecting on the important biblical and theological themes, each from a slightly different perspective, and yet reaching unity in the process of fellowship with one another. The Statement of Faith came out in published form in CMI’s journal, China Prayer Letter and Ministry Report in February, 1999 as an expression of unity movement among the house churches as well as a defense of their orthodoxy in theology in the midst of controversies on heresies and cults, as well as accusations against the house churches. The backlash of the publication, though, was the arrest of several of the participants.

Back to Jerusalem Ministries

Spreading the Gospel back to Jerusalem (BTJ) has been considered to be a call from God to the Chinese Christians to carry on the task of evangelization to all the remaining unreached areas in the world west of China, which includes Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Although the original vision was not clearly defined and promoted, in comparison to the BTJ vision as it is understood presently, in the first attempts by Christians from several different institutions and churches in the 1930s and 1940s, testimonies of their convictions, success and failure, suffering, and perseverance continue to impact believers. Simon Zhao was one such example, whose calling and experience had inspired many people. He had continued to minister after his release from prison where he spent many years of his life for the sake of spreading the gospel to the western part of China and beyond. He was among the few first-generation BTJ evangelists who was still living in the 1990s.

In the renewal of the BTJ vision, however, Deborah played an integral role in that she was instrumental in reconnecting the key figure in the early BTJ movement in the 1940s with the house church community in central China in the 1990s. Here is the story:

Bringing back Simon Zhao

When MGs from Xinjiang came back to report about believers who shared the BTJ vision, and stories about Simon Zhao experience and testimony in the early BTJ mission, leaders of house church networks assigned Deborah and Sister L the task of going into Xinjiang to bring back Simon Zhao to the house churches in central China. This was an important task because house church networks had just started to explore ways for unity after having been separated from each other since the mid-1980s. Bringing back Simon Zhao to rekindle the evangelistic vision given to the Chinese to take the gospel back to Jerusalem was the common desire shared among the leaders of different house church networks. And therefore, Deborah and Sister L went as representatives of united house church networks in China.

Without the knowledge of Zhao’s exact location, Deborah and Sister L went through county after county looking for Simon Zhao. Due to the poor transportation system in that part of the country and also lacking supply for themselves, they frequently had to ask for rides on construction transportation trucks to take them wherever possible and covered the rest of the journey on foot. It was weeks before they eventually found Zhao in a meeting one night where he was preaching. They waited until the end of the gathering before confronting him with their intent. Deborah assured Zhao the confidence and conviction of Christians in China’s Midland (Henan Province and its surrounding areas) that it was God’s appointed time for the BTJ vision to be renewed among the house churches. Zhao listened carefully without a response, as he always waited upon what he received from the Lord before making any decision. The group prayed together, and in prayer they sought God’s blessing as well as spiritual unity among them in this effort.

Early the next morning, Deborah saw Zhao on his knees in the grass on the nearby hill. He came back and kept quiet before God and wept in prayer. Everyone present knelt with him in prayer realizing that God was dealing with him. Scriptural verses poured out from Zhao’s prayer, from which Deborah joyfully sensed that God had sanctioned her mission to bring Zhao to the house churches. Rising from his prayer Simon Zhao informed Deborah of his decision to go to Henan to meet with the house church saints there.

Because Zhao needed time to make proper arrangements for his ministry before he could travel to Henan, and Deborah had to leave without him for her responsibilities in TE-3 training at the house churches. She left money for Zhao, who was in his 80s then, to take a sleeper train to Henan, and made arrangements for him to stay with hospitality families in L City when he arrived. Deborah later understood that Simon Zhao never took a sleeper, nor even a seat. He just found some space on the floor of the train all the way from Xinjiang to Henan and donated the rest of the money to someone in need! Christians in the house churches were greatly touched by the testimony of Simon Zhao even before he spoke about the Back to Jerusalem vision.

Zhao was taken into different house church gatherings to share about his experience and the BTJ vision. He was in high demand from revival meetings, leadership meetings and underground seminaries. In one of the underground seminaries where Ruth Xu (Deborah’s sister-in-law) was in charge of training, Simon went in and wrote ‘Antioch’ on the board as he started immediately to narrate the acts of the apostles. Eloquently as he spoke, students and teachers were much encouraged by his knowledge of the Bible, richness in his teaching, and confidence in the fulfillment of the BTJ vision.

Deborah made arrangements for Simon Zhao’s itinerary while he was in Henan. Zhao spoke primarily on the BTJ vision as he also shared and taught many of the poems and hymns he had written in prison. He became a key advisor for the WOL and other networks and was mightily used by God at the time when he was able to provide much-needed insight to the leadership of the WOL from his experience and faith. Christians looked up to him as a model of what God’s workers should be, and loved him dearly. Leaders constantly went to him for fellowship and advice. As Simon Zhao frequented revival meetings, leadership meetings and other forms of fellowships among the house churches, his presence brought great encouragement and affirmation to the house church Christians. Zhao went to be with the Lord on December 7, 2001, in Pingdingshan, Henan Province, among the Christians he loved and who loved him. He left behind him stories, testimonies, songs and poems that Christians continue to tell and share and find encouragement from.

“Prayer Warrior” of BTJ – Mission Continued

Deborah has always been a woman of prayer. Since the early years of her Christian journey she developed a life of dependent prayer. Since coming to the US she has been actively involved in prayer support, among other speaking and teaching responsibilities, for the Back to Jerusalem ministries. She typically spends many hours of her day in prayer, and sometimes the entire day. She is convinced that God will fulfill his promise through agents he has called in mission with him. And above everything else, she sees prayer as the prerequisite for any ministry attempt.

Her prayer almost always starts with a sense of humility before God, and thanksgiving for his salvation. She always grasps God’s words in the Bible and claims the promise there. In humility she acknowledges herself as an unworthy vessel God graciously chooses to work with; in faith she dares to claim victory based on the promises in the Bible. To Deborah, spreading the gospel all the way back to Jerusalem is already assured and will be fulfilled in God’s timing.

Deborah is also actively involved in establishing and participating in prayer groups in North America where she has been since 2005, frequently speaking in churches and fellowship gatherings, testifying to the miracles of God in the China, advocating the BTJ vision, and encouraging young Christians for dedication to Christian service. Whenever she prays, fellow Christians take note of the charisma and authority that accompany her prayer. In one of the prayer groups specifically for BTJ ministries, fellow Christians who are encouraged by the presence of the Spirit within Deborah call her ‘Prayer warrior’. Deborah hopes to establish a prayer base in Jerusalem in the near future, where she could pray, and invite others to join her in prayer, for God’s provision and empowerment of BTJ ministries through which the gospel may be preached to unreached nations all the way back to Jerusalem. As a leader and member of the renewed community of house churches in China, Deborah continues to make herself available to God in channeling the ripples of renewal to the global church.

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