Zhang Guanru, the younger of two brothers, was born in 1924 in Neihuang County, near the city of Anyang, Henan Province. His father died when he was six, leaving behind Guanru, his mother, and his older brother. He was exposed to the Confucian Classics by his grandfather and his uncle. They also introduced him to some Christians.
A distant relative took him to a revival meeting conducted by Dr. John Song (Sung) he was thirteen. Of that event, he wrote, “It was because of God’s grace that I was saved [at that meeting]. The work of the Holy Spirit was wonderful; I felt that I needed Jesus Christ and therefore I accepted Him as my Lord.” (Yeoung, 12) For the rest of his life, he showed the influence of Song’s evangelistic zeal and style of preaching.
Immediately, he began reading the Bible through annually, a practice he never gave up, except when deprived of a Bible during part of his imprisonment. Zhang was greatly burdened for the salvation of his mother and of his brother, who was a frequent gambler. Once, he walked with his brother on the latter’s way to a gambling hall, weeping for him all along the way. Within a year, both his mother and his brother were converted and baptized.
Soon after his conversion, Zhang began to preach to his friends and in a local church. He mimicked John Song’s hairstyle, long scholar’s gown, and dramatic preaching style. Within a year, he was preaching to congregations of several hundred.
The Sino-Japanese War and the Civil War
In 1940, Zhang’s uncle enrolled him in a Bible school run by the American Mennonite Church, which also operated churches, a secondary school, and a hospital in Henan. In 1942, however, Japanese troops occupied the school and other mission properties, detained the missionaries, and sent the students back to their homes.
Returning to his home county, Zhang worked in the fields to support his family, while he continued his study of the Confucian Classics and his habit of reading the Bible through every year. He also helped out at a village church in Neihuang. In time, he was serving as a pastor and evangelist with the Mennonites. When a special itinerant evangelistic team was formed, he was one of three pastors in the leadership.
After the Sino-Japanese War ended, the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists resumed. Soon, the Henan General Assembly of Mennonites had to withdraw their foreign missionaries, and helped Zhang gain entrance to the Guanzhong Theological Seminary in Sanyuan, Shaanzi Province. He finished the three-year course in two years, but was prevented from returning home by the civil war.
The Canadian Mennonite church arranged for him to work with the Canadian United Church in Sichuan. While engaged in various ministries, such as church planting and conducting Bible studies for Christian university students in Chengdu, Zhang also attended classes at a university. He engaged in pastoral and evangelistic work in Fuling, Sichuan (now in Chongqing Municipality) in 1948-1949.
In 1950 Zhang returned to Shaanxi with his friend Wang Huairen, and served churches in the Weibei District, north of the Wei River. He and Wang were ordained in 1955. The church in Sanyan was his base for both pastoral work and for itinerant revival meetings in various other places. His mother and wife came to Shaanxi. They eventually had four daughters.
The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution
During the Great Leap Forward, the government prohibited churches from receiving offerings, so Wang had to find another source of income. He and his wife, along with church members, started a sheep’s milk product factory, from which they earned enough to support themselves. During that time, he says, “there was actually little work to do for the church. Religious activities were not frequent and few people attended them.” (Yeoung, 19)
The government regarded Christians, and Christian workers in particular, as “harboring imperialism, and the people involved in church activities engaged in counter-revolutionary activities advancing the cause of imperialism. ”(20) He and twenty-seven other church leaders, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, were imprisoned in 1966, at the start of Cultural Revolution. Zhang was sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment and reform through labor.
Zhang’s wife worked hard to survive and to care for her children on a meager income. She had to cut off ties to church members for fear of causing them trouble, but some of them assisted her secretly. She visited her husband only a few times during those years, both because of the cost of travel and because of the possible criticism she might receive for taking time off from work.
Because he was in jail, Zhang was spared the atrocities that millions of educated people suffered during the Cultural Revolution. He wrote later, “You could not have imagined how great God was had you not lived through the period of the Cultural Revolution. Faith was what mattered most. God knew what was happening, and was watching over us in prison, where we were not allowed to show any religious behavior. We could not read the Bible because everything was confiscated from us. But we could pray within ourselves, without appearing to be praying.” (8)
He explained their situation further: “When I gather with other old people these days, we often say that our generation had gone through the worst time and suffered the most, yet had the richest experience… . Religious behavior was banned in priso9ns, but we could remember His Word.” (25)
Church properties were confiscated during that time, as was the milk product factory.
Return to Church Ministry
When Zhang was released from prison in 1980, he returned to the church and resumed his ministry. For two years he also worked in the milk factory, but then devoted himself to full-time ministry in the church, because the initially small congregation had once again started to grow.
He petitioned the local government to return all the church’s properties, starting with the rooms in the church building that had been occupied by people who had moved in and set up their home there. The process was long and arduous, but repeated requests and constant prayer finally bore fruit, and all buildings and land belonging to the church was eventually given back.
Shaanxi Bible College and other Initiatives
As great spiritual hunger gripped many people during the 1980s, Zhang’s congregation grew so much that he had to train others to help in the ministry. Pastor Zhang and a few other older pastors provided instruction in very simple facilities. In 1986, they decided to start a seminary, but the government insisted that it must be called a Bible college
“All we had were noodles and a little bit of oil … , yet we managed to move forward.” (30) “We had no budget because we simply did not know how much money would come and what the needs would be. God simply provided us with what we needed.” (31)
Students came from all over, some with no money for expenses. Tuition was waived for them. Zhang explains how God provided: “We never raised any funds, nor told anyone that we were poor. Everything just came from God. Some brothers and sisters from Taiwan helped us out. God also moved other people outside China to donate to our school.” (30) A large donation from Canada helped greatly.
A new building for worship was constructed in the 1990s with funds from outside augmenting money contributed by church members. Interestingly, whereas the former structure, built under the missionaries, featured a Chinese architectural style, the new one looks entirely Western.
Even before the founding of the Bible college, Zhang had seen the need to equip more church workers, and launched a “Shaanxi Pastoral Staff Training Class” in 1983. Zhang served as the main teacher, though others helped out as well. This training course continues to the present.
Even after he officially retired as pastor, Zhang continued his active ministry, leading Sunday worship services and preaching in various parts of China, keeping up a discipline daily schedule: Rising at six AM, he was in his office early in the morning, and then working until ten PM, with a noonday nap and dinner at home. He wrote, “I am old but God’s grace is sufficient. His strength is made perfect through my weakness. He provides me with the strength to do the work that needs to be done. As long as my heart beats and I can breathe normally, I can’t refrain from working for the Lord.” (32)
Commitments and concerns
Some of Zhang’s sayings are worth repeating. Examples are:
“We [pastors] should not be dedicated to the Lord just on the surface. We should live out what we have heard, and serve him in our daily life, instead of just hearing or preaching the Word. Ministry should be part of our lives.” (33)
“The deeds and behavior of many Christians have had a great impact on society. This helps change people’s concept of the church. When I was small, people called missionaries ‘foreign devils’ and the followers of Christ, like us, ‘second foreign devils.’ [Now, however,] people’s perception of Christianity has changed.” (43)
Pastor Zhang believed that Christianity brought great social benefits to society. “When people go to a church and sing a hymn, they feel liberated spiritually.” Christianity and other religions also “encourage people to do good.” (44)
As for his reasons for serving within the government-sanctioned TSPM, Zhang said, “The Bible tells us clearly that we are only transients on earth. We are supposed to abide by the laws in the society. It does not contradict our religion to register with the religious Affairs Bureau.” (44)
In his later years, Zhang was concerned about the spiritual quality of many pastors: “Some claim to be preaching Christianity but in fact they are not spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (45) He was also worried about the rampant spread of cults, and the fact that “some actually combine Christianity with superstitious beliefs.” (45) The shortage of trained church workers made believers more vulnerable, he thought.
To enable the gospel to penetrate Chinese society, Zhang believed that Christian workers must have an understanding of Chinese culture, as he had gained from reading the Confucian Classics.
Finally, it is important to note that he attributed the rapid growth of the church in recent decades to the work of God’s Spirit. “Many people came to Christ not because of us, but rather the Spirit which led them to Christ through believers… God has prepared many people’s hearts for the gospel.” (45)
People who knew Zhang Guanru testified to his outstanding character. A fellow pastor said “that he “has rich knowledge and a strong moral character and faith.” (34) His son, also a pastor in a rural church, described Zhang as “a rare example of someone who lives up to his faith.” (34)
His wife, Jia Qingyun, died in 2005. Though their marriage in 1936 had been an arranged union, the couple cherished deep love and affection for each other, and were full partners in ministry. Originally illiterate, she eventually learned to read the Bible.
- Adapted from Linda Yeoung, The Gentle Pastor with Rock Solid Faith. Hong Kong: Christian Communications Ltd. 2008.