NEW YORK — A Chinese pastor who suffered much persecution for spreading Christianity in the officially atheist country, sent the faith of a global gathering of Christians soaring Wednesday when he testified how his entire atheist family turned to God after he was healed of an illness that had left him crippled in his youth through prayers to Jesus.
Zhang Heng, associate director of China Gospel Mission and senior pastor at Zaidao Church in Beijing China, told several hundred people at the Movement Day Global Cities conference at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City Wednesday that the healing which triggered his journey into Christianity also led to the creation of many churches in China.
Speaking through a translator, Abraham Jiang, ministry leader with Shanghai Logos Church in Shanghai, in an interview with Ebony Small, director Movement Day and Events, The New York Leadership Center, Heng explained how as a youth he suffered from an unspecified medical condition that left him paralyzed until 1979.
Up until that year, Heng said, he had no hope and there were times when he wanted to take his life. He said he cried out to God for help and God sent him a preacher who introduced him to Jesus.
The preacher told Heng: "That Jesus was the son of God and died for our sins and three days later rose," that if he received Jesus, he would be forgiven and he could be healed and get into Heaven.
"I was not too much concerned about forgiveness, all I was concerned about was my own health," Heng confessed to laughter.
For his healing, the preacher instructed the desperate Heng to pray and fast for seven days and "on the seventh day, the Lord healed me," Heng testified. "I rose up and walked."
The miracle shocked Heng's family so much they immediately began praising Jesus and repented almost like a scene from Acts in the Bible.
"The whole family saw this and just knelt down to pray to receive the Lord as their personal savior," he said to applause.
A month later Heng's family had a thanksgiving party at their house and invited friends and the preacher who told them about God.
"The preacher shared the Gospel with them and I gave out my own testimony telling everybody what Jesus had been doing in my life. More than 50 people just came to faith. We started a church that very night," said Heng.
In the next eight years, that group grew into a movement that created 200 churches which attracted more than 20,000 converts.
"We started a nationwide network, sending people to different provinces to preach," Heng said.
Despite the successes however, the Christian movement in China suffered significant attacks from Chinese authorities.
"Many of the different ministers were thrown into jail again. I was chased around for more than five years and thrown into prison for three years. I asked God why I have to be in jail. The Lord told me, 'there's a need for the Gospel in this place. So even in the prison we had many came to faith, baptized them in the restrooms," Heng said.
Despite the persecution of the Church in China, however, Christianity has exploded in the nation to an estimated 100 million adherents.
Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule, told The Telegraph that China, which is still officially an atheist nation of 1.3 billion people, could boast the most Christians in less than a generation.
"It is going to be less than a generation. Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change," he said.
Christian congregations have mushroomed at a rapid pace in China since Chairman Mao's death in 1976, according to the Telegraph.
"By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon," Yang said.
The professor, who is a leading expert on religion in China, estimates that by 2025 China will boast 160 million Christians. That estimate is expected to surpass the U.S. which reported 159 million Protestants in 2010 but is experiencing dwindling congregations.
China's total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world by 2030, Yang predicted.
"Mao thought he could eliminate religion. He thought he had accomplished this," Yang said. "It's ironic — they didn't. They actually failed completely."