Jonathan Chao, 65; Missionary Who Tracked the Development of Christianity in China

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Jonathan Chao, a Christian missionary who spent 25 years teaching his faith in his native China and tracking the development of Christianity in that country under Communist rule, has died. He was 65.

Chao suffered from lymphoma and died in the Citrus Valley Hospice in West Covina on Jan. 12, said his brother, professor Sam Chao, dean of the theology department at Life Christian University in Gardena.

Beginning in 1978, Chao traveled to China more than 100 times from his home in West Covina to train ministers to lead the Christian “house church” movement. The underground movement began in private homes soon after the Communist takeover of the country in 1949, when religious practice was restricted.


At the end of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, restrictions eased and a wave of Christian evangelism surfaced in China. Chao quietly began to lead training sessions despite the possibility of government repression. Several of his colleagues were imprisoned for their involvement in the church. He managed to avoid arrest but was blacklisted and forbidden to reenter the country. He last visited the country two years ago.

“Rev. Chao provided theological leadership and a means of structuring religious education within the house church movement,” said Edwin Lee, acting president of the Pasadena-based China Ministries International.

Chao founded China Ministries International, with branches in six countries, to research the growth of Christianity in modern China. The group estimates that there are now at least 65 million Christians in China, Lee said in an interview with The Times on Thursday.

Chao’s training program relied on Bible study and teaching essential Christian beliefs, Lee explained. To facilitate his goals, he helped establish several training centers near China, including the Graduate School of Theology in Hong Kong.

He taught courses in theology and Chinese religious history there and at several other seminaries in Asia and the United States.

Chao first became interested in Christianity in China as a seminary student. Having followed developments there for about 40 years, he anticipated a shortage of well-educated religion teachers when restrictions eased in the 1970s.

“My brother saw the need to provide sound Christian teaching,” Chao’s sister, Rose Chao Lee, told The Times. “That was his mission.”

Born in northeastern China and raised in Japan, Chao moved to Los Angeles as a teenager in 1958. His father, a Presbyterian minister, was invited to California to help establish a program to translate the Bible into Chinese.

One of 10 children, Chao knew that he wanted to be a missionary to China from the time he was 16, his sister said. He graduated from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., and earned a Master of Divinity degree at Westminster Theological Seminary and a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1965, he married his wife, Rebecca, who worked with him to mentor a number of seminary students and young ministers. They had no children.

Chao wrote numerous articles and books, including a Chinese missionary handbook. His “A History of Christianity in Socialist China, 1949-1997,” published in 1998, is perhaps his best-known work.

From the time that he learned of the plight of the house church movement, Chao often lectured on the subject at religious conferences in the U.S., and helped raise funds to support its efforts.

“Rev. Chao made known to the West the need for training for house church leaders,” said Pastor Ken H. Wong of the First Evangelical Church of the San Gabriel Valley, who traveled to China with members of China Ministries International several years ago.

“He mobilized experts from around the world to go and train them. He had numerous impacts, but that was his main contribution.”

Chao is survived by his father, the Rev. Charles Chao; his mother, Pearl; his wife; and eight brothers and sisters.

A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at First Evangelical Church of the San Gabriel Valley, 3658 N. Walnut Grove Ave., Rosemead.