High population density, limited living space, and soaring real estate rental costs are all characteristic of cities. The utilization of space to its maximum can also mean increased road congestion, lack of parking space, and living inconveniences. Until 2009, our congregation in Shanghai worshipped in a facility located on Wuzhong Road with 1,900 square meters of space and a parking lot of 50 spaces. These were crowded conditions for the 1,500 worshippers who attended; furthermore, there were traffic jams at the Wuzhong Road entrance on Sunday mornings which put a burden on the neighborhood. If church attendance would have increased to 10,000 or more, it would have been a disaster for the local community. The church is to be a source of blessing, service, and help to the community—not a burden and problem maker.
However, our church, the Universal Mission Church, which had experienced a brief revival and growth spurt, has gone through a significant transformation following the refining experience that resulted from the ban in 2009. The concept of pastoring megacity churches has given way to finding a new church model that retains the advantages of smaller churches yet allows the church to thrive in any environment.
Both the cross-removal campaign in Zhejiang Province in 2014-2015 in which crosses on church buildings were removed forcibly by government authorities and information about church development in Central Asia shared by a missionary have confirmed that the path we have chosen to follow is consistent with God’s will. The Universal Mission Church must take the time to walk a path that is entirely new—a path that churches of today are unwilling to walk—a pioneer path for China’s churches.
“Big church, small congregations” is a model of unity for church government: one vision, one training system, the same Sunday message. However, when it comes to the specific form of congregation, there are many independent ones. Each congregation has no more than 150 people—a group larger than 150 will be divided into two. The full-time pastors of the congregations meet every Monday and Friday to worship and pray together, share their own congregations’ issues and concerns, and explore the scriptures and sermon topics for the following week. We preserve the DNA of the Universal Mission Church. We are one church utilizing our integrated strengths for one mission, yet each congregation maintains the concept of small group discipleship. The leader is responsible for shepherding, discovering, and building up new workers. Small groups submit to the authority of the pastor of their congregation, and the congregational pastors in turn submit to the authority of the senior pastor.
The foremost emphasis of “big church, small congregations” is oneness—that is, one church. Why one church? An evangelical church should be a church with scale and capabilities that enable it to act swiftly when necessary. Experience tells us that it is challenging for individual churches to connect with each other while large churches can better take action. The concept of small congregations is that small-scale churches can be strategically located in every corner of the city. The transformation of a city’s spiritual condition is dependent upon not only the influence of large-scale churches, but more importantly, assemblies of Christians that are found in the streets and alleyways to daily worship, pray, watch, and guard the cities.
After the modification within the Universal Mission Church, its overall vision has remained unchanged: the mission direction stays the same; the path of small congregations remains unchanged; the enthusiasm for evangelism is more solidified; the dedication to missions’ work will be even deeper while the way of pastoral ministry modifies. The most significant change is that the church goes back to the DNA of the Chinese house church through suffering: Grounded in the Bible, praying often, preaching for life, accepting suffering, and seeing miraculous signs and wonders as normal experiences.
The vision of our church is “turning many disciples into Christ’s servants so that together we fulfill the “50-500-5,000 Great Commission” of world evangelism. A born-again Christian who is a dedicated disciple of Jesus needs to cultivate 50 other productive disciples in his or her lifetime. Our church divided the city into 500 districts for worship assemblies. We also plan to connect with more churches to help plant over 5,000 independent churches across the entire nation. Led by this vision, we will firmly walk the path of church branches and church planting, changing our ministry model from the Walmart supermarket store concept to that of the 7-Eleven chain stores.
In a large church, excessive systemization and extensive processes often exist; church workers, especially full-time workers, serve in an overly professional way. Their work is more technical, not necessarily involved in serving people directly. As a result, most serve with self-protection or are satisfied with meeting tangible objectives. Their zeal to serve cools over time; their ministry calling becomes diluted, and eventually they lose their original sense of mission.
After a church adopts the new model, workers in branch congregations have a relatively greater sense of responsibility because they are directly involved in shepherding people. They become accountable and feel that the work they do is directly linked to their calling. Like their senior pastors, they have the same unceasing passion and motivation to serve. Additionally, through their practical pastoral experiences, they receive directly from God his provision and satisfaction. While working hard and making continuous progress, these workers’ gifts are developed and used by the Holy Spirit to bring healthy development to the church.
The overall church leadership makes its decisions through a five-fold ministry team with differing spiritual gifts. When a direction-setting decision is needed, the prophetic team prays for God’s will first. Next, the results from the prayers are examined by the team of teachers to see if they are consistent with biblical teaching. Finally, the decision is made by the apostles’ team. This team approach contributes to the prevention of personal fame.
Each worker in the church partners with other workers. They watch and pray for each other. Even pastors responsible for leading branch congregations are under the umbrella of the pastors’ team. Though they have authority and responsibility, they too are being shepherded. In the eyes of society, they are simply pastors of churches, ordinary men of faith.
A church made up of branch congregations has the flexibility to both centralize and decentralize—decentralization in shepherding, assembly, and church management, but centralization in training and evangelism, oneness in vision and unity in prayer. This means the relationship between the senior pastor and the congregational pastors is very important. It enables good communication, free expression of feelings and emotions, as well as exploration of biblical truths together. These help strengthen the relationship between the senior pastor and the pastor of a church plant. With respect to the hierarchical authority permitted by God and under the protection of such authority, both pastors can have a more effective ministry.
Church planting in China is still a relatively new concept and we need to be prudent in our initial steps. Perhaps experiences from past failures and attempts will help us as we move forward. It is our sincere desire to learn to accept the more advanced model from the West by equipping church planters, providing family health assessments and psychological counseling, setting pastoral direction, and establishing pastoral philosophy. In addition, it will be beneficial to provide assistance to church planters in designing Sunday worship, building teams, selecting church workers, training and growing small groups, and other initiatives. We have just begun this journey, and this present model, which needs further development, can benefit from ongoing discussion and research. There may never be a perfect church model, but we are willing to obey God’s will to discover, execute, and create a healthier and more suitable model for China’s church.
Translation by Ping Ng