I deeply appreciate ChinaSource inviting me to respond to the winter 2021 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly (CSQ) focusing on Reformed theology and Reformed churches in China. Bruce Baugus and the other men and women who participated in the writing and publishing of “A Look at Reformed Churches in China Today” have made important first steps in elevating the voices of the Reformed house church community.
I have been involved in China ministry for the past 35 years in various capacities in China, the US, as well as Southeast Asia. These various forms of ministry have included campus outreach, discipleship, pre-marriage and marriage counseling, church planting, church development, leadership credentialing, and theological education. For the last twenty years, eight of which included living in Southwest China, I have co-labored with local pastors in China’s house church to facilitate church development and theological education.
During these past ten years I have taken the opportunity to talk with house church pastors in the Reformed community from all over China. Over the course of these years a question I posed to pastors during times of casual conversation had to do with how they would characterize China’s house church using human developmental stages. Almost without exception they all told me that China’s house church is an “adolescent”, meaning it has matured beyond the years of infancy and early childhood but is still very much working its way toward fuller maturity.
For me this has become a paradigm for understanding a very complex and multi-faceted community. Using this as a reference point, if the broader house church is an adolescent, for many, the Reformed community and its identification and confession of Reformed theology is a new form of agency that Reformed house churches are still learning to navigate. Just like a teenager learning to make important choices, this agency manifests itself in whom they choose to speak at conferences, whose books they read and translate, and which theological threads they follow, not to mention how they develop worship, theological education, and daily life around Reformed distinctives.
With this idea of agency in mind I was particularly energized to see that the majority of the CSQ contributors were Reformed house church leaders, many of whom are close personal friends. One of my passions is to help lift the voices of house church leaders as they theologize. Due to issues such as language, security, and scholarship barriers, the conversation taking place in the larger global theological and church community regarding issues such as contextualization, doctrine, and praxis often exclude the voices of these house church pastors and leaders. This issue must be addressed as we move forward.
The CSQ winter 2021 issue helps advance the cause of elevating these essential house church voices. I found Zhen Gao’s and Dong Mei’s article on contextualization very insightful and well-informed. Addressing issues such as economic challenges, educational concerns, political matters, and others that help the reader understand how pastoral care and theologizing must be shaped to deal with essential matters that are unique to the Chinese context.
Happy’s article presenting differing Reformed house church positions on church/state relations was immensely helpful in understanding this issue. He manages to handle a very sensitive topic in an appropriately objective manner leaving the reader with relevant information.
Tony Wang’s piece on Brakel’s four-volume The Christian’s Reasonable Service was thoughtful and practically minded as it helped me better see the useful applications of this important set of texts.
Several articles either directly or indirectly referenced the Early Rain (ER) church community in Chengdu and Rev Wang Yi. The articles written by Happy and Zhen Gao /Dong Mei were helpful in that they recognized ER’s contribution to the broader Reformed community while not necessarily agreeing with ER’s positions on certain matters. I found this helpful and meaningful because they recognized the contribution of ER and Wang Yi while either respectfully taking an opposing viewpoint or simply presenting ER’s position without mentioning whether they agreed or disagreed.
Bruce Baugus and Brent Fulton also mentioned ER in their pieces beginning on pages 17 and 24 respectively. I found their references to ER less helpful. In each of these cases it felt to me as if they were de-emphasizing ER and its impact. While it would be a mistake to conflate ER’s positions with the entire Reformed community, it is equally mistaken to downplay their influence.
From 2010-2018, Early Rain and the community of churches it worked with in Chengdu put on conferences, translated, published, and distributed Reformed literature, conducted formal theological education, broke new ground in Christian education, and gave many a glimpse of what a Reformed, and in particular Presbyterian, community could look like. That impact continues even now. Even with its flaws ER is a reference point for theological discourse and ecclesial life within China.
To be sure mistakes were made, and people were hurt, but to learn from these past experiences there must be thoughtful reflection. As such, I would take issue with Brent Fulton’s comments related to ER. Early Rain’s influence was not merely a product of the Western imagination, but something that was actively participated in and sought after by many within China’s Reformed and Reforming house church community who found a reason to make their way to Chengdu either to visit or take up long-term residence. While some of the activities that marked those years of ministry are gone, it would be a mistake to dismiss this chapter of the development of the Reformed church in China as simply a footnote of Chinese Reformed church history. For this I would simply offer a word of caution and counsel that those years are worth investigating further to learn the lessons of what was good and what should be avoided in the future. Without such reflective thinking the Reformed church in China will not benefit in its adolescent growth toward fuller maturity.
The house churches’ self-identification as an adolescent also helps frame how we understand theological education in China. Bruce Baugus’s update on the state of Reformed theological education in China is more or less accurate, but some fundamental pieces are missing.
In the introduction of Justo Gonzalez’s book, The History of Theological Education, he describes the global theological education situation as “in crisis.”1 What has brought about this crisis? This question gets at a much deeper and perhaps more relevant question of what the vision for Reformed theological education should be in this adolescent church community, considering the state of global and particularly Western theological education?
What was also missing was mention of how the overseas Chinese Reformed community has and will continue to play a role in the development of Reformed theological education in China. Publications were not mentioned either. Periodicals such as Church China have played a role and continue to do so in developing theology. This kind of input will continue to grow. I know of one Reformed house church seminary that plans to publish a full-length academic journal in 2022 containing book reviews of global theology by house church scholars as well as original theology articles. I am also encouraged by non-insider initiatives such as the Center for House Church Theology which recently was launched to help elevate theologizing house church voices.
I do appreciate and share Baugus’s optimism about the future. The task ahead is great, but our God is greater.
Image credit: Charles Deluvio via UnSplash
“Urban Farmer” is involved in theological education in China in differing capacities. In addition to working closely with house churches in China over the past 20 years, he has concentrated his ministry and research over the last decade on his two passions of church development and theological education in China’s …View Full Bio
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