In the summer of 2011, I spent about two months traversing China from Kunming in the south to Hegang near the Russian border in the north. The purpose was to visit registered churches in a total of 22 cities and to interview pastors in those churches. I kept a journal in which I recorded information from my interviews and descriptions of what I saw and experienced of China along the way. What follows is the fifth excerpt from those journals. Previous excerpts can be found at “A Tour of Three-Self Churches.”
Today’s breakfast was better than most. They even had coffee! So I didn’t have to make the rather long walk to the KFC I had spotted on my way in.
After lunch, I took a taxi to the Nanyang church. It was tucked back into an old neighborhood down a long, narrow alley. Small restaurants, convenience stores, and shops selling “family planning aids” lined the alley. It was naptime, so not very crowded.
I entered the metal gate of the church, which was open a crack, and peered into the small gatekeeper’s room. Inside was a man who appeared to be in his 60s (he was actually 57). Mr. Bai greeted me with a beaming smile that showed off several partially gold teeth. Explaining that it was still naptime for the pastor, he wondered if I would mind waiting in his room. I said that would be great and he offered me a glass of tea, pointing out that it had just been poured—the first glass from the pot. We chatted about our work, our families, and the church, me struggling to understand through his heavy local accent. He said this was the first time he had spoken Putonghua in several years, and the first time he had ever spoken with a foreigner. I was pleased to be the source of a unique experience for him. After about a half hour, he suddenly proclaimed that he would take me to see the pastor.
Pastor Yang was a sixty-ish gentleman with rather long (for a Chinese male) graying hair that kept falling over his forehead, and a sort of self-satisfied smirk constantly playing at the corners of his mouth. He had a different air about him than any other Chinese pastor I had met, reminding me of the stereotypical British professor. In fact, he looked a bit like the fellow who plays Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.
First, for some normal basic information. The church has two pastors, but one is off in Singapore studying this year. They hold four services on Sunday, including a youth service. It also has all the other groups and meetings typical of the Chinese church. A unique aspect is that they have a complete cycle of classes, from seekers class to a new believers class, and to small groups for leadership training, all designed to bring people from pre-faith all the way to leadership. This model, along with much else the church does, is taken from a Presbyterian church in Korea. About 10,000 believers worship in five churches in the area.
The church used to have the typical, traditional worship service, but has been changing. They now use what we would call a more contemporary format, with a time of singing and praise followed by the sermon. At this point, they only have a keyboard to lead in singing, but are hoping to add other instruments. They use songs from Zanmei Shige (Songs of Praise), Dajia Chang (Everybody Sing), Zanmei zhi chuan (Streams of Praise), and Jianan Shixuan (Songs of Canaan). The pastor said this change has not caused any problems because it has been done gradually.
Pastors in Beijing have frequently warned me about involvement with the church in Henan. Today I found out why. The first thing Pastor Yang did was to pull out a brochure from Shouwang Church in Beijing and ask if I was familiar with this church. It only dawned on me later that he had done this as a way of saying “we are like that church.” This Nanyang church used to be a Three-self church, but had pulled out of that organization several years ago. Although they have been invited back (an invitation not to be taken lightly), they have refused. Five other churches in the area are in the same situation, forming their own organization of sorts. One other church they started joined the Three-self. So in terms of Chinese church structure, this church is in a sort of no man’s land. This makes relations with the government tense.
When I asked Pastor Yang about his reasons for taking this course, the primary ones were theological. He maintains that the Three-self organization and churches in Henan are too focused on the social gospel, and have followed their mother church, the Anglican Church, into theologically liberal territory. He described his own church as more theologically conservative, following traditional Reformed theology. He said they get much training and leadership from reformed churches in Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Another issue leading to the split was their unwillingness to be under the Religious Affairs Bureau.
So who is right? Is the Nanyang church doing the right thing by pulling out of the Three-self and defying the government because of perceived theological issues? Or are the vast majority of registered churches on the right path, focusing on maintaining orthodoxy and for the most part ignoring the Three-self? I appreciate the deep spirituality and theological openness (not to be confused with an anything-goes attitude) that I have seen in the Three-self churches. At the same time, I am troubled by the focus on labels (Three-self, Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican) that was evident in my talk with Pastor Yang. But I also admire Pastor Yang and those like him for their Reformed witness and willingness to stand up for what they believe. Perhaps both are necessary, and both are being used by God to build his church in China.
Leaving the church with much to ponder, I got supper, retrieved my baggage, and took a taxi to the airport for a real treat—a flight to Zhengzhou.
Further excerpts from Wayne Ten Harmsel's journal of his tour of Three-self churches will follow in the coming weeks. You will be able to read them all in the series "A Tour of Three-Self Churches."
Image credits: Wayne Ten Harmsel
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