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 fourth excerpt from those journals. Previous excerpts can be found at “A Tour of Three-Self Churches.”
June 25 and 26
Finding the Ankang Church was a challenge. I flagged down a taxi near the hotel and the driver said he knew the address I gave him. But when we got there, there was no church. The taxi driver didn’t seem to want to deal with this situation, and told me to get out and ask someone.
I found an older couple who said yes, there had been a church there, but it had moved. They gave me general directions to where the church had moved. Since it didn’t seem too far, I set out on foot. When I got to about the halfway point of their directions, I stopped and asked a shopkeeper. She gave me very clear directions—to what turned out to be the Catholic Church.
Figuring the Catholics would know the location of their competition, I asked. The fellow I talked to gave me directions, saying it was no more than a ten-minute walk. His directions took me down a road under construction that ran along the river. After walking 10, 15, and then 20 minutes and still seeing no church, I asked a young man on a bike. He said I had come too far. I needed to turn around and go to the first intersection and turn left. There was a church under construction there.
I followed his directions and indeed found a church under construction. The picture of the final product looked impressive, but they were only as far as the foundation. There were several workers there, but their proficiency in Putonghua was questionable; mostly they stared at me like I was from another planet. I did get them to understand that I was looking for where the church was now, and in reply one of them pointed in a not too specific direction.
By now I was drenched in sweat and beginning to lose hope. As I walked in the direction they had indicated, a man came up behind me and said “Thanks be to God.” I took this as a sign that my search was nearing an end. It turns out he was an evangelist at the church and would bring me there. We walked down several streets and alleys, and finally came to a courtyard that was not marked at all. No sign, no cross, no indication of what sort of place this might be. Just a courtyard full of laundry hanging out to dry, discarded furniture, and other assorted rubble, surrounded by buildings that looked like they were ready to topple over—and in some cases already had!
Here I was escorted into a large garage/warehouse sort of room adjacent to the sanctuary. I was cordially welcomed by the church’s two pastors, Pastor Zhou and his wife, Pastor Zhang. We sat down on some couches in a mostly empty garage which I feared would come tumbling down around us at any minute, and had a great talk.
The pastors had been at the church since 1990, following graduation from the Shaanxi Bible School. This is the only church in Ankang city, although there are others in the area, as well as meeting points in the city. The church has about 1000 members, but only about 300 gather for the one worship service on Sundays. The others attend meeting points or are unable to attend services for a variety of reasons. The church has the usual prayer services and Bible studies as well as a Sunday School. But the temporary quarters make things difficult. The facilities are simply inadequate for the needs. They are eagerly looking forward to the completion of the new building, hopefully by Easter. The new church will seat about 1500.
When asked about the challenges facing the church, Pastor Zhou launched into an impassioned speech about division in the church in China. He blamed many house church members for having a fundamental misunderstanding of the church. He said they believed that the Three-self is the church. But he said the Three-self is not a church. The church is the church of Christ. Being a true church does not depend on where you worship, but rather on your relationship with God, orthodox belief, and understanding of scripture.
I decided to stay one more night in Ankang and attend church there Sunday morning. There were about 300 in attendance at the 8:30 service. Not being used to such early mornings, and not having slept well, I arrived a bit late. Shortly after I arrived, Pastor Zhang motioned for me to join her outside. There she explained to me that she had asked the evangelist who was preaching (Pastor Zhou had duties at another church) to cut her sermon short so I would have time to “share.” I protested that given my poor Chinese and lack of preparation that would be difficult. After more pleading on her part, I agreed to speak for a few minutes.
As promised, the preacher cut her sermon short, ending it at one hour and fifteen minutes! It was a pretty good sermon on sin and our need to repent. But since she didn’t say much about God’s promise to forgive, I decided to focus on that. It was my first attempt at “preaching” without any preparation or manuscript. To my surprise, when I looked at the clock after finishing, I had spoken for 15 minutes. The congregation was both accepting and appreciative. At the end of the service, I gave the blessing in English and Chinese.
At 2:30 I was off to the train station for another six-hour ride. At least I was in a sleeper this time!
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 credit: 归零者 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
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