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 sixth excerpt from those journals. Previous excerpts can be found at “A Tour of Three-Self Churches.”
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Since arriving at the hotel in Zhengzhou, I have been continuously serenaded by this song. It greets me when I wake up in the morning, accompanies my writing, and lulls me to sleep at night. For reasons unknown, a store near the hotel has decided to play this song over and over. It is somewhat disconcerting. Maybe it serves as a reminder that the real reason for Christmas, here as well as in the States, is consumerism. And of course June is just as good a time to buy stuff as December. At any rate, I will never be able to think of Zhengzhou without this song coming to mind.
Today I made a change in plans. The churches in Zhengzhou were quite inaccessible it seemed. In the meantime, I found out from a taxi driver that Kaifeng was a mere 60 kilometers away.
Kaifeng! The ancient capital of the dynasty that I had made the focus of my graduate studies years ago, the Northern Song. Feeling that I couldn’t miss the opportunity to walk the streets walked by Su Dongpo, Wang Anshi, and Sima Guang (scholars of the Song Dynasty), I decided to skip the next city on my itinerary and replace it with Kaifeng. It was a bad decision.
The bus ride to Kaifeng took less than two hours. I emerged from the air conditioned bus into a boiling cauldron. Even Beijing’s hottest, most humid days were no match for this. What had possessed Zhao Kuangyin (Song Dynasty founder) to choose such a place for a capital? I walked for as long as I could stand it, imagining Su Dongpo writing poetry at one of the teashops, and then flagged down a taxi to take me to a church. Perusing the list of churches I showed her, the driver identified the West Gate Church as being the closest.
The West Gate Church, appropriately, is not far from the ancient west gate of the city. It is located along a river in an area that is being developed as a tourist attraction. Many new buildings, built in the Song Dynasty style, are going up in the area. The church plans to get in on the action by building a traditional hallway and courtyard leading into its building. Tourist evangelism.
I was greeted by a woman who arrived at the church just after me. She explained that she had spent five years in New York, working, but had failed to learn any English. She became a Christian in New York and decided to come back to her hometown to serve the church. After about 15 minutes, the woman ushered me into the pastor’s office, which had a large ceiling fan.
In this office, I was able to more or less dry out by the time a young man, who I assumed was the pastor, came in and greeted me. He wasn’t the pastor, but he was an evangelist who served at that church. He had graduated from Nanjing Seminary two years ago, and was doing his compulsory three years of service before he could be ordained as a pastor. He was a delightful young man, with a smile that lit up his whole face. His name was Wang. He said he loved his work, especially preaching, and was looking forward to many years of being a pastor. But the pressing problem of this church is that there are not enough like him. Most of the current leadership is nearing retirement age, and there are not enough younger leaders to replace them.
There are 1200 members in this church, making it one of the largest in the city. There are six churches in the city and 50-60 in the surrounding area, serving as many as 20,000 believers. All the churches are part of the Three-self organization.
The largest demographic in this church is the 60-and-over group, making up 60% of the congregation, with those 30-60 years old comprising another 30%, leaving only 10% below 30. Nor is growth as fast as in some areas. Baptism is held once every two years, with about 150 being baptized. The church is packed full for the morning service, but only the smaller sanctuary is used for the afternoon service.
The worship order is traditional. But a unique factor is their two worship bands/orchestras. One of these is “western,” with guitars and drums; the other is traditional Chinese, using traditional instruments to play Chinese folk music. It seems each of these is involved in some way in worship once a month.
The church has all the usual programs, plus a testimony meeting and a class to teach reading.
Mr. Wang didn’t tell me a whole lot about the history of the church. He did say that it was founded by missionaries in 1935 and the current building was built in 1997.
Mr. Wang gave me a ride back to the bus station on his motorcycle. I purchased my ticket, and after a short wait boarded the bus. The bus, standing room only (I had a seat), was so hot that even the Chinese were complaining. One young man tried to start the bus, but only succeeded in closing the door, making the situation even worse. I was sitting in a pool of my own sweat. Fortunately, this situation only lasted about 10 minutes, after which we were off, air conditioning blasting.
Two hours later, back at the hotel in Zhengzhou, I collapsed on the bed. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas!”
This is the final excerpt from Wayne Ten Harmsel's journal of his tour of Three-self churches, Watch for a concluding essay next week. You will be able to read the entire series at "A Tour of Three-Self Churches."
Image credits: Wayne Ten Harmsel
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