Chinese Church Voices

Building a Chinese Church Culture

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.

In November of 2012, the mainland site Gospel Times, re-posted an article that was originally posted on a personal blog. The title of the article was "Raise the Cultural Level of the Church: Build a High Quality Church." In it the writer gives his thoughts on how the Church in China can become healthier and become more accepted in Chinese society.

Whether or not the church can be accepted in society depends upon the image of the church in society, and the establishment of the churchs image is likewise dependent on the culture of the church. Society cant see the faith of the church; they see only the outward expression of that faith through its culture. The kind of culture the church has will therefore determine what kind of image they have within society.

Christianity first came to China in the Tang, Yuan, and Ming dynasties, each time flourishing for a season, but ultimately fading away. Today, its difficult to determine if Christianity has ever truly taken root in Chinese culture or not. An important reason why Christianity has perhaps been unsuccessful in this regard is that each time it made an appearance, the church failed to establish a culture that adapted to the Chinese cultural soil. In other words, the church was stylistically Chinese, but not culturally Chinese.

The building of church culture not only affects the image of the church in society; it is also essential to the overall vitality of the church. This article attempts to explore ways that a true Chinese church culture can be built, and in doing so, to express the authors deep desire, hope, and support for the building of the church in China.

I. Return to the Bible

The beliefs held by the church will determine the kind of culture it has. Historian Tang Yinbi says, Culture is the expression of faith, and faith is the essence of culture. Christianity is rooted in the Bible, but the church has also accepted other philosophies throughout its history. For example, Augustine had an enormous impact on Christianity, but at times its difficult to tell if his theology was based on the Bible or on Plato; similarly, in the middle ages, the Catholic Churchs official view of the universe was largely shaped by Aristotle. Past generations of churches tried to eliminate outdated, un-biblical ideologies that did not fit the modern church perspectives of the time. However, the church still accepted societys new ideologies, often unwittingly through the influence of their leaders. As a result, non-biblical ideology has been brought into the faith time and again throughout history.

We live our daily lives within a cultural environment that weve grown accustomed to; therefore its hard for us to distinguish whether our thought patterns and lifestyles are questionable areas of our faith or not. Our worldview is comprised of the beliefs that we accept, and our patterns of thought are generally heavily influenced by contemporary lifeeven the idea of what is and isnt rational. As soon as these patterns of thought enter into a new kind of cultural environment, however, they can become a kind of stumbling block that influences the development of the church.

In the past, Chinese Christianity accepted notion that the more closed off you are, the more spiritual; the more conservative you are, the more pious; the more you set yourself apart from others, the more holy you are; the poorer you are, the more you are loved God. At the same time, theologian Tian Like stated, The preachers on television teach that the more successful you are, the more youve been blessed by God; the more extravagant your life is, the more God has shown His gracebut theyre making excuses for their own extravagant lifestyles. This societal trend of the prosperity gospel is a parasite to the Spirits work, directly influencing the church in China and creating a corrupt church culture.

To develop a healthy church culture, the church must first return to the Bible, hold to a biblical ideas of worth, examine anew the intentions of their belief and the organization of the church, update their idea of faith, and get rid of everything that violates the teaching of the Bible as well as basic human values. The church must use the principles of the Bible to construct its culture.

II. Reach beyond the church walls through holiday celebrations

There are many commonly known traditional Christian holidays, including Thanksgiving, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Valentines Day, Senior Citizens Day and so on. In recent years, churches in the cities have also begun having church-related Spring Festival gatherings, Mid-Autumn Festival reunions and other youth activities related to traditional Chinese holidays. These holidays have certain qualities that all people can relate to. In addition, holidays that have widely been accepted by Chinese people, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Christmas Eve are often celebrated in the same way by nearly every church, and are able to attract large numbers of public figures to participate. Even Mothers and Fathers Day have been widely accepted by the Chinese.

Certain qualities of human nature are common to all, regardless of whether a person is an atheist, a believer in God, a Christian or a Buddhist. All Christian holidays have such qualities, and therefore fit well into traditional Chinese culture. For example, Thanksgiving, Mothers Day and Fathers Dayholidays that come from an originally Christian, Western societyall uphold the Chinese traditional idea of filial piety. This and other basic human values held up by religious holidays, allow the holidays to become a link between the church and society. Celebrating these holidays in a way that includes deeper theological meaning as well as Chinese traditional elements allows the celebration of Chinese festivals to merge with Christian activities. This connection can be a way for the church to both go out into society and draw people into the church.

Through the introduction of Christian holidays, Christianity can enter into society little by little. The church could work together with social and neighborhood organizations and bring aspects of culture to the countryside. By using Christian holidays as a platform, making the most of their familiar characteristics and bringing in elements of Chinese cultural traditions, a Christian holiday culture with Chinese characteristics could be developed. This is a feasible way to promote the churchs image within society.

III. Unearth the riches of the churchs history in China

Legend holds that the apostle Thomas came to China as a missionary. Later, Christians were very active during the Tang, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Christianity had an especially large impact on Mongolian culture, to the point that the religion had several centuries of history in Mongolia before Tibetan Buddhism entered into the picture. A succession of Khans even called themselves Catholics.

The influence and contribution of recent generations of Christianity to China are even more obvious. Chinas first modern hospitals, schools, kindergartens, nursing homes, orphanages, leprosy hospitals, and nearly all modern compassion and aid-based organizations are directly related to Christianity. Allowing women to go to school and students to go out into the world, doing away with the ancient practice of foot-binding, proposing smoking and opium bans, the Xinhai Revolution, bringing in Western science and technology, translating ancient Chinese literature for the Western world, compiling comprehensive Chinese-English dictionariesall of these things were the result of Christian thought and hard work in China.

The research that society has done on the Chinese church has already moved far ahead of the churchs own study; however, societys research can never replace the reflection and examination the church has done throughout its long history. Unearthing history is an important part of rebuilding culture. Currently, China is devoting itself to rapid modernization, building a great and cultured nation, and reforming and opening up to the rest of the world. The church likewise will need to unearth and develop the resources of its history, allow the Christian spirit to make up for the spiritual vacuum and flaws of faith in society today, and let Christian organizations contribute to the positive development of society. These provide unique opportunities to be salt and light that the church has traditionally taken and they are the moral capital Chinese society needs.

History is a resource that cannot be replaced. The church can dig deep into its history and develop that history into historical and cultural property. Perhaps we can unite the Tourism, Education, Religious Affairs and Cultural Ministries to unearth the history of the church through opening up Christian tourist routes, emphasizing the contributions the Chinese church has made to the modernization of China, and elevating the image of the church through its historical traditions. The Chinese church currently has no denominations, but it does have a long history, and by unearthing the churchs natural resources, integrating Chinese culture and traditions, and building a unique church culture, the church can promote its own unique cultural resources.

IV. Pool local resources in order to be a light to the community

Every church has its own unique situation and cannot imitate anothers experience. With this in mind, each congregation needs to pool its own resources in order to do the work that is most unique, important, and valuable for its situation.

I (the author) once passed by a small countryside church that, within the span of a few years, gradually went from a normal, somewhat bleak existence to being affirmed and accepted within the community. When the villages youth all swarmed into the cities to find work, the women and children left behind had no way to continue working the land, so a group of brothers and sisters from the church organized themselves into a farming group. When the majority of the village rushed into the city to pan for gold, a group of young adults from the church stayed behind to shepherd the church and take care of its elderly members. They supported each other, studied together, and over the course of a few years were able to grow crops and make a decent income. They took care of the elderly people of the village who had no other supportwhether or not they were Christiansand established a team that ministered at weddings and funerals (in some villages where the young people have all left, there are simply not enough people left to carry out these ceremonies). The church combined Chinese traditional elements with grace-filled Christian culture for these events, which were received very well by the villagers.

This group of believers also asked brothers and sisters in neighboring cities for help. First, since many of the children left behind in these villages are unable to obtain even basic education, these brothers and sisters brought in educational resources from the city to put on free summer and winter camps. These camps allowed the children to take extra classes in English, Chinese, art, music, and overall moral education; in this way, the church provided the students with educational opportunities that their village schools would simply be unable to provide. This group also united upper-level church officials to send a church medical team to provide free exams in the countryside. Churches in the city also collected second-hand farming equipment and distributed them to the poor who lived there. When the Wenchuan earthquake occurred in 2008, this group of believers donated the largest amount in the village.

Through all of these ways, this group of brothers and sisters has gradually formed a community with its own Christian culture. Given time, this church can carry out a new model for the development of countryside churches and society in general. This is the kind of church culture that society can clearly see.

China has a total of 56 ethnic minority groups all living in different places. The churchs situation in each of these places is markedly different. Every church must discover the uniqueness of its own situation and discern a way to shine brightly there.

V. Actively participate in community service, live out Christian love

Community service is done through the power of the community itself, not only by way of administrative regulation or policy. In other words, society provides for its own needsthis is an essential element of modern civilization.

In the church, Christianity often spreads the love of Christ through community service. Community service is a major way for the church to leave its own walls and become a participant in society. Through this kind of service, the church can gradually learn how to communicate as an equal member of community, thus becoming salt and light. Community service also allows the church to use a non-propaganda-centered method to live out the love of Christ through serving others, all while displaying the common ethics and values that Christians share with the rest of the world. A community-centered spirit is rooted in moral values, and the background of moral values is faith. Through community service that is rooted in their belief, Christians can both build church culture and live out a culture of love.

VI. Construct church buildings so that their style reflects Christian history, traditions, and culture

Each of Guangzhous fourteen churches has a distinct historical background and tradition. In Chinas current post-denominational climate, we can do away with denominational bias while still retaining traditional church culture. Through the construction of church buildings, the churchs original atmosphere and cultural background can be recreated through design and decoration. Moreover, the function of church buildings, which is the foundation of their construction and style, can carry the inherent meaning of the churchs faith and culture (that is to say, the churchs expression of its faith and culture is built upon its function). In addition to creating a meaningful worship environment, the church can also strive to infuse each worship service with deep undertones of faith and culture.

VII. Support the Chinese Christian Council (CCC) and the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) in promoting church culture through church management and shepherding

The faith you have will result in a certain kind of management and leadership; that management and leadership will in turn result in a church culture. The impression people have of church culture comes from their understanding of the churchs organization and operation. In China, the CCC and TSPM are the only bodies that connect the church with the government, and they also serve as bridges between individual churches. As a result, the administration and guidance of the CCC and TSPM have a huge influence on the churchs development and way of thinking. As a ground level pastor, I deeply hope that the CCC and TSPM can take advantage of their influence to help the Chinese church build a long-lasting and practical preaching and training system, including a teacher training group. A system for pastors to rest and take a retreat, such as a sabbatical system, should also be created.

Until now, the greatest need of the Chinese church has been to increase the amount of pastors. In view of this, the CCC and TSPM should organize the pastors already in place and establish training groups at all levels, providing the leaders of the training groups with a training program and encouraging them to develop their gifts in accordance with the needs of the church. In addition, the leaders should make a circuit to train and evangelize at various places, preaching the pure message of the gospel. They should update the concept of the church, spreading updated knowledge and information that serves to build the local body up. In this way, they can promote church culture.

If pastors are excellent, the culture of the church will be excellent. But we need to cultivate that soil of excellence. If theres no way to foster excellence, it will be as if a ferocious lion has been caged, becoming nothing more than a lazy cat. Endless work that leads to exhaustion is just such a cage for pastors; an atmosphere of restrictive management will lead to soil that causes seeds to wither.

In the Old Testament period, God initiated the year of rest system for the Israelitesafter seven years of farming the land, they would rest for one year in order to allow the soil to rest. People can also be restored in this way. Two thousand years of church history has gradually led to a sabbatical system, so that every seven years pastors take a year of paid leave in order to rest and be renewed. The Chinese church, however, due to its own troubles, has never been able to carry out this practice. As a result, many pastors have become exhausted, directionless, and myopic. A year of rest can help restore pastors and give them the opportunity to recharge their batteries, increasing their energy and allowing them to avoid the unfortunate tendency to become like a dictator after being in position for too long. A sabbatical system is a unique and excellent cultural tradition, and if it can be recovered, can also be an important breakthrough in promoting the culture of the church.

In closing, church culture is closely related to the churchs development and is a life-or-death matter. Today, after over two hundred years of protestant churchs existence in China, we need to pay close attention to growth. Even more, we need to focus on developing a true Chinese church culture. Built upon the firm foundation of the Bible, the promotion of church culture will be the root of the churchs health and long-term development.

Original article: 提升教会文化 建造优质教会

Image: Joann Pittman