Before news of COVID-19 broke into their lives, what were Chinese Christians concerned about? What were the top issues to monitor going into 2020? In this article, Chen Shengfeng, a Three-Self pastor, gives 20 concerns facing the Chinese church.
Because of the length of this article we have split it into two parts. Part one can be found here. This is part two.
20 Internal Concerns in the Chinese Church
11. Having Gatherings, but Lacking Growth
Since the Reform and Opening Up, in addition to the gathering on the Lord’s Day (the Sabbath) among different churches, there are also various activities throughout the week, including prayer meetings and Bible studies. There are also some specialized gatherings, such as youth groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, couples’ groups, groups for the elderly. There are also many camps and Sunday schools prepared for children. And there are several revivals throughout the year. One can say that as long as you are willing, you can basically find reasons or topics for gatherings. So, in many churches, many brothers and sisters have practically no spare time the entire week, and are always joining church gatherings. In the Zhejiang coastal regions, there is even a group of professional revival attenders, joining gatherings all over the place.
However, we know that attending many church gatherings does not necessarily mean spiritual growth. In the church, many people appear passionate, but because they have received problematic messages, they might appear familiar with certain passages of the Bible, but be completely ignorant of the truth. Some people have grown familiar in the church, listened to all sorts of news, and are as familiar with the church and pastors as the back of their hand. But, because of partial understanding and personal bias, they become the creator and spreader of all sorts of rumors. It is worth noting that Christians in today’s Chinese churches are lacking in their reading habits and reading abilities, so that much of their information is often “hearsay,” which can only be harmful to individuals and the church.
12. Having Words, but Lacking a Message
The ministry of written word has always been an important service of the church. From Bible times to any era in the history of the church, the pastoring of Christians, and the heritage of the faith, cannot be severed from the ministry of word. For the spiritual growth of normal Christians, aside from receiving the truth from pastor’s interpreting the Bible on Sunday or in other gatherings, the more important thing is to absorb “spiritual milk” from reading the Bible and reading other spiritual books. Yet what is incredibly worrying to us is that since the Reform and Opening Up of China, the Chinese church has entered into a “desert” of written ministry. Of course, it is not that we have nothing at all, but that the written ministry that has been started is completely unable to meet the purpose of pastoring Christians.
Since churches reopened in 1979 till today, Chinese Christianity has only one magazine published by the TSPM and CCC, TianfengCurriculum (also known as Correspondence Curriculum) for correspondence students to study, one informational magazine for pastors to read, Sermon CollectionsNanjing Theological Journal. Aside from the three magazines with targeted readership, Tianfeng is the most popular among normal Christians. But even then, its readership is mostly pastoral leaders, and has not reached down into the church’s grassroots. Because of the influence of digital media, and the decreased subscription numbers of Tianfeng (less than 100,000) year by year, it’s hardly worth talking about pastoring believers through the written word.
Additionally, in the past 40 years, a small number of pastors have been involved in written ministry, and have written a number of famous works that have become a blessing for churches everywhere. But it is still a harsh reality that most pastors have not taken up the responsibility of serving through writing.
13. Having Academies, but Lacking Scholarship
The Chinese church currently has 22 seminaries run by the TSPM and CCC, while seminaries run by house churches cannot be counted. Many seminaries have cultivated many talented pastors for the church, who serve in grassroots churches. But we are still far from reaching the need for pastoring churches. But these pastors who have been professionally trained have at least laid the important foundation of basic Bible and theological training.
However, even among the TSPM and CCC seminaries, no school gives out relevant degrees except the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. To be less tactful, the educational design and educational levels are still at the stage of a training class, and do not meet the demands for a regular college. As for the teachers of seminaries, I believe that there is a group of excellent and professional teachers. But these excellent teachers do not have free time to give to professional research, which results in a lack of academic achievements in seminaries. What’s more, we do not yet have theologians who can speak for the church.
14. Having Slogans, but Lacking Knowledge
Because of secular influence, many church leaders see themselves as “leaders,” forgetting their servant identity. Because of the influence of too many administrative meetings, church leaders lack time for devotions and prayer, and do not have time to prepare messages well, so that most of the messages preached from the pulpit are often a type of “report,” and the encouragements a type of “slogan.” This is clearly a tragedy.
Among Christians, faith and life have become clearly disconnected, and spiritual slogans are shouted loudly—for example, “live for the Lord,” “from your whole heart,” “testify to his name”— yet many Christians remain ignorant of [Christian] truth. At the same time, many Christians’ faith remains in a state of “superstition” because of the influence of secularization and folk religion. Many people are ignorant of the truth, while shouting unrealistic slogans, so that faith becomes a type of bondage.
15. Having the Appearance, but Lacking the Reality
Paul once reminded Timothy to avoid those Christians “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). This is a great crisis for today’s church as well. Among church leaders, we hear brothers and sisters talk about certain people who are not living out their testimony, who have lost their stance in the faith, and yet are still taking up a leadership position in the church, and putting on a pious appearance when they preach or prayer. Yet many in the know are familiar with the real story.
Among Christians, there is also no lack of “religious people” who have learned the “spiritual” language of church, learned the superficial ceremonies, but have not established a relationship with the Lord in their spiritual lives. These people are not intentionally deceiving others, but their lives have subtly influenced the church. Others, however, have different motives, using their pious appearance to fool brothers and sisters so as to achieve their own purposes. This is clearly a hidden danger in the church.
16. Having Power, but Lacking Authority
This point is specific to church leaders. Paul once reminded us concerning overseers, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6-7). The church’s expectations of leaders have always been to be “of good repute,” “full of the Spirit,” “and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). When these people come into office, in addition to power, they also have spiritual authority.
But among church leaders, many are not pastors, but are leaders appointed from among the believers. They might not have a good foundation of faith within the church, but are appointed for some sort of special reason. After being appointed, they might not have authority even though they have power. If we follow the normal procedure of the church, a church leader should have served for a long time in church, have a good reputation within the church as well as without it, and be a real Christian, spoken of well. After they become leaders, they will have both power and authority, and will clearly be a great blessing to the church.
17. Having Silver and Gold, but Lacking Ability
Along with the rise of the nation’s economic capability, the economic capability of Christians in the 21st century Chinese church has also risen; the church is economically “wealthy” as never before. Many churches finished establishing their foundations toward the end of the 20th or early in the 21st century, and generally most churches have extra in terms of finances. Although pastors’ salaries still cannot compare with basic salary levels in society, but they have risen greatly and can at least provide for the pastor’s basic necessities of life.
But we also see the church facing a risk like never before, that is, having silver and gold but lacking spiritual ability. It seems that we cannot declare like Peter did, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6).
Here I am not saying that the church lacks all ability to do miracles. I believe that miracles still happen in various churches. But I want to say that, even if miracles happen, it is not the ability of Christians (or even pastors). For any Christian, having no ability is a blessing, because we can further reveal God’s ability. But when I talk of “lacking ability” here, I mean that the church has lost “Jesus Christ.” Many times, after a pastor has been used by the Lord to perform a miracle, the pastor is lifted up and forgets to give glory to God, so that the miracle never glorifies God, and therefore cannot become a blessing to the church. Since we ourselves are without ability, we can only lift up “Christ and him crucified,” because he is our ability and our glory.
18. Having Ambition, but Lacking Tolerance
Again returning to the topic of church leaders, not because I have any particular bias against them, but because they stand in high positions, so the problems revealed are especially obvious, and I must point them out as risks. I believe that many leaders when they are first appointed have great ambition and great hearts, hoping to be used by God to become a blessing to the church. But gradually over time, we notice that leaders cannot tolerate people of different opinions, and they use their administrative powers to cause harm. In the end, I believe that these leaders might not know that they have fallen into a state of “lacking tolerance,” but might think that they are considering the greater good, and not allowing a “black sheep” to harm the church.
Interestingly, before they come to these positions, pastors have also criticized the pastors in power at that time for being overly authoritarian. They even made suggestions that leaders “ought to be like this” or “ought to be like that.” But once they come to power, they start walking down the same path the original leaders did without noticing. Accepting people of different opinions and listening to different voices are very important qualities. We know that the most sincere advice is unpleasant, but we must believe that such sincere advice is for the sake of the church, for the sake of the Lord, and not for the person’s sake. Instead of dealing with people of different opinions because of the “greater good” of one’s own benefit, let us accept people of different opinions out of love for the church and love for the Lord.
19. Having Co-attackers, but Lacking Co-workers
As churches become more institutionalized and more professional, classes gradually begin to appear, and some begin lording it over others. Churches naturally should have regulations and order. But some problems and dangers easily extend from churches becoming overly institutionalized. Especially after a position becomes tied to salary, rewards, benefits, and status, the originally sincere relationship of “co-workers” becomes the relationship of “co-attackers” as pastors and leaders consider their personal gains. The sincere desire to serve the Lord and the church becomes mixed with selfishness, so that some will take any means to achieve their own purposes.
We can be sure that this should not happen in the church, but we must say that it often does happen in the church, and has become a reality. The relationship of co-workers is no longer sincere. Everyone has built a wall, and must discern whether or not there are designs behind what anyone says. They must also carefully consider anything they themselves say, lest it be used against them. In terms of ministry, everyone has almost entirely lost the shared motivation to develop ministry, and instead are busy with internal politics. They want to avoid unnecessary trouble and worry about doing everything wrong. It’s so sad!
20. Having Characteristics, but Lacking Culture
We know that each church will have its own characteristics: the characteristics of the city it is in, the characteristics of the community of believers, the characteristics of the pastors—these will all directly influence the church’s culture. A healthy church culture is one where the lives of Christians are moved by the true gospel as they follow the preaching of truth, and their lives will increasingly emit the aroma of Christ, so that the church culture becomes more and more Christ-like. But is today’s church culture Christ-like? I am afraid that this is something worth reflecting on. Church pastors (especially leaders) play a particularly great part in establishing church culture. Of course, we believe in the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s hearts, but we must also admit that personal characteristics, state of faith, political stance, and cultural literacy all influence church culture.
Having been in Zhejiang churches for so many years, I often hear that churches in Hangzhou, Ningbo, and Wenzhou have different cultures. Some mention that Hangzhou focuses on holy music, Ningbo focuses on prayer, and Wenzhou focuses on preaching. These are some manifestations of their culture. But I hope that any of our churches can establish a culture that is built on Christ, so that Christians might hold firm to the truth, be grounded in the faith, and bring the church back to a path that is pleasing to God.
As we enter the 20s, I have written many articles that might make church leaders “angry,” pastors “displeased,” and Christians “sad.” But, I do this not to pick at sores, but purely as a reflection. I am willing to bear the results of writing this article entirely by myself. But more than that, I hope that the church can truly reflect.
And, I hope this especially serves as a reminder for those leaders in high positions. Since we consider ourselves vessels chosen by God, then let us return to our rightful positions, to focus on building the Chinese church, not forgetting our calling in the face of fame or wealth. Our positions here on earth are temporary. All benefits are temporary. Ultimately, we all have to settle our accounts before the Lord who calls us.
Looking back to the Chinese church a hundred years ago, there were many great revivals. During the 20s of the 20th century, at the same time as the Chinese church faced the Anti-Christian Movement, many elite Christian students returning from abroad found unprecedented opportunity and revival in fields of education, medicine, politics, etc. And in the following decades they contributed their ability to Chinese society.
I believe that although the church faces many problems, ultimately God leads the church forward, and pastors are only a “co-worker” in God’s great project. A hundred years ago, God led the church to experience a great revival. I believe that a hundred years later, the church today is still under the guidance of God’s gracious hands.
As God’s “co-workers” in the current 20s, can Chinese Christians continue on the path of the saints from a hundred years ago, and contribute toward a new revival in the church? Let us pray for the Holy Spirit’s work in our reflections, and prepare ourselves to be the Lord’s “co-workers” in this next age.
Original Article: 【跨年代反思】中国教会的20个内忧by 丰盛“书”房
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