Last week Chinese Church Voices published an article by Brother L, a house church pastor in Shanghai. Brother L shared his opinion on challenges facing the church in China and to a great extent blames the church itself for finding itself in its current predicament.
The Chinese Church Voices team has gathered two alternate views on the church’s current challenges, one from a reformed house church pastor in a first-tier city and one from a Three-Self pastor. This week we publish the second article in this series, a response from a reformed church pastor in a first-tier city in China.
Challenges Facing Churches in China
The churches in China are facing many challenges, however in this article I will mention just three that can apply to both house churches and congregations under the umbrella of TSPM. The reason I list only three is that all the other challenges I thought of are strongly connected to these three.
The Marginalization of the Gospel
The biggest challenge churches in China are facing is the same challenge evangelical churches in Europe and the US are facing: the marginalization of the gospel in life and, sometimes, in the pulpit of the church. In the pulpit, the sermon might promote something good: mission work, a good moral life, a wonderful marriage, even to work and pray hard to evangelize colleagues and neighbors, but it fails to mention the atoning work of Christ and how sinful nature can shape our good intentions.
In church life, relationships among church members might be very warm and lovely, but their focus is on the things that they naturally love: parenting, shopping, reading, lifestyle, even church work and mission. However, they lack what the New Testament expects: to correct each other, share each other’s sorrows, and edify each other. This is not uncommon, even in “Reformed” churches. The situation might be different in each church, depending on the culture of the church. But the marginalization of the gospel can gradually shape churches into closed quasi-Christian groups without Christ.
Ignorance of Biblical Ecclesiology
The second challenge is the ignorance of Biblical ecclesiology. On the one hand, due to the threat that churches face from government, it’s risky for churches to have formal membership which makes the church look more like a “formal social organization.” So, many house churches do not have the word “church” (教会) in their names. Instead, they use “home” (家), “fellowship” (团契), or a Biblical figure’s name to avoid being treated as an “organized group” in the eyes of government officials.
Naming is a small thing, but it prevents church leaders from thinking through ecclesiology in a biblical manner as well as confronting the status quo as to what a church should be. This causes the church to be unable to have plural leadership, and inter-church relationships mainly depend on the personal relationships of the leaders. This type of church will vanish after the main leader leaves or is detained.
Missionary influence is also a reason for the lack of ecclesiology. When missionaries come into China—both in the past and now—they think they have come to spread the gospel, which is the core of Biblical Christianity. They want to leave ecclesiology behind and leave the majority of Christian tradition to local Christians to figure out for themselves. Several leaders have told me that missionaries are reluctant to touch the issue of church governance and leadership because they don’t want to bring “denominationalism” into the field, even though they were sent by a denomination. “Please, we want to learn how a church should function,” the local leader pleads. “Don’t worry, you will figure it out later by yourselves. You guys will know better than we do.” That is the standard answer. But, isn’t the Bible clear on some basic matters of church leadership and governance? Aren’t historical lessons helpful for local leaders? Why leave them a huge blank while planting a church?
On the other hand, because churches are reluctant to surface and call themselves a “church” room is left for small, spontaneous organizations to fill in the gap. For example, Christians in my city have various kinds of spontaneous “fellowships” everywhere. In office spaces, on the Internet, in hospitals, on campuses, etc. These “fellowships” don’t meet on Sunday, but they evangelize, conduct Bible studies, singles’ gatherings, retreats, mission trainings, etc. all the time. These organizations both strengthen and weaken local churches in different ways, and they are not under the authority of any church or denomination. In many cases, Christians find that these opportunities provide more of a Christian identity than a local church does.
The recent regulations are making it harder for constituted/organized churches, because the intention of the government is to remove house churches from the public square and force them to split into small groups and return back to apartments. It’s basically pushing the house churches back 20 years. However, given the theological development and growth in past years, it’s also quite challenging for the government to accomplish its goal.
Lack of Well-Trained Ministers
The rapid growth of Christianity in the past 30 years generated a great need for well-trained ministers to preach the gospel biblically, and shepherd the church deliberately. However, the blank of ecclesiology mentioned earlier has caused churches to neglect the need for theological training and they sometimes even prefer to have a lay leader instead of a full-time leader. Thus there are many untrained, lay ministers doing pastoral work. Some are doing great, some are surviving, while some others bring more harm than benefit. The tradition of anti-intellectualism and pragmatism makes the situation worse.
The call and need for in-depth and thorough theological education is big. This need cannot be filled by intensive, ad-hoc trainings, although these are helpful. If the new regulations force big churches to split into smaller congregations, and small churches into groups, then we need more ministers than ever because it will be a “reactive church planting movement” across the nation. It is a huge opportunity for the gospel to flourish, but are we ready for that?
We desire more solid Chinese seminaries abroad and underground; we want to see more seminarians; we hope there will be more scholarships and funds to support these kinds of formal and degree-level opportunities for theological education.
Original Article: Submitted by the author to ChinaSource.
Translated, edited and posted with permission from the author.
Image credit: Jincheng Old Street by Wei-Te Wong via Flickr.
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