Last week we posted section one of the article "The Chinese Church: Past, Present, and Future," originally published in the mainland journal ChurchChina. In that post, the author looked at the church in the past, giving a brief overview of western and Chinese church history.
In section two of the article, posted here, the author talks about the "church-consciousness" (ecclesiology) of Chinese Christians today. He argues that Chinese believers have a weak understanding of what the church is, and gives reasons for this. He also describes some of the characteristics of churches in some smaller and medium-sized cities in China. Finally, he talks about the importance of building community within a church and gives some suggestions as to how that might be done.
Church-Consciousness: Chinese Church in the Present
Looking at both past and present we discover that the church-consciousness of Chinese believers to be very weak. The church is strong on certain theological concepts, such as Christology, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Bible, but its ecclesiology is very immature. In the authors view the following factors have contributed to a lack of church-consciousness on the part of Chinese Christians:
- Theological Factors
The mainstream theology of Chinese churches has its roots in Watchman Nees Little Flock, which emphasised the priesthood of all believers and stressed the practice of personal devotions and prayer. Little emphasis was placed on how believers should act within a fellowship, and the influence of this extremely individualistic theology can still be felt today. Many people come to church, become believers, yet they cannot commit to one church and do not take part in the life of the fellowship. To put it another way, only 20% of church-goers are top members, while the other 80% are consumers, Christians who cannot commit to the church.
- Political Factors
For a long time the Chinese church has faced some degree of oppression. People feel that if the church places too much emphasis on individual commitment it will mean that members know all about each others background. In a time of persecution this may be very dangerous.
- Church Factors
The church itself doesnt emphasize commitment in its teaching, so Christians dont understand it. As a result, they believe that all they need to do is have a healthy devotional and prayer life and a good personal relationship with God - this is all there is to being a Christian.
City churches today tend to be small and widely scattered, with the small group as the main unit of fellowship. Many of the members are those who have left the Three Self Church and started meeting together in their own homes. Over time they have come to see themselves as independent churches. However, because many of these churches do not have full time pastors or leaders, they lack spiritual leadership. They also tend to be weak in terms of Bible teaching. Over time, these city churches have become more like clubs than churches.
Rural churches, on the other hand, are currently in a period of transition. Many consist mainly of elderly people since the young people have gone off to become migrant workers in the cities. They have joined the ranks of those who labour in renovation teams, domestic work, and waste recycling. They make up the main workforce of small commodities markets and farm produce markets. Migrant workers tend to go back home only once a year at Spring Festival, and this is the only time that the Christians can return to their churches. Even though many of them have been believers from childhood, in the city they are inhibited by a sense of inferiority and so struggle to settle into city churches.
The church is flourishing in Chinas wealthy small and medium sized cities, and is marked by the following characteristics:
- Large: Full of people
- Chaotic: Theological confusion and administrative inefficiency
- Passionate: Fervent but lacking in truth.
The author has visited a number of churches and noticed the following features:
- Lack of church order: Various traditional factors make it difficult to establish order.
- Absence of financial backing for preachers: Most preachers support themselves by engaging in secular work in addition to their ministry.
- Low education levels among preachers: They grew up amidst hardship and long to grow in spiritual maturity. Their devotion to Bible-reading often surpasses that of their overseas counterparts; they even memorize Scripture while farming the land. However, they lack adequate education, theological understanding, and sometimes even moral character.
Believers cannot grow to maturity apart from the teaching of the church. We must understand Gods will for the church at this time. Broadly speaking, this comprises three aspects: building up the family, protecting the holiness of the church, and building community.
- Protecting marriage and building up the family
God takes great delight when we build up the family, while the devils work is to break up the family. It is understood that in America the divorce rate among Christians is already the same as that of secular society. In China the crisis of marriage and family is becoming clearer and clearer.
- Protecting the holiness of the church
At present the main problem facing the church is not government persecution; in fact, this is unimportant to the church. No, the main problem is holiness. If the church is not holy, its witness is destroyed. Joshua 7:13 says, There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them. Areas that we must pay attention to include:
a) Premarital cohabitation: this affects the whole of society, and is also profoundly influencing the church
c) Homosexuality: the church will soon have to face this issue, and it must not fail to take it seriously.
- Building church community
This point is closely connected to the issue of church-consciousness. Ephesians 4:12-16 says: "to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ . From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." This passage emphasises that we must become mature, attaining to the fullness of Christ. Christs body is built up as each member plays his/her part in harmony, joined and held together - and in this process we ourselves are also built up.
It must be pointed out that these three aspects of Gods will are not to be carried out in any particular sequence; they all happen alongside each other. Building up the family and protecting the holiness of the church and the believer are all achieved through building church community. This in itself is mission; it is a beautiful witness.
In many parts of China the church does not concern itself with marriage and family matters, and also lacks church-consciousness. It is common for Christian women to have husbands who do not come to church; some even persecute these sisters. For many Christians it is the church building that occupies the central position in their faith, not the church fellowship. All they know is the church building, while their understanding of church fellowship is shallow. Often, Christians go to a church building near their home to worship and then leave as soon as the service is over, having absolutely no concept of what their own church fellowship is like or to what extent they should commit to it. This means that the church fellowship has no understanding of the Christians holiness or family situation. In such conditions it is impossible to build church community and it is also very difficult for the individual believer to grow in maturity.
The authors church has encountered these problems, and has consciously adopted several measures in response.
Measure one: Cell groups
Church development requires goals and direction, and for this the preacher must have a pastoral philosophy. First of all, he should determine the goals and direction of church development; secondly, he should come up with a strategy; thirdly, he should make concrete plans for personnel and management. Every believer - not just a few keen Christians - should be involved in building the church. Every Christian who has been baptised into the body of Christ is a member of the church and should act as part of Christs body, not content to be a fringe Christian. The church should provide appropriate means of help and guidance to all baptised Christians according to whether they are married or single, to make them feel that the church is a family.
The cell group is the smallest unit within the church, slightly larger than a family in size, with around ten people in each group. Every church member should both join and belong to a cell group (in the authors church there are around 40 cell groups). The aims of these cell groups can be summed up in four Ws:
- Welcome: Love each other
- Word: God's word
- Work: Share the gospel
In a cell group, each member receives edification and takes part in church service. The church provides teaching materials for small group to use, and also trains up one guide per group. This person is by no means more spiritual than the other small group members; they just guide group members as they make progress together.
Measure two: Marriage counselling teams
The church set up a specialised marriage counselling team to organise marriage preparation training for young believers, teaching them a biblical view of marriage and courtship and providing purity education. The church actively addresses the issue of purity, taking the position that prevention is better than cure, rather than just delivering admonishment after problems emerge. Church admonishment is sometimes necessary, but it is certainly not the goal.
Measure three: A high view of the family
Seventy to eighty couples in the church serve together as husband and wife, and they are a great driving force for the church. In those situations where only one partner is a believer the church should actively teach the whole congregation to have a high view of the family, creating opportunities for the unbelieving spouse to take part in church activities in order that they might come to know the Lord. At the same time there should be couples who serve together in the church as an example for others, letting people see the change that is brought about in the marriage relationship when a Christian couple serves the Lord together (including their witness in instructing their children).
In times to come people will find it harder and harder to form community as China embraces wholesale Westernisation and people become more and more concerned for their own privacy. This will make it difficult for Christians to open up to other members of the body about their real needs; however, we must not give up because of this. At the authors church there are eight services in total, and the co-workers all know each other well and are acquainted with the details of each others family problems and other such matters. Close relationship also exists between the believers, mostly thanks to the role of fellowship groups, including a youth fellowship, a couples fellowship, a seniors fellowship, etc. On top of this we also have regular retreats and various types of training, giving everyone numerous opportunities to interact with each other. And we have discovered that the church is maturing. Many people come to the church and grow into spiritually mature Christians because of the good quality of relationships, just as Jesus said: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:35)
Original article: 中国教会的存在形式讨论
Image Credit: Joann Pittman
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.