The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the tightening of religious regulations have resulted in significant changes in the form and function of the church in China. This article from Christian Times speaks of three trends of the Chinese church—“More small groups, more household-oriented, more online.” Due to length, we are posting this article in two parts. You can read part one here; this is part two.
Perspective| “More Small Groups, More Household-Oriented, More Online”—Three Tendencies in the Chinese Church Prompted by the Post-Pandemic Age (continued)
A renewed view of the church: the essence of the church is “two or three gathered in the name of Jesus.”
Arguably one of the biggest changes in recent years is that the emphasis on venue size and congregational numbers is changing. Instead, more churches are emphasizing the internalization of faith and personal relationship with God. Thus, churches are gaining a deeper understanding of their view of the church.
Pastor B, a middle-aged pastor in Beijing who has been pastoring an emerging church in the city for many years, said that one of the greatest realizations brought to them by the pandemic was about ecclesiology. “The church is not the building where the congregation meets, but the ‘gathering of two or three in Jesus’ name’—that’s the church.”
A similar view was expressed by Pastor D, who pastors a group of migrant workers in a second-tier city in eastern China. He argued that in the post-pandemic era we need to move away from “temple-centrism,” as this kind of focus on sacred space will hamper the church from making progress in a tightening religious environment and in the post-pandemic era.
The traditional Christian church, with its models of worship and community identity, perpetuates a temple-centric ideology, but replaces the temple with the church building. The traditional Christian church is therefore centered on the church building. Sooner or later the church must materialize in a particular place or concentrate in a particular place. Because a church building is for gathering, once gatherings in the building cease, the church effectively falls apart. Gathering requires a physical space, hence the identity centered on a church building. The physical gathering, which is centered on and hosted in a particular building, means that the Christian church is necessarily manifest to society in public fashion. Gathering becomes the primary way to express the existence of Christianity. However, once the social space is squeezed, then this building-centered gathering encounters challenges. When believers become accustomed to defining their own faith and identity in terms of the gathering in a church building, pressures on social space also mean that the Christian church is unable to manifest itself and the space for its very existence is narrowed. The result, inevitably, is to struggle for the existence and expansion of actual physical space by any means possible, which inevitably generates conflict with the reality of the secular state. Indeed, many of the ideas of the traditional church today come not from Jesus, but from traditions that Jesus opposed and that were even abandoned by the Jews long ago. This is one of the main reasons for the plight of the Christian church today.
He called for:
the model that Jesus started—the model of a free Christian union, a union that is not limited in number or gender. It could be two or three people, or a dozen people. In this way, in a more meaningful way, a few people come together to learn and grow, to change themselves, to change their families, to make the world a better place. ‘These things I command you, so that you will love one another.’ This is not an objection to church meetings, but to a temple-centric ideology. These extraordinary days, when space for activities is curtailed, are a time for Christians to accept and respond to myriad changes, a time for Christians to be molded and to mature, and this is the best way for the Christian faith to be a witness in the present.
Before the pandemic, many older pastors of Chinese churches believed that the key to the development of house churches in China was following the example of the early church, the “house church.” The turn away from large venues to small group meetings is seen by many house church pastors as a return to the spirit of the “house church.”
Some pastors are concerned that the increasingly fragmented way of meeting will lead to the dissipation of the essence of the church, and in this context some pastoral workers and other Christians emphasize that the essence of the church is a community.
The answers given by traditional churches regarding the definition of the church have mostly focused on the perspective of holiness and sanctity, emphasizing the boundary between a community of Christians and the secular world. However, while this definition of the church is certainly consistent with the teaching of Scripture and the nature of the church, it also has a weakness, namely that this positioning itself alienates the church from society and thus diminishes its willingness to actively influence society. However, in the teaching of Jesus, the church is first and foremost not just a holy organization, she is also a community—a community formed by Jesus and his disciples for the purpose of the highest good, for the exercise of God’s commands on earth—the church enters the world but does not merge with it. This is the purpose of the community of Jesus, and that is the supreme good.
The challenge of building consensus on the foundations of orthodox Christian theology has been accentuated by the trend towards fragmentation.
A cautionary note is sounded by Pastor D, who has long paid attention to theological education in house churches. He believes that the formation of a shared foundation of orthodox Christian theology across denominations and churches is crucial at this time, because, at the moment, churches are forced to meet as families and in small groups, which makes it hard for problems to be visible out in the open.
In this sort of situation, heretical teaching and cults are bound to make trouble. So, while there is still time and opportunity, a comprehensive system of theological education needs to be established urgently. If there is no unity of thought and the churches continually divide, in time they will become a scattered mess.
Orthodox theological foundations need to be disseminated and established.
Otherwise, churches will go underground, and will run themselves and develop individually, only to result in all sorts of chaotic things coming to the surface once times become more open again. It is more important than anything else to unite everyone around orthodox doctrine. First, and as quickly as possible, we need to all be clear on unity around the great principles of our faith. The rest of pastoral care is a secondary matter. Once the broad principles are in place, anything can be done. Otherwise, it is likely that the Chinese church will be entangled in heresies and internal schisms, and there will be no hope at all.
Online pastoral care vs. on-the-ground pastoral care: mutual assistance, but fraught with tension
Five or six years before the 2020 pandemic, Teacher S in Hangzhou had already started pastoring believers through QQ, WeChat, and other means. At the time he found that many people were skeptical and critical of his approach, with many pastors believing that “the internet is the devil” and trying to keep away from it.
But during the pandemic, the difficulty of meeting in person gave rise to a boom in online meetings. At one point, some believers would receive links to more than three online meetings a day.
Now, more than two years have passed. The importance of online pastoral care is increasingly felt by pastors and churches, but tensions are still evident. For example, the debate on whether to have “online communion” has been going on for more than a year, and although some Three-Self churches do openly practice “online communion,” whether it is a valid sacrament or not is still a very controversial and divisive topic.
Online pastoring represents a considerable challenge to an ecclesiology that has an in-person understanding of the church. Some pastoral colleagues have warned that as the church becomes more and more fragmented in its gathering, there is a risk that its very essence will dissolve, and it is therefore vital that we renew our vision of the church from a perspective of community.
Despite all the tensions, there is however a consensus among most pastors and churches that while online pastoral care is important, especially in the current difficult context, on-the-ground, in-person meetings are still more important, indeed irreplaceable. In-person gatherings, even small groups or small-scale fellowship of church members, are still very effective.
Image credit: Thomas H. Hahn Docu-Images.
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