Crooked Sticks: 5 Reasons Church History Matters in Ministry to Chinese

Hannah Nation serves as the blog editor for China Partnership. She is studying Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and works part-time with China Outreach Ministries, serving students in the Boston metro area. Follow her personal blog at Carved to Adorn.

Last year, Jeff Robinson wrote a piece over at The Gospel Coalition titled “7 Reasons to Teach Our Children Church History.” As a lover of history generally, and of church history particularly, I loved this article and highly recommend it. In recent years of ministry, I’ve often thought about the need to incorporate church history better into international evangelism and church education strategies, and many of his points are salient for work with Chinese. I’ve written previously about the need for the redemptive-historical narrative in working with Chinese students and the disservice, if not harm, we cause when we fail to invite people into the expansive body of Christ that spans not just the globe, but the ages. I think some of Robinson’s points are well applied to the raising up of healthy disciples across the globe, and China in particular.

1. “Because they must know that Christianity is a historical faith.”

Robinson makes the point that teaching church history roots our faith in its real historical dimensions. “Jesus really lived. He died. He rose again. He ascended into heaven. He is building his church, just as he promised. Church history bears witness to all of these facts, all of which took place – and are taking place – in time and space.”

This point is vitally important in our ministries to Chinese. We often underestimate how much even secular Americans understand the historicity of the Christian faith, and generally overestimate the degree to which Chinese understand Christianity’s historic dimensions. Ideas and assumptions still in the water in the West – for example, the fact that Jesus was from the Middle East – are common among even the most unchurched American. On the other hand, most Chinese first associate Christianity with America, not the ancient world, and it can be quite shocking and revelatory for Chinese to start digging into the cultural past of Christianity. Furthermore, it is very common for even baptized Chinese believers to not understand that Christianity claims Jesus really was a man in the flesh, who really did die, and really did come back to life. The rootedness of the gospels in time, place, and matter is distinct from Asia’s religious heritage, and it is important to communicate to Chinese disciples that the faith they enter is much more than belief in a true idea.

2. “Because we want them to avoid chronological snobbery.”

As Robinson states, “Like their parents, our children are constantly inundated with messages of ‘new’ and ‘better’… I want my children to know that the gospel is not new, cannot be improved, and will never change.” Basic definitions of modernity hold that traditional cultures tend to look back to their ancestors for meaning and definition, whereas the modern world looks forward, trusting in progress. The Christian faith believes that we live in between, in a state of both looking back to the work of Christ and the history of his saints, while also persevering ahead to the final result, anticipating God’s redemptive work in this world. Christianity speaks to and challenges both the traditional and the modern view of self and time.

This something the Chinese church needs to remember, just as we in the West need to remember it in our churches, too. Because China attempted to abandon its cultural history in pursuit of modernity during the last century, there is often confusion about both its past and its future. But one thing is certain – despite its two-thousand year history, contemporary China loves “newness.” Even the entrance and growth of Christianity in the nation has benefitted from the desire to find a new solution to age-old problems. As China amazingly pulls itself out of the last century and enters into a period of unprecedented progress, the church needs to guard and protect its flocks from the idea that everything new is good, and that the progress of the nation will mean the progress of people’s hearts.

A healthy perspective on and understanding of the history of the church will help keep the church looking back to the past, hopeful for the future, and humble in its time and space. The saints that have gone before have much to say to us, and just as we believe in the need to hear the voices all of the saints across the globe today, so too do we owe a listening ear to the saints across the ages past.

Never miss a story

Sign up to receive our weekly email with our original articles.

3. “Because they need to know that the Bible is worth dying for.”

“I want my children to know that our Bibles – especially that we have an English translation in virtually every room of our house – did not come cheap. Men and women were imprisoned, harassed, beaten, and killed so we could read the Bible in our native tongue. They also argued, fought, were persecuted, even died over standing firm upon an orthodox interpretation of it.” This will be the most familiar point for many Chinese. The Chinese church knows suffering and we in the West may quickly be approaching a time when we turn to our siblings across the Pacific to learn from them how to suffer.

Nonetheless, it is important for the Chinese church to teach the big picture of church history, not only their own history, for their own encouragement and edification. They are not alone in their sufferings, and by suffering, they enter into the great register of saints who have borne Christ’s cross. Through studying centuries of the church’s suffering across the globe, the Chinese church can offer its members a global perspective of God’s work, a big picture of how their suffering unites them not only with Christ, but with his people through time.

We do not know what will happen in China in the coming century and what the situation of the church will look like a hundred years from now. If we look back in history, some of God’s people have at last been released from suffering, often as the result of dramatic cultural change. Others have continued to suffer, sometimes for centuries. But in the end, all of these people have triumphed in Christ. Whether or not the political and cultural situation changes in China, the church triumphs and it should find great comfort and peace in the fellowship of the saints throughout time.

4. “Because they must know that theology is important.”

“I want them to know about Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin and Arminius, Wesley and Whitefield and the theological differences that divided them, and why such a division was necessary in the first place. I want my children to be good theologians, aware that everyone has a theology and not all of them square with Scripture. I want them to know that ideas have consequences for both good and evil. The apostle Paul had a worldview. So did Hitler.” I find each of Robinson’s sentences here incredibly important for ministry to Chinese students, and I pray often for more people working with Chinese to take this seriously. Ideas matter, and they have mattered tremendously for the church.

Chinese international students consistently ask me about the myriad churches and denominations that they encounter in the United States. It could be very easy to dismiss these questions and tell my friends to just read the Bible, believe in Jesus, and not worry about the different kinds of churches. But when I do so I communicate, “Ideas don’t matter, and the lives of thousands of people who died for their ideas don’t matter.” I dishonor the saints that have gone before and stunt the spiritual growth of my Chinese students when I don’t help them engage the theological differences Christians have developed.

The moment a person starts reading the Bible, she starts interpreting it and those interpretations significantly impact the shape of her faith. Many people are afraid of exporting our denominational and theological baggage to places like China. This is not an invalid fear – the Western church will have great repenting to do if it causes its siblings to stumble in the ways it has stumbled concerning Christian unity. However, the solution is not to ignore the history of ideas, but rather to develop a robust and active commitment to unity in diversity.

5. “Because we want them to know that even great men are deeply flawed.”

With this last one, I’ll simply quote Robinson. What he says is easily applied to the Chinese context. “Paint a full, three-dimensional picture of your heroes from the pages of church history – the good, the bad, the ugly – to remind your children that Jesus was/is the sole perfect man. Tell them that some great spiritual leaders like King David in the Old Testament did foolish things, a reminder that sinners are saved by the righteousness of another. God draws straight lines with crooked sticks. Perhaps this perspective will help steer your children away from the deadly ditches of pharisaism and perfectionism.”

Amen! Including the history of the church in your evangelism and discipleship is one of the best ways to avoid moralism. In my opinion, it is impossible to look at the history of the church and fail to see its sin. But that should not discourage us. We study those who have gone before not to find in them moral exemplars, but rather to learn how our great God can preserve his church through the ages with broken and twisted people. The church has, does, and will fail, but her Savior and Head cannot.

So where to go with these thoughts? Robinson ends his article by suggesting some good resources for teaching church history to children, but such resources are much more difficult to find for the Chinese church. Translation of Western works is increasing and this is good and helpful, but in my opinion what we really need is people. The Chinese church needs and is developing excellent pastoral training, but it also needs to raise up Christian educators, going beyond theologians and exegetes to include historians. As an American, I can help try to teach and interpret the history of the church for Chinese context, but it will be best done by Chinese educators themselves. As they document and write their own church history, they will be the best at understanding how it connects to the bigger story of God’s work throughout the world. 

Share This Story

Further Reading

Nanjing: Bringing the Gospel Into Life
Read More
Nanjing: A Welcoming City of Newcomers
Read More
Nanjing: A Relational Gospel
Read More


With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.


  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church



About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.


Stories from Shenyang

About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.


Stories from Qingdao

About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.


Stories from Xiamen

About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.


Stories from Chongqing

About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.


Stories from Nanjing

About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.


Stories from Changchun

About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.


Stories from Guangzhou

About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.


Stories from Kunming

About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.


Stories from Shenzhen

About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 


Stories from Chengdu

About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.


Stories from Beijing

About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.


Stories from Shanghai


A short message about partnering with us.