Ryan moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China, at the age of twelve. Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as an Assistant Pastor at New City Presbyterian Church in his US hometown of Cincinnati, OH. He also serves as the China Partnership Translation Manager.
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to participate in a Zoom conference meeting between a Chinese house church pastor and a group of almost 60 American pastors and church leaders. The purpose of the call was for the Chinese pastor to share how they have used Zoom (an online video conferencing software) to lead virtual Sunday worship and small group meetings.
While most American churches are exploring this uncharted territory in the U.S. in the last couple weeks, our Chinese brothers and sisters have been using Zoom and other online platforms to provide pastoral care and discipleship training over the past several months during their own Covid-19 quarantine, and some for even longer due to periods of persecution.
Although the conference call on Tuesday night lasted little more than an hour, it gave me a glimpse of the many ways we pastors in America can learn from the churches in China.
1) Virtual Pastoral Care and Discipleship
Would You Pray With Us Today?
While many of us are still figuring out how to set up virtual worship services, our brothers and sisters in China have been experimenting with Zoom and other communication software for discipleship training and even Sunday school classes. While pastoral care is often best done in person, this is not always available when the entire city is under quarantine, or when your movements are being monitored by the government. How can we “visit” and care for the sick when they are under quarantine? How to maintain church unity when our members differ on whether to follow the government’s guidelines regarding church services? How to encourage tithing and generosity online without sounding too crass and insensitive? These are all questions that my pastor friends have been asking in the last few weeks and our colleagues in China have a lot to share on these topics.
2) The Theological Implications of Gathering In Person
I have often found it amusing that many Chinese house churches insist on gathering in person for Sunday worship during the most intense periods of persecution; yet when the coronavirus threatened their cities they immediately moved their services online. This decision is obviously not made out of fear since they continued to meet under the threat of imprisonment and fines. So what is the rationale behind this sudden and drastic change?
While we do not face threats of persecution in the West, many of us do have to wrestle with the theological rationale for moving our worship online. We may find that some of our concerns are already addressed by our Chinese colleagues. And even as we move past the virus in the coming months, it is unlikely that everything will return to normal at once. What are some of the gatherings that we must conduct in person and what are some that we might continue to conduct online? Our Chinese brothers and sisters can help us think through the theological rationale and implications of these decisions.
3) The Ecumenical Nature of Online Content
In the past two weeks I’ve heard a quote by a former Chicago mayor repeated several times: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” With many Chinese cities were under lock-down and millions of Chinese citizens were confined to their homes in the last couple months, many Chinese house churches have come together to offer extended trainings and prayer gatherings online. These trainings range from marriage counseling to Bible teaching. Since these classes are online, churches from various cities could come together to share the workload. This has opened doors for evangelism and discipleship that would not have happened under normal circumstances. Many of my pastor friends have discussed the possibility of conducting a joint Good Friday service online (if we are still restricted in our gathering). While we explore these opportunities to collaborate across churches, we do not have to reinvent the wheel. The churches in China already have ample experiences and content to share with us.
4) Understanding the True Essence of the Church
Speaking of content, churches in the West do not lack content to share. Just in the past week, my own church has released two sermons online, six 10-minute devotion podcasts, two other podcast episodes, and many more social media posts and reflections. While these are all helpful, simply pushing out content may lead us to miss out on a very important aspect of church: each-otherness.
One reason many churches in China choose to conduct their worship services on Zoom is because Zoom offers the ability for participants to see each other. As one Chinese pastor shared with us, “We ask people to put on their Sunday clothes and have the whole family gather before the screen. After the worship service, we ask everyone to turn on their video so everyone can see each other, greet each other, and say hello.” At the end of this crisis, our members will be tired of watching and hearing from their pastors, while they may never get the chance to see each other for two months. We should try to mitigate the former and encourage the latter.
These are only four points I have observed from a short conference call with a Chinese house church pastor. In the coming weeks and months, we will have many more opportunities to learn from our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world. Let’s not let this serious crisis and opportunity go to waste.