Editor’s note: This interview originally appeared in April 2020 as a part of the “Church in Outbreak” series of the Redeemer City to City podcast. In mid-March, many churches around the U.S. were prohibited from gathering for weekend services, and churches scrambled to move online. As churches struggled to figure out next steps, Brandon O’Brien interviewed a friend of City to City who works with Christian leaders across China.
Yang Mingdao is the collective pseudonym for Chinese staff within China Partnership.
This interview has been edited and condensed for both clarity and brevity.
O’Brien: My family has lived in New York City for almost three years, after many years in different places. Most of the places we lived before had a large enough Christian population that, when I met another Christian, I didn’t assume I would have anything in common with them. There was no particular reason we needed to be friends.
It’s not that there are no Christians in New York, but the Christian population is enough in the minority that I have found a sense of kinship with other believers with whom I may disagree about any number of things. Just the fact that we are brothers and sisters in Christ is a compelling similarity for me. I had never experienced that before living here.
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I would think the situation is similar in China, where the Christian population is enough of a minority that there could be a sense of kinship between brothers and sisters in Christ. I know there are divisions and theological differences among Three-Self churches, and likely even among the unregistered churches. But this feels like a moment in time that might remind us of how sweet it is to have Christian fellowship, now that we are all deprived of it in physical terms.
This time of increased social pressure about Christians meeting in general, then the isolation created by coronavirus – how have you seen that affecting the sense of Christian unity among different parts of the Church in China? Or, as you say, questioning the nature of Christian fellowship in general? Long-term, what kinds of trends are you seeing in those regards?
Yang: I will push beyond even Christian kinship. It’s larger than that. The virus doesn’t distinguish if you are Christian or not. It’s humanity, that common experience. The shared experience under coronavirus has reshaped people’s attitudes toward each other.
In the early days, leaders we knew proactively reached out to policemen, to local officers who had been pressuring them. The pastors reached out to say, “I have masks.” At that time, it was very hard to get masks. They said, “You are working the frontline and you’re the most endangered group. Do you need masks? I will share.” That common human experience brought people together. I wish I could see the moment when they met and handed over the masks. I think coronavirus will change a lot of dynamics. We are at the beginning; we don’t know what the fruit will be.
Likewise, there are still tensions between churches in the same city, because the churches have different ways to handle persecution. Some churches want to persist, and some very quickly give in. But when coronavirus came, they shared the same experience.
Churches in China are having nationwide prayer meetings, calling churches from different denominations and in different parts of China. Every day they have prayer meetings. It’s beautiful when people start to pray, that’s a common denominator. All the people from different denominations, different psychological backgrounds, you hear how theology shapes prayers and how you pray. But still – we pray to God. We all call out for help, we all repent. In that process, God softens hearts. We learn from others. We see other people genuinely love the Lord and the community. They want to advance the gospel. When we lead the prayer process, people say, “Oh, you talk about the centrality of the gospel.” They see how our pastors handle the situation. That creates space for people to be humble and to say, “Even though we are different, we can pray. We can ask from God.” That process builds the larger body and mutual understanding. I hope that can go deeper and be more fruitful.
O’Brien: Are any other questions that are coming up with the pastors you are speaking to? If a church went from a large gathering (this is prior to coronavirus), with one pastor, and now that larger gathering is distributed into several smaller ones, and now it’s distributed again into homes of just immediate family – what kinds of questions are pastors wrestling with about the church’s identity, purpose, and mission that may have to do either with cultural pressure or the coronavirus or both?
Yang: I have interactions with pastors from all over China. The most striking thing I heard was, “I felt my heart harden in this process – not only the persecution but also the coronavirus – my heart has become numb. I don’t feel much and just do my work.” Being anxious would even be better than that what I heard. Anxiety can push you to the Lord and to prayer, but numbness and hardness of hard make us not useful. The reaction can be to think, “I have to handle the situation. How do we think about strategy?” But inside is a hardened heart. When people shared that in prayer, I was glad. That is a starting point. In this small group of pastors, we can be honest.
The reason we had this kind of sharing is, during a prayer meeting, the pastor shared Psalm 38. The psalmist is honest about the hardness of the reality of illness and death, but he calls upon the Lord. In all this hardship his first reaction is to turn to God to repent. When that was shared among the pastors, the reflection was that the first reaction – not only in persecution but also with the coronavirus – is to try to control, to think of strategies. This numbness is because these things are really out of our control. Our culture is also trying to control. With a pandemic, we don’t have a vaccine or a cure. We are vulnerable. That can be devastating. And people handle that differently: hardening their heart, numbness.
The first challenge for the pastors and for ourselves is: how do we deal with that? Do we deal with that deeply enough and turn to the Lord? Secondarily, there are legitimate church and ministry challenges. Will this online form of gathering affect the long-run church ecology of how we do Sunday business, worship, and pastoral care?
No doubt it will have a long-term effect on the future, good or bad. We will utilize online conveniences much better than before, we were pushed that way, but the concern for church leaders is, if you are not in the same room, you cannot do something like accountability. Some things you have to do face-to face: visiting the ill, some kinds of discipleship. Will that generate the long-term harm to the church? If we are used to online forms, what does it mean to people’s concept of what a church is?
During Sunday worship you can still join your own church for Sunday worship. But nothing prevents you, if you are in Chengdu or in Shanghai, from joining a church in Beijing that has a better preacher. What does it mean for our church? Does it still have to be a local body? What makes a church? Why we are a church?
Do you try to strategize or manipulate your way out of difficult situations? What would it look like to soften your heart to God in the midst of difficulty?