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: You once shared something that has haunted me. You said that a pastor said that the persecution in China had taught them that they loved their middle-class Western lifestyle more than the way of the cross.
When I heard that, I thought: “I also prefer my middle-class Western life over the way of the cross.” That planted a seed for me that has grown for months. It has been one of the gifts for me of the testimony of our Chinese brothers and sisters, because (this is a very selfish thing that I’m saying), from my relatively comfortable place, I can watch people wrestle with very difficult circumstances and questions, and be refined over time, and come to reflections to share with us. You learn by suffering. Then I learn by your suffering, which is the preferred way we like to do it in the West. This conversation globally is so important, because these parts of the body of Christ around the world will receive some different grace. If we can have this conversation together, we will all be enriched.
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Bu keeping track of your work and the work of those you work with I have learned just how committed Western churches are to comfort, success, and influence. I anticipate that the inner work of recognizing those things is going to be a big part of the processing that we do in the U.S. in the coming months. From your experience, can you offer any pastoral advice or direction for leaders who are beginning to realize that this is not just a logistical question of how do we meet; this is a moment of deep reflection. What would you offer them, where might they begin?
Yang: That is also what I learned from Chinese brothers and sisters. They really shocked me, and I want to share with you something that entirely changed my perspective. The narrative has been that the government persecuted the church, and the church is the persecuted one, the righteous one. But, as [a well-known American pastor] shared at a recent conference for Chinese pastors, persecution can make you self-righteous. It can make you worse. I was sitting with these pastors when they heard this, that persecution is God’s refinement and discipline. Discipline is not only punishment; it is educational, it is sanctification.
When I heard Chinese pastors talk about their need to repent, about how they do not like the cross, they like the middle-class life, they like control – that challenged me to think of myself and where I need to repent. At that point I had been struggling with something for about two years. In my ordination ceremony, my father said, “I bless you to be a chained or in-jail minister for the Lord.” I hated that message. I hated it. It is not pleasant. Also, I thought, “That may not happen.” But then I heard what the pastors said, and I thought, “I need to deal with that. Why do I hate that?” Because I hate the cross. I hate to suffer with Christ.
Deep in my heart I say, “I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve an unrighteous government that persecutes me.” When I wrestled through that, God asked me: “You really don’t deserve that?” I realized that, sinful as I am, I deserve any kind of punishment or wrath from the Lord – including natural disaster or illness. I fully deserve persecution in any form. But in Jesus Christ, God is calling to me. It is not punishment. It is not wrath. It is to suffer with Christ, to suffer in Christ. Why do I want to escape from that? Is persecution a glory and honor, or something I try to escape?
At that point, I said, “Father, I repent. I deserve that. If it comes to me, it is not because I deserve it, because your Son has already removed that wrath.” But because of that, when I bear suffering, it is suffering with Christ and in Christ. That changed my life. That freed me, and gave me strength and power.
When these things – persecution or even the coronavirus – come, they make us worry. They are entirely out of our control. They threaten our ministry. What will our fundraising become? What will our strategy look like? What is the impact on our ministry plan? We worry about our physical health. All these things are legitimate and we care about people, their deaths and their life. But deep in our hearts, there is a comfort zone of control that, when broken, can bring us to the Lord. That honesty will change us, re-frame us, free us, and empower us. I see that happening in my life. I also saw that in the lives of pastors I know. After they determined to give themselves to be arrested and imprisoned, I saw great power come out of their lives: no fear, and for Christ.
The second thing I have seen is the life of these pastors after they are freed. They are asking: “How can I continue to do evangelism? How can I share the gospel? How can I continue to disciple people? How can I raise up full-time church leaders? How can I reach out to and love my neighbor? How can I plant new churches?” When the pastors shared about their experiences under persecution, they said, “Not submitting to the government and holding our ground is not compromisable. But our calling, mission, and vision is still to preach to all nations, to plant churches, to make disciples. We will not be measured, one day, by the Lord as to whether we held the house church position. We will be measured as to whether we did our job: to continue to preach, evangelize, disciple people and start new churches.”
That is the same question they are asking under coronavirus: not just how to survive, but how to thrive? How can we still press on and push forward?
I’m so excited to see them become so creative. They have online evangelism meetings drawing 3,000 people, they have different kinds of prayer meetings. Pastors are using this time to start reading groups, prayer groups, to prepare for the next stage, and to change the way of reaching out.
After the first stage, we really come back to ourselves to repent and turn to the Lord. Some power and strength will be released, and that will put us in these circumstances. We can still be the church, but in a different way. The strategy and plan will come, and we will be led into different creative ways to push forward for the ministry, the calling.
That is what we have been seeing in China, twice – under persecution, and what is going on now. This will be a blessing. Don’t waste the coronavirus, don’t waste persecution. God has a way.
O’Brien: That feels like a wonderful place to end. I’m grateful for this conversation, for your leadership, and for your sensitivity to the Spirit. The work that has been going on in you in those last months has been evident, and has created a work in many of us, too.
Thank you for your obedience to the Spirit. We will continue to look to our brothers and sisters abroad, and we will continue to point people to those testimonies because we have so much to learn from their example. We are very thankful for you. Thank you for being with us today.
Yang: Thank you, Brandon.
Which would you would prefer: bearing the cross of Christ, or entering into his suffering? What would it look like to embrace the suffering way of the cross in your life?