Editor’s note: This series comes from a sermon given at a recent conference on discipleship for Chinese house church leaders. This sermon has been translated and edited from its original version.
Yang Mingdao is the collective pseudonym for Chinese staff within China Partnership.
I have found four connections in how kingdom, eschatology, and the cross connect to discipleship in the church today. Different religions have their own eschatologies – but in China we do not believe in those religions anymore. In order of importance, the most popular beliefs in China today are secular liberalism, material consumerism, authoritarianism, and finally other religions, especially Buddhism and Islam.
I will not address authoritarianism or other religions in depth. The key is to put our faith in God. Given current circumstances in China, I believe the Communist Party will soon become a new religion. The day of singing the national anthem in church is not far away. If that day arrives before we worship Christ and sing of his great work, what will you do?
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I will not talk about Tibetan Buddhism. Islam also has an eschatology. Islam says Jesus will return, but this Jesus is just a spokesman, different from Allah, who will come in the future. Their eschatology is a twisted and heretical version of Christian eschatology. It is powerful, because Muslims believe the future world belongs to them, and those who depart from Allah will be wiped out. Christians and Jews will convert, and the world will be united. We also believe the world will be united, but we are very weak now. Our discipleship methods do not address this.
The most important eschatology in China today is secular liberalism, which arose as a result of the Enlightenment. Philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “Man has emerged from the state of immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.” Kant says we have the courage to use our own understanding; we have grown up. This became the motto of the Enlightenment. The vision of the Enlightenment was rationalism and independent thinking, not God’s revelation. The Enlightenment greatly influenced many professions, aesthetics, and free trade. It encouraged moral people to determine their own lifestyles, and the idea of freedom became the autonomy of man, instead of the classic idea of freedom in the context of grace. The Enlightenment advocated for rationalism, scientism, and universal secularization.
But what does the Enlightenment have to do with the end times? The Enlightenment and secular liberalism teach that tomorrow will be better than today. No matter what happens today – another world war, the dropping of atomic bombs, the collapse of the Chinese economy – tomorrow will be better. But who can guarantee this? After the world wars, we realized tomorrow will not necessarily be better.
Secularism fails because it wants to reach a consensus based on universal values. It wants the whole world to have the same values. Yet it says no one is guaranteed to be correct in the realm of morality. There should be pluralism; reason should replace religion. Has this happened? No. Islam is making a comeback. Buddhism and Hinduism are still influential. We have found no solutions to the problem of universal values.
How should Christianity respond? In Jesus, God is beginning a new creation. This new creation began two thousand years ago. We do not arrive at utopia through natural processes, but by walking in the grace of God by the sovereignty and power of God. One day, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. The question Christianity faces is: what is the world actually like? Is the secular idea of utopia correct? Secularists’ idea is built on cause and effect. They deny there is an absolute, personal sovereignty that is the ultimate cause of all things. They look for scientific explanations, such as secondary or third or fourth causes. There is no ultimate reason.
Christians today are privatizing personal belief, reducing Christianity to personal piety and salvation. I am not against personal salvation; please do not misunderstand me. But when we realize secular eschatology is influencing us, how should we respond? When the risen Jesus Christ comes back again to judge the world, there will be an open trial. All things done in the dark will be revealed. Secularists argue that religion is outdated, that it is barbaric and has led to wars in the past. But their so-called “progress” has led to dictatorships and disasters, not the results secular liberals imagined. That’s why, when 9/11 happened in America, extreme secularists realized they didn’t have the backbone to compete against ISIS, who does not hesitate to murder. The tolerance secularists talk about is not the same tolerance promoted by Christianity. Religion is not outdated, and has not disappeared.
Interestingly, the world has become more religious compared to fifty years ago. Global statistics show 81 percent of the world’s population believes in some sort of institutional religion. This includes all forms of religion, not just Christianity. Seventy-four percent of people believe religion plays a very important role in their daily lives. (China is a little strange because it is an atheistic country.) Fifty percent of people – half of all people in the world – attend some form of worship activity weekly. (So, China is a very strange country.) Thirty-eight percent of the French population believes in astrology, and 35 percent of people in Switzerland believe the predictions of fortunetellers are often true. Eighty to 90 percent of Japanese people, after buying a new car, go to a Shinto temple to ask monks to perform religious rituals. Secularism cannot solve major problems like evil, sin, and death. Only Christianity gives the solution to these problems and provides true hope.
If you believe Christianity is the answer, do you believe the church has lived out this truth? The church today needs to say more than that the past was dark, but the future will be bright. People must understand history and this age in order to live well. We should not treat history as merely a map. History is a treasure, and we should open it like a treasure. We can learn many things from it.
This is true both in America and in China. The American church especially needs this gospel of the kingdom. The Chinese church needs this perspective, too. In America, Christians have lost their authority, and are now being persecuted. Many mainstream evangelicals are giving up their authority, even saying the Bible supports homosexuality. As Christianity grows in China, what perspective will we use in looking at what God has revealed to us in the Bible concerning his Son reigning at his right hand? The church, carrying their cross together as a community, is greater than individual heroes. What the Chinese church needs is not celebrities, but a large group of disciples who are willing to risk their lives for Jesus. This has nothing to do with the government. We have to preach the arrival of the kingdom of God to this dark age.
The second belief popular in China is consumerism. Consumerism and consumption are different. We were created by God in the form of matter, so we must consume things. If we do not consume anything, we will be in trouble. But the mindset behind consumerism says that all transactions are material transactions, and that every human need can be satisfied through material transactions. This mentality makes the accumulation of things the goal of life. It says my problem is that I lack material things, and if I can obtain these things in the future, I will be satisfied.
Consumerism has two important aspects. First, consumerism does not focus much on history, because it is all about personal liberty; about you watching me accumulate things. On the Chinese internet people talk about stories like that of Jack Ma, who started from scratch and became rich. This reflects the eschatology of extreme liberalism and consumerism. A man accumulated wealth while dreaming about the future and finally became successful. Everyone thinks, “I am working and taking the subway today, just like Jack Ma did.” This is their hope.
Another change we’ve seen is societal. In the past, both in China and in the West, there were what we call “holidays” in English: holy days. A holiday was religious in nature, whether it be Spring Festival or Mid-Autumn Festival or a festival commemorating saints. But America has changed, and so has China. Nowadays, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day are about spending money. Thanksgiving has become a holiday for consumers. What festivals does China have? Single’s Day is about shopping. Chinese Valentine’s Day is also about shopping. The whole social calendar is based on living according to the ideals of consumerism.
Please wake up, brothers and sisters! Is this your kingdom? I am not against shopping. I also buy stuff. I also wear clothes. God created us with both a body and a soul. But consumerism’s allure lies in the story of someone striving to become rich, a story about how a person saves themselves through hard work, intellect, and success. At the end of the story, they get to drive a big car, live in a big house, and marry a young wife or husband. All stories end the same, with great luxury.
How should Christians today respond? True Christians must change their lives and behaviors. Dying to oneself and carrying our cross looks different in different situations. It is not simply about how much money you spend.
Many Western churches have something called “spiritual consumption,” which treats church members as consumers and the pastor as provider of products or services. Mega-churches follow this idea, packaging everything according to this mindset. The pastor preaches; the people “consume” spiritual or religious content; it is reasonable to offer a little money. This is terrible! Our vocabulary no longer contains words like “generous stewards” or “laying up treasures in heaven.” How do you treat your Sabbath? How do you live differently? How do you quiet yourself when you are not busy? How do you keep busy when others are lazy?
Whichever discipleship model we choose – the multiplication model, the practical piety model, or the gospel empowerment model – they all need to be supplemented with an eschatology of the coming of the kingdom of Jesus Christ so that we may understand the times in which we are living. Amen!
How does belief in the coming return of Christ change the way you live in and interact with the world today?