Hannah Nation is the Director of Communications and Content for China Partnership. She is a research associate at Gordon-Conwell’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity, and has written for The Gospel Coalition and Christianity Today. She received her Master of Arts in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
“We’re trying to bring an awareness and understanding to our congregation that the church is bigger than the little church we live in. There are a whole host of not just Christians, but very mature Christians, all over the world that are dealing with some things that are different from you and some that are very similar to you.”
Most pastors are likely to agree with the goals of Bill Hampton, Global Missions Pastor at Christ Chapel Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas. There is a growing understanding among American evangelicals that the Western church is now only a small fraction of the church’s global reality. This understanding is accompanied by a desire to help congregants better understand and identify with their brothers and sisters in the faith from around the world. How can American churches do so?
Working for an organization like China Partnership, I think about this question on a daily basis. One of CP’s core commitments is to help resource and train the house church in China. Corollary to that is helping the Chinese church speak back to us in the West, offering its own resources to a church transitioning from cultural ascendance to one of increasing marginalization. I believe Chinese and American churches need each other, not just because of my theological understanding of the global reality of the Bride of Christ, but because the young need the old to offer their wisdom earned from experience, and the old need the young to refresh their sense of purpose and vision. If we want to see revival in America, then we must hear from and listen to those currently witnessing it.
I recently took time to talk with three different churches who are all striving to bring a better awareness of the global church to their congregations using some of the resources CP creates. The churches represent a variety of demographics and geographic areas. Already mentioned, Christ Chapel in Texas is a large nondenominational church with 5,000-7,000 attendees spread across three campuses. Though the other two churches are similarly sized and share a denominational affiliation, they differ in certain significant ways. City Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA) is in Pittsburgh’s urban center, a mostly white church in a historic blue-collar city turned recent tech and academic hub. Trinity Park Church (PCA) calls North Carolina’s Research Triangle home. Located in the suburbs, the congregation is intentionally multinational with twenty to thirty different nations represented. These three churches vary with regards to cultural context, worship style, denominational affiliation, and leadership structures, yet all have been exploring ways to connect with the Chinese church, bringing awareness of it to their congregations on a regular, if not weekly, basis. They are excited to see fruit from their efforts.
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Here are some key ways they are engaging the Chinese house church:
CP believes that learning about the Chinese house church is the first fundamental step to partnering with the house church in the gospel. Meaningful relationships begin with knowing someone well. If American pastors want their congregants to understand themselves as part of a larger, global body, they must help introduce those in their churches to their brothers and sisters across the ocean.
One possible way to help foster such learning is to incorporate a global perspective into a church’s Sunday liturgy. This is what Corey Jackson, senior pastor of Trinity Park, does. The church often reads the Apostle’s Creed together, and when they do so, Jackson makes sure to discuss the global nature of the church and highlight other churches around the world. Trinity Park also does a pastoral prayer as part of their service. Jackson regularly prays for the persecuted church, particularly in China. During coronavirus, he reached out to a Chinese friend and pastor for insight on how his church conducted the Lord’s Supper during a pandemic. Ultimately, Trinity Park ended up leaning on the theological insight and practical advice of their Chinese advisers.
Jackson would say it’s important for senior pastors to take initiative in creating spaces in their churches’ worship services to reflect on the global nature of the church. “I think pastors need to occasionally take the pastoral privilege and go, ‘This is not our normal way, but let’s take a moment for the [global] church,’” he says. For example, when a prominent house church pastor named Wang Yi was arrested in December 2018, CP translated his essay, “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” into English. Jackson and Trinity Park’s missions director decided to use this resource and dedicate time to reading the declaration out loud to the congregation, forgoing their scheduled advent liturgy. “It speaks volumes when it’s not [just] the missions pastor or the missions team leader or a regular church member, but the senior pastor who says, ‘This is huge and we need to be aware of this,’” Jackson says. He wanted to remind his church, “We need to learn from this brother, Wang Yi, who wrote this unbelievable declaration. Let’s be mentored by him in our faith!”
CP works to provide many such resources that Americans can use to learn from Chinese pastors. The first is the CP blog which regularly features sermons, interviews, and articles written by Chinese pastors and translated into English. As a missions pastor, Bill Hampton shares that he is regularly asked how the Chinese church is doing by both congregants and other pastors on Christ Chapel’s staff. To be prepared, he has saved the China Partnership blog as a direct link on his phone. Rather than giving a simple answer, he opens up his phone and shows whoever is asking how they can start following updates on the Chinese church themselves. Jackson shares that many of his elders and ministry team leaders are slowly starting to subscribe to CP’s newsletters and communications, helping them to become more regularly aware of what is taking place in the kingdom halfway around the world. In fact, he believes that these days several of his elders are more up to date than he is on the situation of the church in China, something that deeply encourages him.
Another resource CP has created is a book called Grace to the City: Studies in the Gospel from China. The book contains translations of five sermons on the gospel of grace from leading Chinese house church pastors. It’s a simple book and includes reflection questions and a prayer at the end of each chapter so it can be used for group discussion in a Sunday school or community group setting. Matt Koerber, Senior Pastor of City Reformed, believes this is a good resource because sometimes having something short in print creates different opportunities than digital media. “It’s very readable, but you hear the voices of the people, which is a powerful combination,” he says. Koerber has even quoted from the book in a recent sermon as he seeks to bring more illustrations from the global church into his preaching. The book “…captured the voice of the people, with their concerns, in ways that sounded like their voice, but was approachable and receivable” for local Americans. As the Chinese house church grows in maturity, its spiritual depth is something American Christians can increasingly learn from.
As we learn about the global church, it ought to move us to partner with our brothers and sisters in Christ in prayer. The house churches CP seeks to serve take prayer very seriously and it is their most common request when we ask how churches in the West can support and encourage them. Prayer is not a passive response to the needs of Christians in China. Prayer is an action of intentionally standing together before the throne of the living God.
It’s difficult to pray for things we don’t understand. Most churches want to be in regular prayer for Christians around the world, especially persecuted Christians. But because we don’t understand their contexts and situations, we don’t know how to pray for them. CP is working to change this by providing a platform for prayer through creating daily and weekly prayer points, supported by videos and blog posts to help inform those praying on the issues being prayed for. Over the past several years, CP’s platform has prayed through the Lord’s Prayer, for Chinese cities, for topics like evangelism during Christmas or Chinese New Year, for Chinese international students at the beginning of the academic year, or women in the church. In 2021, CP will be praying for ministry in China to go both deeper and wider, focusing on focusing on related teaching and prayer requests directly from Chinese pastors.
CP also helps churches learn to pray for China by hosting localized prayer nights. Christ Chapel, Trinity Park, and City Reformed have each hosted one of these prayer nights in 2019. The events involve sharing a meal together, learning about the needs of the Chinese church through videos, and then praying together through five movements of prayer. Jackson says, “I had pretty low expectations to be honest. I’ve tried to organize prayer events for missions in the past, but the response has been marginal. However, this prayer event far surpassed what I was anticipating. I felt like I was invited into the mission through prayer in a way that was new to me. I’ve heard people who were there talking about it since. One person said ‘I will be driving to work and find myself praying about China. That had never happened to me before. It’s kind of shocking to me.’’’
City Reformed also saw promising fruit from hosting a prayer night. They had significantly larger turn out for the event that than they anticipated. And as a result, some congregants decided to start a monthly prayer meeting on behalf of China. Every month, Dan and Megan Reiley open their home to pray according to the month’s prayer platform. Many months it is just Dan and Megan meeting themselves; but they remain excited to faithfully pray and help remind their church of the needs of their brothers and sisters.
According to all three churches, the desire to bring the global church more fully into their local congregations is not easy. It comes with difficulties and challenges. There are always questions about how much participants join due to extenuating circumstances and how much is due to true change of the church’s culture. The last year has also brought increased political tension between China and the U.S., pressure which acutely impacted the lives of many individual Chinese living in America.
Near the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Jackson wrote of the need for Christians to speak out against the rising xenophobia experienced by many Asians and Asian-Americans. He called on churches to condemn racism, express empathy, and view the world through a gospel lens, not a political one. “We must first think as disciples rather than as Americans,” Jackson wrote. “There are 1.3 billion individual images of God living in China….Will we allow the geopolitical rivalry between our countries to stifle our love for Chinese and Asian people?”
One difficulty Hampton identifies is the way missions can tend to “super-spiritualize” itself. “Sometimes it’s relevant, sometimes it isn’t,” he says. “Each person has got a ministry that God’s called them to, so trying to force it into interaction with missions raises a relevance question. It has to make sense.” If a congregation wants to engage the global church more, the solution is not to make every other part of the church cater to missions. Rather, it’s about connecting people and ministries to the global church when it is relevant to do so. When the missions team at Christ Chapel tries to facilitate further connection to the house church within their ministries, they ask, “What is an actual relevant connection that your ministry would have with the [church in China]?”
And it’s not just about China. Corey Jackson shares that for him, seeking to introduce the Chinese house church to his congregation at Trinity Park has actually broadened his own understanding of the global church beyond China. Jackson has many personal connections to China, which initially led to China being one of the key countries initially Trinity Park focused on. But Jackson quickly realized he was too focused on China. It is not the only country experiencing a remarkable outpouring of the Spirit, nor is it the only place where persecution takes place. As a result, the church has broadened its attention to include other parts of the global church and recently started dedicating time in services to hear from and pray for missionaries to India who suffer severe persecution.
A corollary discovery Jackson has made is that every individual will have his or her own particular sense of calling and interest. With many Chinese families in the congregation, Jackson initially assumed that they would be the most invested in helping to connect Trinity Park to the Chinese church. But this didn’t turn out to be the case. Many of the Chinese in his church had other, just as important interests and callings to serve Christ. National and ethnic identities may not be the primary factor in determining how individual congregants are called to serve.
In general, those I talked to from all three churches shared various ways that working to bring the voice of the Chinese church to their local congregations provides a certain type accountability or perspective. Bill Hampton explains that Christ Chapel’s efforts to connect with the Chinese church have required the church leave behind any programmatic approach to doing so, a remarkable statement given how large the church is. In the past, Christ Chapel tried to start programs to minister to local overseas Chinese, but those efforts failed. When the church began from a different starting point – one of being willing to listen to the Lord outside of programming – connections started happening. As the church began to take a posture of learning about, receiving from, and praying in partnership with China, then opportunities to connect with local Chinese presented themselves.
Trying to connect with the global church doesn’t just help or encourage lay people; it is an encouragement for pastors as well. Corey Jackson has thought about this a lot. He believes that as a pastor he is accountable to preach the one, global, universal gospel. He regularly asks himself, “If a Chinese pastor was in the room and heard me preach this sermon, could he rejoice at the gospel that I am preaching?” Yes, specific cultural context is important for preaching and therefore sermons will always be nuanced for the local people. But, says Jackson, “I shouldn’t be so contextualized that someone from China or from Uzbekistan or the Congo wouldn’t be sitting there going, ‘That’s the gospel I preach.’ The global church holds me accountable.”
After all, the American church and the Chinese church profess to believe in the same Lord. Therefore, they are accountable to each other, seeking to preaching scripture in order that they might proclaim the same gospel. The gospel connects in specific ways to each local context, but there is only one, universal message of salvation. Sometimes it takes hearing it from another context to be reminded of this universal reality.