Editor’s note: When the church encounters persecution, how will she respond? In 2019, several pastors shared their thoughts on how the persecuted church can and ought to face her troubles. This is the second excerpt CP has published from that interview (part one can be found here). Today, several house church pastors shared how they were walking their churches through persecution, and how they are preparing for the future. They emphasize that persecution impacts the church as a whole, not just a few individuals. Robust discipleship is needed to prepare the entire church body to walk through this type of experience. The pastors also called on the Christian community in a city to respond together to persecution, even if the specific attack is focused on one individual church.
This excerpt has been edited and condensed for both clarity and length.
The Gospel Shapes the Whole Body
Editor: We just heard how churches can together face persecution. We are not focusing on just one local church, but on the Church as a whole. How can we be faithful to the mission and vision of the church when facing persecution? How can we set up pastoral systems? Your church is currently facing this issue. What are your thoughts and practices?
Pastor Fang: Our church is not as prepared as we thought. People still have many fears. As pastors of the flock, we must first acknowledge our weaknesses. I have told church members and others laborers that I, their pastor, am weak. I want them to fix their eyes on Jesus’s grace. Victory does not lie in wisdom or courage, but in the grace of Christ. We need to communicate the power of this grace to those who persecute us.
Second, we focus on how we can confess our faith: through public worship. This requires a lot of courage! In continuing to worship publicly, we inevitably set ourselves apart from churches that believe we should do our best to avoid persecution. We want to testify the gospel is true through our courage. We want to force our persecutors to consider the truth of the gospel. If we chose to compromise, that would invalidate our faith in their eyes.
Some brothers and sisters get the idea that, if an arrest did happen, it would be the pastor. Because of this, they do not really feel a sense of urgency. Even after we have gone through persecution several times, many brothers and sisters feel relatively unaffected. This perplexes me. When the church suffers persecution, it should not impact just certain individuals, but the entire church. If the whole church is not transformed by the gospel through this experience, then persecution loses its meaning and just degrades into individual heroism – even if it is true that leaders usually bear the brunt of the persecution.
In the same way, persecution should not impact just one church. For instance, the persecution of Early Rain ought to concern the wider church. By implication, all churches that share the same confession of faith are under persecution, even though they are not actually being persecuted. This is what it means for the church to be gospel-shaped in persecution.
Other local churches have expressed their willingness to suffer with us, to pray and fast for us. They even attended a few court hearings to show support. When persecution happens, we should focus on how the gospel shapes the body of Christ as a whole.
Discipleship Is Our Top Priority
Editor: This reminds me of a saying in the house church where I grew up: “If a church is not united, then let persecution come. When we are persecuted, then we will be united.”
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Pastor Fang brings up another interesting topic: the idea among believers that persecution will only affect the pastor, not them. So how can the church as a whole be shaped by the gospel when she faces persecution? We need to strengthen our ecclesiology, so we won’t fall into the trap of individual heroism.
Pastor Peng: We must have two attitudes. First, we need realistic expectations. It is normal that when you “strike the shepherd…the sheep will be scattered.” After persecution, some will be strong; others will be weak. Ones who normally do not look impressive may be strong, while those you had high hopes for may not do as well. Holding realistic expectations helps us avoid romanticizing things, and keeps us grounded and humble to do the work of rebuilding in the gospel. The strong can discern whether they are driven by the gospel, and the weak have a chance to return to the Lord’s grace. If we hold realistic expectations, we can take time to gather the flock, so that in due course those who have left can come back. If our expectations are unrealistic, it will give the impression only the strong can stay in the church. Bound by guilt, the weak will just grow further and further apart, not able to be redeemed in grace.
Second, we must provide regular nourishment, stay connected to God’s word, study the Bible, learn catechisms, and so on. The testimonies of those who come out of prison are valuable, but these are just bonus snacks, outside of daily bread.
There are three actions we must take. First, communication and pastoral care must be solid. In the past several years, church gatherings have become more public. It is difficult for us to go from this extravagance back to the frugality [of smaller meetings]. We must adjust our mindset and return to the faith of our elders. When it is difficult, how can brothers and sisters communicate? Encourage home visits and face-to-face gatherings. People need to know one another very well in small groups. They should learn where others live, and small group leaders should know each member of their group. That way, even if communication tools are restricted, they can still visit.
Second, we need to prepare believers for more difficult times to come. Discipleship is our top priority; believers need to be able to continue to grow in the gospel without pastors or church leaders.
Third, many good resources have been passed down to us that we can learn from, such as the Heidelberg Catechism. Today, our churches are making preparations. They are doing systematic discipleship and preparing resources for the three to six months, in case the church was closed down and all the pastors were arrested.
Give Up Even Our Church
Editor: The church needs to consciously build a strong interpersonal community. This is lacking in our era. Cell phones and the Internet have actually weakened physical relationships. This is the time to train our congregation to regularly share meals, to fellowship and pray together, to regularly live together. Even when persecution happens, it is natural to continue to see each other, connecting together as believers. We need this life-giving fellowship with a strong physical community.
“By this all men will recognize you as my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Do you have anything else to add about pastoral care?
Pastor Yang: I remember what my aunt said: for the sake of Christ, we must give up even our church. Sometimes persecution goes beyond what we imagined. My church has already split into four locations, but there is still a possibility of being attacked. If the government wants to make an example out of a local church, it can even block the channels for small group meetings.
This is our church’s strategy: if they shut down a location, we will divide into four meeting points. If we are still attacked, our members will go to other churches. We have already given other churches the heads-up on this, and they will receive us with a heart for the kingdom. When this is over, or when we get out of prison, our members can return and restore our church if they like – or they can continue to stay in different churches. There is no point in holding on to our own congregation.
Similarly, we try to have brothers and sisters meet at different homes for small groups. If persecution reaches a certain point, we can keep the small groups going and have our members worship at the recommended churches.
Pastors Fang, Peng, and Yang are urban Chinese house church pastors. They are committed to preaching a grace-centered gospel, developing resources for the church, and loving China’s urban centers.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray for churches facing persecution to support one another. Pray for church members to support those in their body bearing the brunt of the attack.