Editor’s note: What is the church? How can a church be governed by the Bible? These are questions that Christians have struggled with for more than two millennia, and as the Chinese church continues to mature, Chinese believers are also facing these difficult and important questions. Wu Jing shares how he and his young church community began to consider these topics, and some of the answers they reached. In the first part of this series, Wu introduces his community, some of their challenges, and explains how his church began to think biblically about what church really is.
This article was originally published on the Grace to City website in March, and has been edited for length and clarity.
After graduating from college, I worked for a year. I came to this church when God led me to Beijing to prepare for graduate studies abroad. At that time, the church was still a student congregation inside an evangelical church. Most people were recent college students and new converts. I came to faith a few years earlier, so was considered “mature.” I began to get involved in ministry. As God showed me the needs of the church and gave me a passion to serve, I gave up my plan to study abroad. Instead, I stayed in Beijing to work and serve the church.
I experienced a lot of struggles when I started serving the student fellowship congregation. Our idea of church was very vague then. If someone asked me, I could name our church, but felt unfamiliar with what the church was. That church had about ten different congregations, spread around different parts of Beijing. We did not know who our pastor was. Each week, someone different preached.
Brothers and sisters in our congregation did not know these preachers well, because they usually left after the sermon. Were they the leaders of our congregation? Within the congregation, leaders were those who came to faith a year or two earlier than others. Their theology and spiritual lives were not strong enough for pastoral responsibility.
We young Christians often got together and discussed how to pastor according to the Bible. We attempted many different things… We were exhausted from serving, but had little growth in our lives.
I felt a great deal of tension leading ministry while working. I felt something was wrong, but could not tell what or why. I had many complaints about the preachers of our church. We young Christians often got together and discussed how to pastor according to the Bible. We attempted many different things. We believed we should share the gospel more, so went to campus every Saturday to distribute tracts and share the gospel. We thought we ought to focus on worship, so we encouraged brothers and sisters to participate more by learning musical instruments and new hymns. We wanted to build believers in God’s Word, so we found many different study materials for small groups. We felt we ought to serve, so we actively participated in discipleship and ministry training classes at church. We were exhausted from serving, but had little growth in our lives. We felt we ought to pursue being filled with the Holy Spirit, so we allowed people to come teach tongues. We knew we ought to demonstrate love, so we often held love feasts.
Our main focuses were evangelism, personal salvation, reconciling with God, the hope of eternal life, love relationships with one another, and healing in Christ. Most of our efforts were focused on the personal level, and did not include the concept of church. We thought church was a place to gather, but we did not think deeply about why we gathered or how to worship during our gathering.
In those days, I was passionate about God and the church, but I was also confused. I did not know what church was or how to build it. It was like punching the air; I barged around and didn’t get anywhere. In that time, God raised a group of brothers from our midst to go out and study theology. I began my studies in 2010, and returned in 2014 to start a full-time ministry.
Although my ideas about church planting were immature, the three years of theological training enabled me to go back to the Bible and ponder the question of church building. My thoughts on church planting were mostly on paper; I thought I knew things, but did not really understand biblical teaching about how to build churches. This confusion brought a lot of uncertainty to practical pastoral care. It was easy for me to fall into the temptation of pragmatism. I lost patience, rushed into things, lost hope, and was often discouraged.
Most of our efforts were focused on the personal level, and did not include the concept of church. We thought church was a place to gather, but we did not think deeply about why we gathered or how to worship during our gathering.
The year I returned from theological study, our church was still one congregation under a larger church. Having multiple congregations caused many problems. First, the division of duties was unclear. At that time, the church had one pastor, but several preachers. Different preachers took turns visiting congregations to preach. The pastor and the preachers were all called “teacher,” and the congregation had a “lay leader” who was responsible for administration, logistics, and scheduling Sunday services. But the Bible does not list the offices of “lay leader” or “teacher,” which led to confusion. What are these roles? What authority do they have?
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The leader was also confused: were they an elder, a deacon, or a co-laborer in the church? Although the lay leader was not an elder, a deacon, or a pastor, he did some of all this work. This lack of clarity created much tension between preachers and leaders.
There was also confusion regarding pastoral care. Because many congregations were under one church, the preacher’s main focus was on preaching and on the ministry area (such as discipleship or missions) to which he was assigned. He was not able to go into the congregation to understand and shepherd brothers and sisters. The sheep and the shepherd did not know one another.
The pastor could understand members who were involved in discipleship trainings or ministry classes. But it was difficult for him to build relationships with those who did not participate in those ministries. The preachers also did not know the specific situations of the congregation that heard his sermon. There were many complaints, and many needs could not be met. The preachers were exhausted, and the brothers and sisters felt no pastoral care. At the same time, leaders had many pastoral responsibilities, but they were not adequately equipped. They also did not have enough time and energy to meet the of the congregation because they had jobs.
Third, there was spiritual confusion. Different congregations had no unified confession of faith, but ranged from charismatic, to Arminian, to Reformed. The church as a whole had a confession of faith, but it was a missionary movement confession, and could not function as a church foundation. The preachers did not have consistent theological views. This created further tensions and more spiritual confusion.
The main problem was our lack of understanding of what a church was. We knew a church should be governed by the Bible, but we did not know the path.
Finally, each different congregation had its own characteristics, theology, difficulties, and vision. It was difficult for the church to be united.
In 2014, we began to explore what building a church meant. The main problem was our lack of understanding of what a church was. We knew a church should be governed by the Bible, but we did not know the path. We went back to Scripture, and examined resources from church history to discover the answers to these two questions, mostly looking in the tradition of Reformed theology. Thanks to God’s provision, we came in contact with some trainings that helped a lot. We also got to know many Reformed churches and pastors, and found that some churches had gone through situations similar to ours. Their experiences helped us a great deal. Many churches had faced the same ecclesiological struggles as we were. Through this, we began to explore which direction our church should pursue.
Wu Jing is a pseudonym for a post-80s generation pastor. Wu began to pastor after he graduated from seminary in 2014.
Pray for Chinese churches who are struggling to understand what the church is and how the church should worship.