Prayer, Suffering, and the Church: Union with Christ is a Call to Die

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This year marks the 35th year I have been involved with ministry to Chinese, beginning with a short-term summer missions project to China during my years as a university student. Over the past 35 years, I have witnessed massive changes in society and in the church in China. Although in my earlier years I did not know much about the house church, I became increasingly involved with this marginalized community as time went on. The last ten years have been primarily focused on church development and theological education.  

Over the past ten years, some observations have struck me as I’ve watched men and women grow in their calling to ministry. For the sake of brevity and space, I chose three which are significant factors in the growth of believers in China and throughout the world, as well as in my own spiritual growth.

First, prayer is an indispensable tool that is easily neglected but often taken up when circumstances are difficult, as they are for many house church Christians. The first time I prayed with a house church Christians was in 1991, during a gathering in a countryside village deep in central China. It was a winter morning shortly before 5 when we woke and prayed with local church leaders. We knelt on a hard concrete floor, and the winter cold was biting. I felt extremely unspiritual, because all I could think about was how uncomfortable I was. Over the years, as I have reflected on this and the many other times since then I’ve prayed with my house church brothers and sisters, the culture of prayer that has carried over from the earliest days of the house church in China rings true. Their prayers are often ones of lament or desperation, but they are also filled with hope. When they are harassed, persecuted, beaten, arrested or mistreated by the authorities, most house church believers recognize that they have no recourse other than to take their grief and lament to the Lord and pray for his grace and strength. They have no politicians who represent them, nor do they possess political power to leverage circumstances to achieve a favorable outcome when things get bad. Prayer becomes, for them, a precious tool. This does not mean they are immune to sin and temptation. I’ve seen others turn to anger and aggressive behavior when faced with persecution and harassment, their flesh getting the better of them. Those of us on the outside mustn’t hold out some unrealistic view of what house church Christians are like. This actually does a disservice to the reality of their sufferings. They are sinners, saved by grace, who struggle with how to respond to suffering.

John Piper writes in Let The Nations Be Glad that, “Life is war. That’s not all it is. But it is always that. Our weakness in prayer is owing largely to our neglect of this truth. Prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief. It is not surprising that prayer malfunctions when we try to make it a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den. God has given us prayer as a wartime walkie-talkie so that we can call headquarters for everything we need as the kingdom of Christ advances in the world. Prayer gives us the significance of frontline forces and gives God the glory of a limitless Provider.”

This brings me to the second thing I’ve learned from the house church: suffering. Amidst persecution and harassment, a robust theology of the cross and of suffering is both essential and practical. While Chinese house church believers are not immune to the temptation of using prayer as a “domestic intercom”, circumstances often remind them that the “wartime walkie-talkie” is more urgently needed. When obstacles remind one of how “outnumbered” one is—both as individuals and as a church—one sees more clearly. Understanding that union with Christ is both a corporate and an individual union is forged in the crucible of suffering, no matter how that suffering presents itself. Chinese house church Christians are not the only ones who suffer, nor are their sufferings perhaps the most severe. In other parts of the world union with Christ is essentially a death sentence, but whether there is the threat of physical death or persecution, or just the call to deny yourself and take up your cross, union with Christ is a call to die. This is easy to forget when life is comfortable. 


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The third lesson I have learned from the house church has been about the church. In the absence of stable institutions such as churches and schools, the Chinese house church has had to reflect on what makes them the church. Currently, many house church believers feel their children need an education that does not push an atheistic worldview. This has led them to start their own grassroots primary and secondary schools. Others have explored home schooling. Pressure on those who wish to provide this kind of education for their children is mounting. In the eyes of the central government, education is not only about educating children to become productive members of society, it is about promoting a particular political agenda. Anyone who threatens this plan runs the risk of attracting the ire of the authorities.  

The Chinese house church community has many flaws and imperfections, but is bound together by a shared position of resisting the indoctrination efforts of the authorities. Resistance, for the most part, is not based on desires for political freedom, but on biblical convictions that Christ, not Caesar, is the head of the church. House church believers that I have come to know personally echo this sentiment over and over.

The church shares a deep connection in Christ that goes beyond institutionalism. Relationships become essential. This may sound clear cut, but in reality is quite messy. Security concerns often cause believers to question who they can trust. House churches can exist in the same neighborhood for years and never even know of one another. Despite these and many other obstacles, the church possesses a vitality that often gets muted when institutionalism is not properly balanced with a biblical emphasis on relationality.  

I have been blessed to spend a significant amount of time co-laboring with the house church in China. Over the past decade I have been especially able to fully immerse myself in an incarnational style of ministry, mourning with them over the death of loved ones, rejoicing with them at the birth of their children. I have been blessed to officiate both funerals and baptisms, and have preached and taught alongside leaders whom I greatly respect, some of whom are currently in prison for their witness. I have both educated them and been educated by them, and I am the richer for these experiences. 

 

Urban Farmer has been involved in ministry to Chinese for more than 30 years. He and his family have spent much of their lives laboring in Asian cities to sow and tend Christian faith. His pseudonym is reflective of his efforts in this work.

 

FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION

-Pray that suffering of all kinds will drive Chinese believers to pray and depend on Christ. Pray also that their understanding of the church will sustain and unite them through whatever circumstances they face.

Our blog exists, not just to share information, but to resource the global church to share the joys and burdens of the Chinese church. Our hope is that everything you read here will lead you to intentional, knowledgeable prayer for the Chinese church.  

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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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