Editor’s note: Church China is one of the most widely read Christian publications in mainland China and is an excellent glimpse into the life and discussions of the urban Chinese house church. Its bi-monthly magazine focuses on different topics concerning the church and theology each month and is widely read among house church pastors and lay leaders.
The China Partnership is excited to announce a new partnership with Church China in which we help provide English translations of certain articles for English speaking audiences. We hope increased access to the theological and ecclesiastical conversations of the house church will continue to foster partnerships between the American and Chinese church. In short, we desire to see greater cross-pollination of ideas between the two churches and believe that Church China is an important voice for us to listen to. If you read Mandarin, you can access the full magazine here.
This is the first half of an interview initially published in Church China’s May 2015 issue. Finish reading the second part of the interview on the blog tomorrow!
As the Chinese house churches are in the process of the transition, the contention between “knowledge and [spiritual] life” often comes up. Therefore, I interviewed Pastor Miao who has gone through struggles, thoughts, and exploration concerning this contention. Pastor Miao’s church used to be deeply impacted by charismatic Christianity. As Pastor Miao furthers his study in theology, his faith has changed from subjective, superficial, and mysterious conviction to a Christ-centered, Scripture-based belief. Since Pastor Miao graduated and returned to serve the church, he has implemented a series of changes in the church: revamped statement of faith, membership programs, discipleship systems and etc. The church started to transform, which even influenced other nearby churches. Overall, after Pastor Miao and other staff studied New Testament courses, the movement of “rediscovering and returning to the gospel” has led to significant changes in the church. I believe his experience at church in the past twelve years are nurtured by the grace of God. As readers, we can delve into deeper reflection on the contention of “knowledge and [spiritual] life” and have a better understanding of the revival of the church.
Editor: How did your house church start in the beginning? What were the features of the church? What were the strength and weakness?
Pastor Miao: The house church was founded when four elderly sisters left from a Three-Self church. They started a Bible study that started to bring some people because miracles took place. Later on, some missionaries from Zhejiang and Henan came to this home gathering, and a regular house church started to form. At that time, the “gospel” we preached, however, was merely about the healing power of Jesus and the new life in heaven after the physical death. The requirements for the believers only included four lines: no alcohol, no smoking, no obscene language, and no hatred towards other people. In other words, we required the believers to look like good people in behavior.
Back then the average schooling of believers was low, which caused believers to idolize miraculous healing, casting out demons, and other mystic experiences. We invited whoever had the “gift” of healing after prayer and whoever spoke like a “prophet” to the church. We did not have regular pastoral care, and a pastor came occasionally who traveled to many different churches in other locations. When he was here with us, we had a three-day conference. On other Sundays, however, anyone who knew a bit of speech and education could preach on the podium. People did not prepare for the talks; once they stepped into podium, the “living spirit” moved and they could not stop talking. The church believed those speeches as “living water.” The understanding of the Bible was shallow, and we used the scriptures to illustrate irrelevant points, accompanied with personal testimonies. We did not have routine Sunday service programs: when worship leaders ran out of songs, we would transition into preaching.
As a summary, none of us really understood the gospel, and therefore we did not repent and the gospel truth was not integrated into our lives. The joy of the gospel was merely from the feelings of mystery, miracles, and spirits. We did not have a purpose for church gathering and sending people off to new missions. We even had the crazy thought to have several people from the church start a new group, so that on paper we had planted a new church.
As for strengths, we spent hours in prayer and focusing on the Holy Spirit. We also put emphasis on bearing suffering and carrying the cross, because many missionaries from Zhejiang and Henan shared their experience of persecution in prison, which always moved people to tears. In addition, believers were very passionate about sharing the gospel. However, they were driven by the idea of “salvation by work.” We had often heard that the more believers shared the gospel and made disciples, the greater the reward that awaited them in heaven and on earth.
Editor: When did you come to this church? Was your personal belief the same as the church environment?
Pastor Miao: I came to this church in 1994. Within two or three months, I started preaching and became one of the core members. In the beginning I felt “joy” in the Spirit, but later I found myself bored and confused due to the lack of the gospel truth. For example, our church invited a servant of God from Henan to practice healing once. We called him the “big servant” because he could heal whatever the illness was and whoever the patients were, regardless of personal belief. As a result, I brought to him all of my relatives who were ill, but none of them was “healed” and they became reluctant to follow God. They claimed, “The healing gathering is no different from a breathing exercise therapy.”
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Other examples are times when people talked about being “filled up with the Spirit,” pursuing grace and being harassed by the demons. I asked the lead person why all of those took place, but he did not give me a convincing answer. He mentioned that when the Spirit is at work, it would meet opposition from the evil spirits.
Also as we tried to understand the scripture, it shed light on the text this time; when I looked back to the same text again, the same understanding did not make sense as before. At the same time, it seemed only few people at church had questions about the teaching because we lived on the satisfaction brought by the spiritual comfort and regular gatherings. Even in the times when we questioned, we never dug into the questions with few comments. If the illness was not healed by prayer, it merely meant that our faith was not great enough, or prayer time was too short, or we did not fast. Either way, we would always find an explanation. Most of the believers followed pragmatism and did not think about the theology, the interpretation of the Bible, and the framework of faith. Therefore I felt lonely and lost, and I started exploring. I started to read The Breaking of the Outer Man and the Release of The Spirit, by Watchman Nee (倪柝声), and I learned from the reading.
As the time went by, the church still remained the same while I focused more on the spiritual formation. I was pursuing the desire to be united with God. At the same time, the church did not teach how to integrate faith and work. It seemed like church life and social life could not be compatible with each other, and I found out that if I really wanted to pursue a true life of following God, I must quit my job. Otherwise I would still love the world and there would be no breakthrough in faith. Therefore, I quit my job, hoping that I could reach the summit of my personal faith journey. I had thought over leaving my job, and I experienced a sense of freedom initially. However, I did not attain much progress in faith and I became more confused. Since the fact of quitting my job was not reversible and I could not become a “gospel elite”, I did not know which path I should follow for God. It was my sixth year of being a Christian, and the period of confusion lasted for approximately one year. Praise the Lord that when I was lost, he opened the door for me to study theology.
Editor: How did you start study theology?
Pastor Miao: At the time, one missionary who travelled to give sermons came to our church, and I shared with him about my desire to study theology. He later recommended me to study at a theological school.
Editor: Why did you want to study theology? What was the expectation you had?
Miao: Actually I did not expect how much transformation the study would bring, but I knew I had no other options. I turned thirty in that year, and I believed that to live a life of significance in Christ, I had to learn more about theology so that I could continue serving the Lord. Certainly, I wanted to know more about God and build a true living relationship with God. In addition, I desired to have a reliable and convincing belief, which was not easily attained by charismatic beliefs. Also, reading The Breaking of the Outer Man and the Release of The Spirit could not answer all the questions I had. Furthermore, I aspired to provide pastoral care to the church and bring revival to the church. I did not know how to describe a healthy church, but I certainly knew my church was not. Even though my brothers and sisters at church did not support my study of theology, claiming that “knowledge puffs up and love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1), I was determined to study theology.
Editor: How did you feel as you entered theological school? Did you have any struggles and setbacks? And how did you overcome them?
Pastor Miao: I was so excited after I stepped into school. I enjoyed every course and realized I was not the only young person serving the church. In the past, I felt supported by my church, as I served God. However, I had heard different voices and opinions, and some questioned me about quitting my job to serve the Lord full-time. I was asked, “Would it be better if you keep your job and give tithes?” I was confused, confronted, and uncertain by my calling. In the theological school, I rediscovered that it was God who called me to serve him, and I realized that my sacrifice and suffering was not as significant as I imagined. Everyone sacrificed, and some even did more than me.
However, my belief was based on mysterious and subjective feelings. I still used the external and appearances to measure one’s spiritual life. Throughout my studies, therefore, I used my standard of mysticism to judge teachers and students. My conclusion was that they did not live a spiritual life, and I started to question whether knowledge would benefit my spiritual life. However, one thing I give praise to the Lord for is that the founding teachers of the school had earned my trust not only through their depth of theological knowledge, but also by the performance of their personal spiritual lives. So I continued to study, and I discovered that theological studies are very important.
Editor: While you were in school, was your charismatic belief changed at all?
Pastor Miao: As I dived into theology study, I came to realize I made many mistakes in those mysterious beliefs. For instance, I firmly believed our school was about to be attacked because of a so-called “revelation” I had. I shared the “vision” with other students and teachers, attempting to persuading them to move to another location. However, the teachers responded with calmness and confidence, and they said the school is God’s mission. They also said that without God’s permission, nothing will happen. I became really worried, so I jumped to the conclusion that they were not spiritually keen. In the end, the school did not receive any attacks. All the stories illustrated and revealed my deeply rooted fear. I found I was wrong. I used to think I was more spiritual and closer to God. All of those mysterious feelings were merely part of my subjective emotions, which I thought was the voice of God. Therefore, I started to humble myself. I learned from my teachers that as they respond to a vision, they are firm and faithful in decision-making, whereas I used to be spontaneous and subjective. I started to deny what I used to believe.
I also came to realize that I carried all of my old ways of thinking to the school. My original goal was to use the knowledge to further my charismatic feelings, and the ultimate goal was still about feelings. However, it was not reliable and stable. The Christian life I lived was also full of pride and separate from social life. It was merely a feeling. I knew my belief was wrong and my teachers’ was correct. I humbly studied while I was in school. Upon graduation, I lived a life of faith rooted in scriptures. I started to devote myself to spiritual formation. Every day I read four chapters of the Bible, based on Murray M’Cheyne’s method. Sometimes I returned to my old thoughts, so I needed to remind and adjust myself.
Editor: As you reflect on your three years of study, what is the biggest lesson?
Pastor Miao: I learned three things – Biblical preaching, church reformation, and discipleship structures. Now, Biblical preaching has a standard; systemic theology helps me build a sound foundation of faith; and discipleship generates future leaders. I knew what I learned would be far-reaching in its impact at the church.
Editor: As you returned to your church, what was the most urgent issue to solve? How did you bring a series of changes to the church?
Pastor Miao: First I started to establish a correct way of learning at church, so I started expository preaching. We listened to the voice of God rather than human sound, which was crucial. Second, we started to instruct members about statements of faith and built a membership system, asking members to submit to the church. Third, we developed a system of discipleship. Fourth, we had members build a sound faith by reading the Westminster Confession of Faith. Lastly, we thought about setting up church structures. We followed these steps to bring changes to the church.
Editor: How long did this process take place? Did you meet any challenges?
Pastor Miao: Nearly twelve years. Every little step we took, we encountered great obstacles. For example, in the season of Christmas, I suggested we host a feast, but I was also criticized for bringing worldly traditions to the table. My church never had a feast before, and the reason given was “for the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
When I first started implementing the preaching methods, we stopped having those three-day conferences to seek spiritual feelings. As a result, many staff and believers started to complain and ask for “big servants.” Since the church shifted its focus to the scriptures, we spent less time in medical healing. As a result, people blamed me for losing our compassion. As I brought forth the idea of membership and discipleship, I received many objections. Later, we started discipleship training. We followed the style of passing on the knowledge, but people claimed that they wanted to have true life rather than knowledge. The biggest challenge was building a system at church. Some people said we were building a cult. Now the situation is steady, and we no longer receive much resistance.
Editor: How did you face those challenges?
Pastor Miao: The primary way is to continue learning related materials. Only three years of study was not enough to equip me with what the church needs. As we face new challenges in the ministry, we reflect on what we have learned and continue developing new methods. Second, I have encouraged other staff to attend theological school, so that they will receive the same training and understanding. Third, we have more communication with other churches. As we exchange ideas and pray for one another, we believe God will truly move the mountain according to his will.
Editor: As you implement changes one after another, what is the new outlook of the church? What happened after you started Biblical preaching?
Pastor Miao: When the church began expository preaching, the ways people experienced God also started to change. In the past, we tended to follow mysterious feelings and fleeting excitement; now we are meditating on Jesus himself. The authority of the Bible is accepted, and our faith is no longer self-centered, but Christ-centered. I did not notice the exact moment in which the changes took place. As I look back on the church conditions, I feel startled. If we followed that path, we would be very close to heresy.
Surprisingly, the most difficult ones to change were the staff that had developed their ways of service over the years. They were inclined to keep the traditions, and therefore they complained about changes constantly. However, as the new staff spoke the truth and preached on repentance with love and clarity, many seasoned staff and servants changed their hearts. Unfortunately, a number of attendees left the church. They did not repent because they had not heard the true gospel. Right now, Christians in our church are true believers who have received salvation. Therefore, it was after we started Biblical preaching that we started to be soaked in the gospel and share the good news. The word of God establishes and nourishes the church.
Editor: What are the changes brought by the new membership?
Pastor Miao: We used to think church events were simply gatherings, and we did not stress on the importance of Sunday worship service. Therefore, many believers went to different churches; some went to other house churches, others attended Three-Self churches. They wanted to learn about the truth and listen to sermons, and therefore they went wherever the teaching was considered good. In other words, people were self-seeking in attending different churches. After we corrected believers’ views on the church, we know that the Sunday service is to offer praise to Jesus. Now in Sunday service, we have routine programs and offerings. Everyone submits to the church, as the body of Christ. Believers start to understand that we are all part of the Body. With this belief, the gifts and functions of the body start to emerge and evolve.
Editor: What are the changes brought about by the pastoral care?
Pastor Miao: The membership helps believers submit to the church, and discipleship helps them submit to Christ. The membership and discipleship are related. As we corrected believers’ minds on the church, our faith started to place Jesus in the center, and therefore people no longer felt satisfied by the superficial feelings. They needed discipleship training and small groups to further their faith experience. As we lead discipleship training, we not only develop their relationship with God, but also instruct believers to integrate faith into daily life. In the past, people went home immediately after the sermon, but now we have interaction and feedback from believers. In the old days, the church was merely a religious activity, but now faith is weaved into every cell of our lives.