Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series that provides a listening ear on an intimate conversation between China Partnership staff, the Chinese pastors they work with, and various American church partners. Many people sat around the table for the conversation, but to protect the identities of those present, we have chosen to use the following pseudonyms to represent the three perspectives involved. Catch up on the first part of the series with Chinese Pastor Roundtable: We Cannot Isolate Ourselves Anymore and check back weekly throughout the month of October for the rest of the series!
杨明道 Yang Mingdao is the collective pseudonym for Chinese staff within China Partnership.
王建国 Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese pastors in the unregistered church participating in a grace-centered gospel movement.
春笋 Chunsun is the collective pseudonym for American individuals, churches, and foundations ministering to Chinese people.
Chunsun: So as you think about years down the road and [this movement] really just catching fire in new, urban areas, what do you foresee as some of the challenges standing in your way from continuing to grow?
Wang Jianguo: The political situation nowadays in China is not that great. The government, especially the central government, is really against Christianity and see it as a danger in the future for control of the country, so this could be a very big problem in the future.
Additionally, like [my colleague has] already said, tradition is very strong. Even though people start to change, some people will drag them away so that they are dragged back [to the old way]. When they reflect back they think, “Wait a minute, for a long time – for thirty, forty, even hundreds of years – we have been in this tradition. But there has been only three years of [this new] movement…” So they may turn back. For example, we have three full-time workers. One has a very, very strong foundation and background in the tradition [of the pietistic Chinese church]. So he is already turning back! He is thinking, “Well, maybe…” He is struggling, he is confused.
The pressure from the government is because the government does not understand us. The key word, “movement,” is very sensitive. The government is scared and sensitive about this, because we have many, many movements [in China]. The government worries that the movement will cause social turmoil. We are thinking about how to use which words. If we are going to use this word, “movement,” then we worry about causing misunderstanding, but we cannot find any word better than that. This word has no problem for Americans, but it is [a problem] in China.
But if we use the [name of the movement] we will be targeted by the government. Then the government [would visit] us from Beijing [and said]: “We heard about [this] movement, are you involved in that?” Yeah, I’m involved in that, I’m one of the leaders of this movement! They scared us! So I wanted to give him some of the curriculum for [our trainings], but at that time I didn’t have any copies on me. He gave me a mail address and I mailed a copy to him. One week later, I sent a text message to him. He said, “Thank you, we received the package, and we studied it. It’s not what we expected of a ‘movement.’ You are building partnering churches.” And he just let it go.
Once the government knows what we are really doing, [the main thing they] worry about is that we are using church as a means to offend the government. There are many heresies in China, so the government puts significant effort into dealing with them. But when they realize we are orthodox, they will stop.
But the tension between tradition and fundamentalism is the biggest problem inside the [Chinese] church. Maybe it will take ten years to go through the process to change. It’s very hard for us to rapidly change the church. For example, I am in a big church. It’s very hard to change the church. They will remove me! Replace me. God used [the movement] to plant a seed in my heart that then grew. So, change is happening in my church.
Chunsun: A hundred years ago there were missionaries and there was Christianity in China, and then in 1949 it all stopped and there was persecution. But that was a different flavor of Christianity back then. So if persecution begins again, which it might, what would this look like on the other side?
Wang Jianguo: I really respect that you’re so familiar with the history of the Chinese church. We study this when we study our church history. A hundred years ago when the missionaries came to China, the most activity they did in China was social services. They served the poor, they provided medical services and education. Most of the missionaries were laity. They didn’t focus much on the churches. But the church played a role in mentoring believers. After 1949 when the Communist Party took over China, they worried that the contribution of the missionaries was bigger than the contribution of the Communist Party. This was the first problem.
Another problem was who the United States kept supporting. So they kicked out the missionaries. The foundation of the church at that time was very weak. Because of the power of the government, the hearts of the Christians were very scared and they gave up their faith. During that time, the gospel brought them many benefits in their daily life. Today many people are chasing these benefits, which is a misunderstanding of the gospel and is not the core of the gospel.
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In the last thirty years, we have had a revival in the Chinese church. We have to admit that it’s the seed of God that remained in China. So when the missionaries came back to China, they found those seeds; the seed for revival. That is why we have experienced revival.
When we really think about what we believe, before 1949 and [over] the last thirty years, we recognize that we lost the core of the gospel. Before 1949, we were very focused on the social gospel. The next thirty years we were very focused on personal piety. The result is that the core of the gospel is neither social services nor personal piety. We have been missing a part of our faith.
In many, many ages God has raised up different people — Martin Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Tim Keller — and it’s God’s heart to have those people. They are not perfect. In God’s eyes, they are all sinners, but they are faithful servants of God. They are sinners justified by God’s blood. They are just like a match; he is bringing the torch. Without the match the torch is there, but it never burns. They are just the match. We want to be the matches, to burn the torch.