Editor’s note: The following is an extended interview conducted by a Chinese writer with the leadership and various members of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. It was shared online in China over the last month; the Chinese original can be read here. To understand the people and places discussed in the article, please refer to China Partnership’s Early Rain Prayer Guide.
This interview is quite long. We have shared it here in its entirety, but will be sharing shorter selections for easier readability in the coming weeks.
Additional materials from Early Rain:
A Hope-Filled Prayer for Early Rain Covenant Church, by Wang Jianguo
Letter for All Christian Churches to Pray for Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, by Western China Presbytery
LIVE POST -Early Rain Covenant Church Urgent Prayer Updates, by Early Rain Covenant Church
My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience, by Wang Yi
Wang Yi’s 14 Decisions: In the Face of Persecution, What Will I Do?, by Wang Yi
Wang Yi’s 2019 Family Prayer Letter, by Wang Yi
The Church-State Conflict: 20 Ways Persecution Is God’s Way to Shepherd Us, by Wang Yi
How the Church Should Face Persecution, by Li Yingqiang
On the evening of December 9, 2018, more than 80 people from Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC), including pastoral staff, elders, deacons, together with many brothers and sisters were detained or lost contact, thus beginning a large-scale continuous persecution. Prior to the persecution, we conducted a series of interviews with the pastor, elders, deacons, and members of the church in July and October. We hope that this article, which is based on these interviews, can help us care for ERCC and understand God’s will for his church from the church’s perspective.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
This article focuses on the actions of ERCC, including their church-wide pastoral practices and ecclesiology, ranging from external observations about the church to internal perspective within the church. This article discusses the Biblical and Spirit-led responses that a church ought to have in this generation, so as to benefit the church universal. In order that the reader may get to know ERCC better and experience the pulse of their church life, this article will be presented as a dialogue.
1. What Did ERCC Experience?
In October, we walked into ERCC for the first time with a heart filled with anxiety and excitement. What surprises me is that the atmosphere of the church does not exude any sign of distress from continuous pressure and persecution. The worship in the new sanctuary is still full of peace, joy, and glory. It is only when Preacher Zhang Xudong begins to share the gospel with the plain-clothed officers in the back rows that I realize that pressure and persecution are always present. However, the church’s focus is not on anxiety and worries under pressure, nor is it on their own courage and bravery, but on God himself. God is the center of worship.
Interviewer: Given the continuous pressure and persecution after the events of May 12, May 28, and June 4, what have you experienced in the church, and how do you feel?
Jiang Rong (Wife of Pastor Wang Yi): I think the most significant emotion is nervousness. As a Presbyterian church we have the session and the deacons, and the church also has a contingency plan. When a crisis hits, the pastoral staff will be the ones who lead the church to face it together. Unless I have to look for my husband at the local police station, or they come to look for us at our home, we will not interact with the authorities.
On June 4, I was taken to the station as well. As a pastor’s wife, I have the same status as a regular church member. I do not face the matter head-on like the elders or deacons, but I care more about the safety of my husband. The church does have a thorough contingency plan, and many pastoral staff are working together diligently so that I do not have to worry about many of the internal matters of the church.
A student from the liberal arts college: I have never experienced these events personally, but I feel the pressure. As a church, we are a spiritual family. The main source of pressure I feel comes from public opinion in society – that is, I feel the generally antagonistic attitude from the society and country toward faith. Therefore, I feel a sense of pressure on my future career and life.
Brother Ye: I have experienced this [persecution] personally. From our church’s WeChat group, I saw that many police officers barricaded our church’s entrance on the evening of May 12. I originally had other things planned for the next morning (Lord’s Day) and did not intend to attend the morning prayers. But when I saw that the police were causing a commotion and some sisters were already taken, I came to morning prayer. As children of God, this is necessary, because when one member suffers, all other members suffer together.
Sister Ji: I felt joyful! It is counted as his grace to be able to suffer for his name’s sake. Our whole family was taken to the local police station, including a niece who was about one month old.
Sister Zhang: I have previously interacted with the police, the Domestic Security Protection Bureau, and the Bureau of Religious Affairs because of my ministry. But I had never experienced something like that on May 12, where 100-200 brothers and sisters were taken to the police station and had their freedom stripped. There was a sense of fearat the time. That morning, my husband and I came early to morning prayer, and we never imagined that the doors would be barricaded even during the early hours of the morning. They threatened to take us away if we enter the door. There were some struggles in both our hearts: we had lots of worries and we wanted to protect things with our own hands. Thanks be to God for his grace that when we saw other brothers and sisters entering, my husband and I decided to join them and be taken away.
We also experienced the event on June 4, where they aggressively barricaded the door. To be honest, we were very weak and fearful throughout this whole process. But through it all, I saw how the pastoral team led the brothers and sisters to trust God in a more definite way. I saw how the lives of many brothers and sisters were turned upside-down and revived by God, including me and my husband. Therefore, even though it looks like persecution, in reality we must give thanks because God desires to build up our church. This is something to be grateful for.
Brother Lin (baptized on June 25): On the night of May 12, my wife was taken away and she texted me that I should either go with her (and be taken away) or stay at home and look after the kids. Because both our kids were still young, I decided to bring my kids over to some other families to find out more information. I felt that the pressure was still pretty intense. They came to knock on my door even two days after the event. But if you truly believe that God is real, there’s not much to fear. As a dad, I ought to set a good example for my kids.
Brother A: On May 12, the Public Security Bureau in my hometown made dozens of phone calls throughout the night to harass my parents. They even went down to my parents’ place to pressure them so that they would forbid me from going to church because there was going to be a raid that day. Because I have just recently been released from prison (I have felt immense love in this church, and I have attended Bible Study, Gospel Class, and was baptized in 2016), I have many struggles and weaknesses in this area. Even though I did eventually come, I only observed from the sideline and did not go near the church. May God forgive my weakness.
An elderly seeker who was there for the second time: The word on the street is that there is a church here, so I came to check it out. The first impression is that their pastor speaks very reasonably. When he talks about the Bible, he relates it to the benefits of the people, the fate of the country, and the preservation of justice and equality. So when I heard it, I identified with the message. It is as if this is my own family, very heartwarming. Thanks be to God, because this faith is worth our time.
Deacon Zhao: I have always worked in the government. In 2012, I came to ERCC. After going through pre-marital counseling with the pastor, my wife and I were married in 2013. In 2014, we opened up our home for ministry. The church is my home. At the end of 2015, I was elected as assistant deacon, and they came to look for me at my in-laws (it is still strange to me that they did not look for me at my work because I was never shy about my faith there). From 2016 until the New Year of 2017, my company seated me directly across from the secretary of my department. To put it bluntly, they wanted to keep an eye on me.
On the night before May 12at around 11pm, the local Community Police came to my place and I hosted them. From then on, we were branded as an “illegal gathering.” I said that our gathering will not be a hush-hush event, and many in Chengdu knew what happened on May 12. Ever since our church was planted in 2009, we have been praying for this day. If you call us “illegal,” how are we violating the law? The church is public, and our faith is public. They left after that, but past midnight, they called again to confirm whether I would be going tomorrow. I told them that I would certainly go, and he sighed. The next day they were posted downstairs from my home in order to keep me from going. I then shared the gospel with them from Genesis all the way to Revelation. The greatest protection for the church is actually to be public. I told them that the church bulletins are at my home, and everything that we are doing is printed there.
Brother Xiao: The pressure that we are enduring is not the greatest yet among the churches. On May 12, four police officers took turn to watch us, so we could not go anywhere.
Preacher Li Yingqiang: Our family was already well-prepared. We were already prepared when I was working for the government. My wife was also constantly preparing, and she was truly ready on June 4. When I was released from the local police station in the early morning of the 5th, she composed a small poem especially for the event, and she said, “I have truly committed you to the Lord this time.” In the past, there was all sorts of anxiety because my family situation was not good. My dad is paralyzed, and my mom is taking care of him full-time. My younger brother is still an unbeliever and he is still in prison because of drug trafficking. He has a son out of wedlock, and my parents are taking care of the child. We have to bear this burden and for many years, I was the sole breadwinner for the entire family. My wife’s parents are also not in their best health back in the village, and we have two children – this generates tremendous pressure for us.
Thanks be to God that he has been preparing us for many years. I have shared with brothers and sisters before that when I started working for the government, many of my friends and co-workers were captured. But I have never been taken in during those few years, not even a brief visit to the station (colloquially, these visits are termed “tea-drinking sessions”), and nobody has ever looked for me. But when I started serving in the church, I was taken in twice in 2015. I had a seminar on May 30, 2015. In order to keep the seminar from taking place, I was taken in and detained for a full day in the local police station (I was the organizer of the seminar). Even though I was just a lay-leader, I was taken in together with Pastor Wang Yi on June 4, 2015. Throughout this process, our family saw the guidance of God and we knew that it happens according to his promise. He leads his people, and we see his grace.
My wife is even more clear-headed than me. Just the day before yesterday, she told me to prepare for the worst with no margin for chances. Before I even finished, she said, “The worst-case scenario is that you are beaten to death in prison, and this martyrdom is nevertheless good.” So, we are ready to go to prison, and I told my wife clearly that she should not prepare for my return. If she is preparing for my return, she will eventually be disappointed with God; but if she is mentally prepared for me not to come back, it is God’s grace whether I return or not.
Preacher Zhang Xudong: Thanks be to God, my wife is from ERCC. When I came to Chengdu in March 2014, I was taken to the station in June that year. It was very sudden because I had never been arrested before. I was nervous because I was still dating my wife at that time. I told the pastor’s wife not to tell my girlfriend because I was afraid she would freak out. But the pastor’s wife told me that members of ERCC are not afraid of such things. I was really moved that she was there to pick me up at the local police station about 11pm that night. It showed that she could handle these things. I quit my job to come to Chengdu and so my residency is not registered in Chengdu. When the police come, they will look for her and not me. When they go to her work, they will look for her supervisor and not her. She has experienced all of this. She was worried that her parents could not handle the situation, so she told them these things clearly beforehand.
Therefore, from the perspective of my family, there is nothing much to worry about. My wife knows me very well. After being single for over a decade, I saw that God’s providence truly is the best. In my seminary years, she gave me great support. The key point is that if you submit to God, everything will be okay. Stephen Tong said something that really struck my heart once, “If you think for God, he will think for you.”
Elder Su: It was quite sudden on May 12, so we were not very well prepared. Some of the kids were shocked during the event, because the police were pretty aggressive in front of the kids; some even got violent. But the process was also quite ironic because the police also have some basic decency. Some of the members brought their children; the police felt a bit embarrassed and became more gentle in their approach. All four of our kids were together at that time, and I heard that the police had to take them out for a meal and then bring them back. The kids experienced the event together, and they understood better what is meant by persecution.
Of course, our kids also need certain protection and appropriate teaching in their faith. When we face persecutions, we need to tell our kids that this world is not Eden. If you sugarcoat it and they face harsher things later on, they will not be prepared. On the one hand, you explain that there are often unpleasant things in this world so that they will have a sense of realism; but on the other hand, you also give them spiritual teaching when they face these things, that is, how to face and make sense of the events happening around them. I think that if the members, pastors, and staff always experience these pressures and harassments from the police, and if the kids are taught from a young age how to love one another in Christ, there will be less bitterness. So, on the one hand we show our kids the reality of sinfulness and suffering of this world, but on the other hand that God adequately provides a true way out.
Jiang Rong: For the kids, this is an important step in their spiritual education. For our son, he is slowly growing and experiencing all these things with us. When Shuya was about 6 or 7, our family was blocked by the police below our apartment when we were handing out gospel tracts on International Children’s Day. The police said to my husband in front of our son, “I will put you to death sooner or later.” At that time, he did not fully understand it, but he was scared. After that, we had many conversations with him. We are thankful that Shuya is committed to church life and he attends the school set up by our church. For these many years, we experience the relationship with the government together with unity. Sometimes the police will go to the school or the church, and the children will know when they come. When the police frequent the school or the church, the teacher will lead them in prayer together. In the community of faith, their fear and anxiety are shared together. Whether or not his dad’s method is biblical, he has his own basic judgment.
On the night of May 11 this year, the police took his dad away. The situation was more intense than ever before, and they even wanted to stayover at our house (I eventually sent them away at midnight). Before sleeping we prayed together in his room, and he had a good night of rest. On the next day, I told him that this time might be different and dad might be detained for a very long time. I said we were all prepared for this, and I told him if he misses his dad, he can start to write something for his dad every day. So, I bought him a new and thicker diary (because we do not know how much he has to write) so that he could write all that he wished to tell his dad, even record his prayers in the diary.
On May 12, we were blocked [by the police] and could not go out. Our niece was also with us (she is 19 and was baptized last year) and the three of us prayed together. We read the Bible together according to the Bible reading plan and we memorized and shared as per normal. Shuya is already 11, and he knows how to find strength in God’s word. Therefore, when we experienced all these in this year, it is quite different.
On June 4, I was also taken away. He was still in school at the time, so I asked the teacher to look after them for a while. I found out later that Shuya went to his teacher’s house and several of the students did homework together, and they read the Bible, prayed, and spent the night with ease. He is at a stage of his life where he can depend on God himself. He experienced God’s word and prayer together in a covenant community of believers without fear, and he spent the night peacefully at his teacher’s place. When we returned eventually, he was very joyful.
Brother Xiao: I will share another encouraging example. It was either on June 4 or May 28, and many policemen came up to the 23rdfloor. The children saw them because it was during recess. All 13 of the first-graders said that we ought to return to the classroom to pray. Because the walls are not adequately sound-proofed, the teachers heard their repeated hymn singing and praying from the office next door. This is what God is doing.
Deacon He: We are truly thankful to God that from the young to the old, I have not seen any who are fearful or who desire to flee and escape. I am very grateful for this. This is because the pastor encouraged everyone according to the truth of the Bible, and he did not lead us to face persecution with mere gallantry. Gentle disobedience and joyful disobedience are our responses, and we reject and refuse things that contradict God’s teachings. We all acted according to the contingency plan set forth by the presbytery. People my age have not experienced much persecution. Even if the persecution reaches a certain degree, we have also made thorough preparations to obey God and not obey man. We have to commit all things to God because he has his good will. Even though we have made arrangements for the worse-case scenario, we do not have to speculate all the time. God’s will is indeed higher than our will.
If you ask me about my family – my father-in-law suffers from dementia, my son suffers from Down’s Syndrome, my wife is not healthy and strong – the entire family requires my attention and care. How do I cope? We cannot depend on ourselves to cope [with this]: what is man? Man has no strength in this, especially for sinners. When the real persecution comes, man can never bear it. How strong are you without God? So, for us it is simple. We do not care about anything except walking with the Lord daily. For those things that we ought to bear, we will bear them joyfully because this is the grace of God for you. It is not based on how much strength you have; grace is grace.
Jiang Rong: When we face persecution, the only thing we are capable of is to trust God. When Wang Yi came back on May 12, he shared with me that he had to remove his ring during an inspection at the police station. When he took off his ring, he felt that he had to sever all relationships with this world to face God alone, including his family ties. At the beginning, I did not understand what he meant, but it left a strong impression on me. When I was taken on June 4 his words resonated with me: the only thing I could do was to depend on God, and I can entrust all earthly things to him.
2. The Growth and Shepherding of the Church – Internal Perspective on Pastoral and Missional Community
Interviewer: From May 12 until now, what is the pastoral staff’s assessment regarding the state of the entire church and the lives of the brothers and sisters? How does the church continue to support and build up the lives of these brothers and sisters through pastoral practice? In this process, how should a church shepherd and strengthen those who are weak or even those who contemplate leaving?
Pastor Wang Yi: There are some who were weak in this process. Up until this point (October), there are about 5-6 people who have left, or transferred, or stopped coming to church because of pressures from their families. It is about 1% of a 600 member church. For example, there were several weddings in June, and one of them is a corporate renewal of wedding vows, but one husband decided to pull out last minute. He had some disagreements with the church. He felt that the actions of the church from May 12 to June 4 were too political. We reached out to them twice and after some conversation, he changed his mind and came to the renewal ceremony.
Through this process, the church has to strengthen the brothers and sisters by returning to the gospel over and over again. After May 12, there were brothers and sisters who shared their testimonies. The majority of their sharing is not about how brave they were, but they shared about their repentance. A brother shared that when he was forced to sign a pledge [to not attend the church] by the police, they rallied several leaders from his work [to pressure him]. (He works in the national government.) He is not a contentious person by nature, and he feared that if he does not sign the pledge they would dismiss him, so he signed it. When he signed it, he thought he would not be able to attend church tomorrow, so he wrote “I pledge that I would not attend any church activities in the next 7 days.” The next morning, when he realized that many brothers and sisters went to the gathering, the couple felt conflicted: did they not just sign that they would not go to church? Eventually they did come. And he shared about his struggle in the testimony. The majority of the testimonies are about the struggles, failures, repentance, and then the re-strengthening that comes through the gospel. There was basically no testimony that depicted anyone as firm, bold, and excited throughout the entire process. These sorts of honest and genuine testimonies became great encouragement and comfort to the brothers and sisters, because many shared similar experiences.
Preacher Zhang Xudong: I am in charge of membership, and I would visit and talk with those who wanted to transfer membership. First of all, I will empathize with their weakness. After May 12, we realize that not all of us are strong; some are truly weak. I encouraged everyone to be sympathetic. Because we shepherd in small groups, the group leaders will seek out the weak, and we are sympathetic toward them. For example, our small group has a sister who could not do anything, not even pray, but she only cried when I was taken away. I thanked her for crying for me, because if she cries for me it means that she is my sister and we are a family. When we encouraged her this way, she was strengthened.
Some were really agitated [by the events], and they felt that this is too public. Their conscience can not take it, and for these we comfort them. For example, there is a couple who were serving actively in the church. But because they have government jobs, the police harass them endlessly at their home. After some visitation and counseling, they decided to transfer their membership. I am still willing to care for them, and they are still our brothers and sisters. At the memorial service of our 15-year-old brother, they came, and we hugged. This is because we do not measure our actions but our faithfulness toward our Lord. Some who appear to be strong may not be truly strong. Some responses are unyielding perhaps because they like the excitement; it may not be true strength. But on the whole, when we complement each other we will be stronger, and you have to accept that everyone has different circumstances.
Elder Su Bingsen: After May 12, the responses we have represent a variety of psychological states. Some were brave, and some were weak. All have to be healed by the gospel. One thing that stood out in my mind was a student who did not come on that day, but he felt guilty afterwards. Everyone was sharing about this event and their experiences at the local police station, so he felt a little disheartened. On the next day, some [policemen] came while he was serving in the classroom, and he boldly went to greet them. This experience seemed to have soothed his guilt and discouragement. But when he shared his testimony in the church, he was very honest about his motivation and his weakness. In the shepherding process, we invited brothers and sisters to share their feelings in small groups, and we also invited them to share with the church. The key here is honesty. We have to face ourselves honestly because we do not depend on ourselves; we depend on the righteousness of Christ to build our relationship with God. So, we encouraged him to be reconciled to God in this aspect and to remove his guilt.
Those who were brave also need the healing of the gospel. On the night of May 11, Pastor [Wang Yi] was detained (because the prayer event was happening on the next day, May 12). Several of us co-workers were waiting for him outside, expecting to return home around 2am to 3am. But because we still had the prayer event early the next day and we knew that the police were targeting this event specifically, we saw police cars coming in when we went to our neighborhoods. Eventually we decided to just sleep at church and not go home. On the next day, police cars came for the raid and we had a birds-eye view from the top when we captured everything from the windows. Several of us were praying ceaselessly in the church because the church was blocked from the outside; we could not go out and others could not enter. At that point, we were quite nervous. But when we heard that there were many brothers and sisters singing hymns downstairs in their cars, their melodies moved me and encouraged us. Some of the brothers and sisters were very brave. I saw later in the video that some of them were willing to be taken away, including some sisters with children. In the process, some acts of bravery were too hot-blooded, and this is why I said that the brave also need healing. Some of them shared that they had some small regrets after they came out from the police station. For example, they should not have talked to the police so much because they were tricked into providing oral evidence. Some regretted that they should not have been so unyielding. Perhaps their nervousness caused them to be more hot-blooded. This valor of the flesh needs to be healed in the gospel.
Preacher Li Yingqiang: Our church, the pastoral team, and the brothers and sisters have experienced great grace in the last half of the year. Maybe a lot of other churches do not understand it from the outside, but internally, it is crystal clear. This year, many brothers and sisters were rejuvenated by God, and they began to offer themselves more. They saw the grace of God and the upside-down nature of the gospel. This does not just happen on a theoretical level, but it is happening in their real lives. When their lives are turned upside-down by the gospel, they see things from a kingdom-perspective, and they see opportunities everywhere to work for the Lord and gain his reward. It is like the shrewd children of this age; they look at the market and see opportunities everywhere. The children of light and the children of eternal life find opportunities everywhere for the work of eternal life. These are opportunities to accumulate treasures in heaven. This is being turned upside-down.
Two days ago, a sister who was a new believer asked me, “When we actively welcome persecution and prepare ourselves to endure it so that we may accumulate treasures in heaven – isn’t this a form of utilitarianism?” I told her that if you understand this as utilitarianism, it is the best kind of utilitarianism there is. Christians should have this “utilitarianism” which is completely anti-utilitarian. This view means that a Christian has entirely abandoned the bondage of this world. If a person desires the heavenly crown and heavenly treasures so much that he denies himself and labors tirelessly for the Lord in every area of his life and in every situation that the Lord places him in, if he strives to live by the Lord’s strength in order to gain the Lord’s reward – isn’t this a wonderful thing?
I shared similar beliefs when I was a new believer. I did not want to talk about heavenly things because I thought it sounded like utilitarianism. I was very indifferent to these things. Even if the Lord does not reward me with good things, I will still follow him because I love him. But actually this mentality is very hypocritical. It is very deceptive and extremely prideful. If you follow the Lord for nothing at all, who do you think he is? Who do you think you are? The heavenly kingdom is extremely attractive. Our hope and motivation to live for the kingdom is not of this earth, but with our Lord. If it is with the Lord it does not mean that we can only obtain it in the future. The Lord will bestow on us joy in accordance to our faith, and we can obtain it from now until eternity. It is not something reserved for the future, but now you can taste the final glory and victory, albeit imperfectly. Today you can obtain it, and today you can taste the sweetness of grace.
This is something that the world does not understand. If Christians do not suffer, it will be our end. If we escape this suffering by being wise like a serpent, then it will be impossible to bless the people of this land who are opposing the gospel. They have been enslaved by moralism and legalism for thousands of years. They want to be good; they want to find their worth in life by pursuing righteous deeds, virtues, and speeches. They have been enslaved by this for thousands of years. The gospel that we preach is an incarnate gospel, and today through his body on earth – the church, we serve the people of this earth and let others see how much the Lord loves them. We show them how a longsuffering and gentle love can be manifested in the midst of shame, persecution, and suffering. This [love] is from the Lord and from us. If we abide in him, the Lord will give his love to us.
Preacher Zhang Xudong: Since May 12, our church has been enduring pressures from every direction, yet our membership continues to grow. Our sanctuary on the 23rdFloor and 19thfloor were so packed that we have to rent the 6thfloor as well. If the Lord permits we will continue to move forward; and if he wants us to stop, that is according to his will. If they were to persecute us and apprehend us, we are already prepared. We even prepared toothbrushes and toothpaste. And for lazy people like me, I did not even bother with these toiletries since I will be in prison anyway.
Currently, we have 70 people in this discipleship class. Over 20 of them will be baptized, another 20 of them are transferring in from other churches, and another 10 of them are from the liberal arts college. For those who are transferring, I will assess their motivations and reasons by conversing with them. Many of them came to Chengdu for work or other reasons. For local Christians, we generally advise them to remain in their respective churches, so that they can be pastored there.
In the discipleship class, I frequently tell them: you must know why you come to the church. If you come here for democracy, then you’d better stop because the church is not a democracy, it is a theocracy and you have to submit yourselves. If you come merely to love one another, then you’d better stop because people have no love to give. Only the Lord can give us love. If you are only pursuing other people’s love, one day you will despair because they will grow weak. If you confess that you truly need God’s salvation and you have experienced the salvation of Jesus Christ, and you have come and worship him with a grateful heart, then come to church. Before transferring their membership or being baptized, they will receive clear teaching on the Confession of Faith and the Book of Church Order. The first half of the curriculum is a prerequisite for membership transfers.
Pastor Wang Yi: We made an important and major adjustment at the end of last year. In the past, I led a Bible study class on the Shorter Catechism. The class would normally have 70-80 people but is weak in fellowship. From the end of last year, I’ve stopped leading this class, and started leading training for small group leaders (the church has over twenty small groups). The small groups are divided by geographical location – two or three small groups will form a district, and we have five districts. If something major happened in a small group, for example someone is admitted to the hospital, surgeries, accidents, marital problems, or even matters requiring church discipline, the small group leaders will report to the district leader. In this training, we spent half of the time doing Bible study and the other half on application. Sometimes it is a case study, thus guiding the leaders to encourage, ask and discuss the problems of the small groups by studying the Bible. The leaders would then go back and lead the small groups. Throughout this process I will encourage the leaders to focus on those who are straying or confused. We will also share testimonies and reflect in small groups.
Besides this, we have already prepared an emergency contingency plan. [The events of] May 12 and June 4 are basically exercises for the plan. Even though things did not happen as expected – we were expecting to be detained one by one – the reality is that the leaders will lose their freedom. In this process, there are about 1-3 hours of confusion, but the co-workers quickly made ministry arrangements, and the brothers and sisters followed through. Even though it is not perfect, I think God gave us a great encouragement and faith.
Preacher Zhang Xudong: You know that our church experienced a huge disagreement in 2016, and those with differing opinions split. Looking back, that split is truly God’s grace and blessing. Everyone was more united after that event, and they were able to build each other up through shepherding. Going back to the sister I’ve mentioned earlier, she feels weak in herself. But when she experiences love, she understands that this is not just a church that rushes headlong haphazardly, but there is the love of God teeming within. Her life will be transformed. When she saw that our Bibles were confiscated, she gave actively. So, we have to see the transformation of her whole life and not just outward appearances. During the shepherding process, the key is the nature of a person’s life in the gospel!
Jiang Rong: When the church experiences these events together, the pulpit ministers to me in a very meaningful way. An important focuses is the church’s annual Bible reading plan. Every day, a pastor or a preacher will share his devotional notes. When the brothers and sisters study God’s word together and experience these things together, the application can be especially encouraging for me.
Another important thing is to face and experience the gospel in a church community. Not long ago, a young brother passed away. When we went through this tragedy together, we deeply felt that even death would not separate us from the love of Christ. Death cannot rule over us. In the midst of painful suffering, we face and experience it together as a church: the church fasted together, the brothers and sisters accompanied them in shifts, and the pastoral team provided special comfort and counseling. After facing this death together, we have greater confidence in facing persecution and suffering.
As the wife of Wang Yi, I have been worried about his physical suffering for many years. Recently he mentioned in his article: “Until my health and sanity has been brought to ruin.” This used to be my greatest worry. Even though when he wrote this article, I was still fearful and concerned, feeling that persecution is growing deeper and deeper. The passing of this dear little brother has shown us that death has no hold on us. The worse-case scenario is that we leave this suffering and are united with the Lord. This drove away a lot of my fear.
Brother A: Every sermon and Bible study that I attended is faithful to the Bible. Men are indeed weak. For various reasons, we stumble and grow weak when we face suffering and setbacks. But I believe that God has proclaimed the gospel and revealed his truth. What we believe is true and ought to be held firm.
Brother B: I think that firstly, there is the preaching of God’s Word. When we hear God’s word, it builds up our lives and constructs a right theological value system and a right worldview. Secondly, there are the lives of the church leaders. Their lives show us that we can indeed follow them, and we are very much encouraged and protected by them. The church leaders are very open, and they do not hide their thoughts or emotions from their congregants. They will share their weakness. Interactions with the pastor are very comfortable. It is a true interpersonal relationship.
Elder Su Bingsen: The more important thing is the proclamation of the word. On the one hand, this is a Reformed tradition, and there are various aversions toward implementing the Reformed tradition in the Chinese churches. On the other hand, we also emphasize the continuity of the Chinese house church traditions. For example, our hymn book contains both classical hymns and traditional house churches songs, because we hope to combine both faith and emotions. Pastor Wang will also teach on the history of the Chinese house churches. There are a lot of deep reflections on boldness, weakness, suffering, glory, and especially sin from the pulpit. Pastor Wang will often say, “You look at me and think that I am very brave, but I am actually quite weak sometimes.” He mentioned that he is often very anxious when he is up on the pulpit because you never know when the police might storm in.
We see that we cannot control some of our involuntary reactions, but how you depend on God’s word in this process and build up your life, so that you foster a different kind of strength. So May 12 is a kind of test that revealed the reality of our faith. Some were afraid, some even contemplated transferring churches or stopped coming – we will go to comfort these members and build them up.
Throughout these events, there are also various voices externally and internally. This is especially true when we reflect on the church-and-state relationship, which in turn affects the brothers and sisters. We therefore proclaim our position on church-and-state relationship from the pulpit, and Pastor Wang is very clear in this proclamation. First, we as Christians do not appeal to any political system. Second, we hope to be able to preach the gospel freely under any political system. Our appeal is the appeal of the gospel. For example, in a small group for petitioners: how can we transform certain situations which seemed very political into something that is gospel related? Brother Zhang Guoqing mentioned that these visitors actually have a lot of bitterness and hatred in their hearts. When they first came to the church, they could not listen to the preaching of the word. Some were even doubtful whether the church is helping the government. Some called to berate the church. But if you truly and patiently care for them in the gospel, these visitors will be transformed and some even become Christians. The Petition Center in Chengdu called us once and asked if brother Zhang could come meet them because there was a very difficult individual. Even the government workers recognized the power of the gospel.
Besides this, a meeting at a brother’s house before May 12 left me with a strong impression. His house was located in the disaster area of the earthquake, and he took a huge risk to host us. Eventually the officers from the Religious Bureau and policemen came. Some criticized us that wherever Early Rain goes, people are exposed. Initially, [the officers’] reactions were very intense, but Pastor Wang talked to them. They left some officers to talk religion with us peacefully, and they asked us for Bibles on their own. The brother who hosted us was shocked to see this because if this event had not happened, he would never imagine that officers from the Religious Bureau would come in contact with the Bible. Regardless whether they eventually believed, at least they asked for the Bibles. And because they have limited resources, we mailed them the Bibles. The brother who hosted us was also strengthened.
At a time when people think that there is a gap in our approach, for example, in the case concerning the extreme petitioners or the persecution of the government – if we are trained in the gospel, or if we have more experience, God will allow us to transform these situations into opportunities for the gospel. This is just like how Paul’s appeal before the magistrates. The success of the appeal is not the most important, but the appeal transforms the situation into an opportunity for the gospel.
Pastor Wang Yi: Our main pastoral approach is to reach the lives of the brothers and sisters through the small groups. There are two types of small groups: general and functional. In our pastoral practices, the functional small groups meet once every month. We don’t let them turn weekly. The weekly small groups are general small groups. For example, the couples small groups focus on the relationships between husbands and wives; it is a monthly functional group. The members of this small group are mixed – that is to say there are 7-8 couples in this group who come from different general small groups. Brothers and sisters must first commit to general small groups. Based on their steady commitment to the general groups, they can then join these functional groups and serve the church’s gospel ministry in a broader way. The basic purpose is to ensure every member has a steady commitment to the general small groups because this is where they live their lives.
Bible studies in small groups are connected to the sermon from the pulpit. The church will have a main theme and a specific book (sometimes there may be additional books but there is always one main book) every year, and this book then becomes the content for Bible studies in small groups and also expository preaching from the pulpit. Small groups will first study a section of scripture, and then the pulpit will preach on it. Even though this is a huge challenge for the pulpit, it is very beneficial to the brothers and sisters.
In 2017, we started a training class for small group leaders: preliminary study, preaching, then the leaders will lead mid-week Bible studies. This reduced the stress of small group leaders in their preparation for leading Bible studies. This year we have boldly added a few more group leaders. On the one hand, we take into account the size of the church and our effective pastoral volume. On the other hand, we do this to prepare for persecution. We hope that there are more small groups being formed and stabilized. Our training class meets for 3 hours (7-10pm), and we will have dinner together once a month. The leaders will meet together on Friday evenings. The Bible study takes about an hour, and then we will discuss matters of the church. I will challenge the group leaders to apply the word to their groups: how to respond to specific situations in their groups or to challenge the lives of their members with the Bible. Sometimes the group leaders will bring up some case studies, and we will discuss and propose solutions. Therefore, it is not just a Bible study, but training and shepherding ground for small group leaders.
Preacher Zhang Xudong: The growth of the church is closely tied to the shepherding process. From May 12 to June, because of these raids on the church, the growth has naturally been affected. In September, there will be fewer baptisms. Those who were baptized in June actually came in April, and those who have committed themselves and were pastored in April will be fine after they have experienced May 12. But those who are going to be baptized in September were still in the gospel class from April through June, and their faith has not been firmly grounded yet, but those who come after June may be better.
The church will continue to grow and bear fruit under the shepherding process. We grow exponentially every time we are raided. For example, we had around 10-20 baptisms each quarter last year. This is a blessing, and God will continue to encourage you to do this.
Brother Xiao: “Grace is King. Bear the Cross.” These few words deeply affected me. I committed myself to this church, and I bear witness to my faith in a biblical way. I walk the way of the cross to share the good news of the cross with the world, with this country, and with a lot of people in this city who do not yet know this news. When my life is continually built on the gospel – willing to deny myself to follow the Lord, willing to bear [the cross] – I realize what the cross means to a Christian. “The cross is my glory” is not simply a phrase, but a lifelong testimony.
When I came out of school, I was still serving in 6-7 student groups that I could influence their lives with mine. Another [part] is the establishment of a gospel community. I came to the gospel through individualism and liberalism, and I had some misunderstanding regarding communal or corporate identity. After transferring my membership to this church, I have grown deeper in my understanding about the corporate nature of the kingdom of heaven, and I see the value of a corporate nature in the gospel. I understand how a person is shaped in the community and what they will become in the future. All in all, I am full of hope in such a corporate body.
Interviewer: Thanks be to God, that he continues to add believers to ERCC. In this process, how does the church face the challenges of shepherding the flock?
3. The Structure of the Shepherding Team
Pastor Wang Yi: Before roughly 2015, the church started to increase in scale. As a pastor, I knew every congregant when the church was around 100-200 people, and I was familiar with all of their situations. But when the congregation grew to over 300, I realized that I don’t really know some of the members. In the years where the church grew rapidly, we added over 100 people every year. The church was doubled after 2-3 years. The original colleagues and brothers and sisters felt out of place. There was a kind of disappointment: some complained that they didn’t see the pastor as much anymore; it was more difficult to grab a meal together than it used to be; their relationship with the pastor was weaker. They felt that the church was better when the size was smaller because the relationships felt more intimate. The co-workers and the congregation were getting used to this process, including me.
The idea of a Christian community began to be formed in the church. The church is a community – it is a multi-layered intersection of lives. When a church has 40 members, you know everyone. When the church is 500-600 strong, and if you are part of a small group, the small group becomes your home where you foster deeper relationships. If your group has 20 people and you meet every week, you will have deep friendships and prayerful relationships among you. If you do not participate in other ministries in the church, you may only know these 20 people. In public worship on Sunday, you do not know most of the people. This is another perspective on fellowship that is manifested by the Christian church, and it is a picture of the kingdom. If you participate in other ministries of the church – you may be part of the welcoming team or the choir, or you may also join some other functional groups, then such a believer will have a multi-layered church life. When a church is several hundred strong, it is an abundant community. If you commit yourself properly to a church, you will experience this multi-layered and abundant church life.
I then started to issue a challenge and a reminder: if you do not commit yourself to a small group in a church of several hundred members, you will definitely feel isolated. You will come to the church to sit in a corner and you will inevitably feel marginalized. You will not want to have deep relationships with others because it will be too costly for you to invest more in the church. I will then remind everyone of this danger, and I will challenge them. Ever since we split last year, we started to aim for 100% small group commitment (in past years, the percentage of brothers and sisters in small group was not very high, around 60-70%). Every brother and sister ought to commit themselves to a small group. Even if they do not attend every week, we want to put you into a small group, and you become part of that small group.
Preacher Zhang Xudong: We have a holistic shepherding structure. The membership department I am in charge of has a connective function: there are 20-odd small groups, and above the small groups are district and district leaders. First of all, the small group leaders will shepherd the small group members; and if they are maxed out, the district leader will step in. If the district leaders are maxed out, the preachers and elders will step in. All the small group leaders and district leaders are shepherded by the pastor. Every week, we have small group leaders’ training in the pastor’s house, and this is holistic shepherding. Currently, we have a good shepherding team made up of small group leaders. The relationships among the 20-30 members within the small group are very deep. If the church continues to grow, we will add more small groups. For me personally, even if I’m not preaching on Sunday, I will be welcoming people at the entrance and getting to know the people. When I welcome them, you can identify those brothers and sisters who are weak and care for them.
After the morning meeting of the October 1 retreat, we organized workshops which focused on different target groups. The members shared sincerely, and their testimonies touched a lot of people. You will see that the life experience of others is very inspiring. Many brothers and sisters shared that the workshops left a deep impression with them, and that kind of life sharing is very contagious. This is not empty preaching, but examples of people living out the gospel.
After the sermon on Sundays, there are two other important ministries: the first is the Shorter Catechism that strengthens our faith; the second is the Sunday School that equips our lives. The Sunday school covers rich content, including OT and NT introductions. Recently, brother Ran Yunfei is sharing on the topic of culture. Other than basic, holistic shepherding, there are different layers of shepherding (Sunday school, young adult group, singles group, couples group, elderly group, and other monthly functional groups like these), so that the lives of the brothers and sisters may be pastored holistically. This is to equip them to live out God’s word in their lives and to glorify him. Most importantly, this is being incarnational, so that the word becomes your life and the life of Christ is lived out.
Another [aspect] is submission to God for spiritual formation. Now we have morning prayer every day. After the split in 2017, we experienced great blessings and we began to humble ourselves before God more deeply. We switched from having Saturday morning prayer to daily morning prayer. There is a difference between praying on your knees and praying while sitting up. Kneeling down will induce a posture of submission before God so that we do not haphazardly mumble an ‘Amen,’ but we do sincerely pray before God. When a little boy in our church was injured, we started praying at noon and some were kneeling for three hours straight. In prayer we truly humble ourselves and pour ourselves out so that the grace of God is poured upon us.
When we split, we also saw areas of the church that needed to be changed. For example, the pastor is very strong in his preaching but there was a lack of prayer, so we increased our prayer. We did not provide enough care for our members, so we established the membership department after the split. In the past we have the membership tags but there were about 100 members out of 600 who did not collect their tags; that is to say, nobody knew that people were leaving. After we established the membership department, we paid attention to every member and we seek to know the sheep. We want to know their names, and then protect and shepherd them. In the new sanctuary we also set up feedback boxes to collect feedback from members. In reality, not many will give much feedback because if they are cared and pastored in small groups, they seek out small group leaders if they have an opinion. The small group leaders then seek out the pastor or elders. In order to shepherd every member in the church, commitment to a small group is the basic requirement for baptism and transferring of membership. If a person only commits to come to Sunday services, it will generate a lot of problems in pastoral practice.
Elder Su Bingsen: One of the greatest challenges in pastoral practices is understanding the Presbyterian polity. When we split, there were many areas of growth. On the one hand, there is the area of structural governance of the church; on the other hand, there is growth in theology and understanding the challenges of the modern anti-authority culture that we inhabit. How to handle a one-man, one-vote system and manage the practical influences of different gifts, thoughts, and insights when discussing our daily official business? Yet at the same time, we especially need to respect the spiritual acuity of the pastor. Thus, it is important to learn through the Presbyterian polity how to protect, limit, and reasonably supervise the pastor while allowing him to fully utilize his gifts – to encourage him but not micro-manage him. So in one sense, the splitting of our church has actually encouraged greater unity. There is a deeper openness between each other, and the members became more passionate. Building on this foundation, we experienced these persecutions, including the recent funeral, so that the brothers and sisters are bonded strongly together. This bond is built on the theology of the gospel – how the eternal hope is truly experienced in the mutual encouragement and care of the brothers and sisters. For example, after one car accident we made a small booklet consisting mainly of the prayers of brothers and sisters, and we encouraged them: it is not only for spiritual leaders to attend to spiritual things, but brothers and sisters can also practice prayers, visitations, and evangelism. We hope that every family will serve! Everybody will serve!
Secondly, the preaching on Sundays is the most important pastoral practice. The pulpit is an important ministry to shape the worldview of the congregants. It is an important foundation for small groups and mutual shepherding. For example, there are usually some initial problems when a church starts a school – like the problem of integration and the future of the children. In our church, because our pastor teaches abundantly on the spheres of worldview, these initial problems were unknowingly resolved from the pulpit, and it allowed us to be more relaxed in running the school. Overall no parents came to ask these initial questions, and the parents were very firm in their decision: even if this school is closed, we will not send our children to public schools. Even if others come from out of town to attend our school, we will tell them that this school may be closed at any time. The key is to know that if you have chosen an education for your children in the Lord, and yet for various reasons you eventually transfer them to public schools, then you have wasted your time and your training as a parent. Therefore, the preaching from the pulpit is an important means of shepherding.
Thirdly, while facing challenges in theology, on the one hand, we ought to clearly state the confession of faith in our church’s constitution; on the other hand, the pastor is very helpful in communicating the cold, hard truth of Reformed theology in a practical and vivid way to engage the hearts of the congregants. For those congregants who will be baptized or transferred to our church, there is a strong membership class so that they understand clearly what they believe. Besides, the congregant has to commit himself to Sunday services and to weekly small groups, so that he can be built up in the life of the church.
How do the co-workers grow deeper in the word then? On the one hand, the church will hold periodic seminars; on the other hand, the church established a discipleship school that offers some basic theology courses. We will offer some basic theology courses according to the practical needs of the church, so that there is growth in theological knowledge. Even though we have a clear theological position and expression, we are gentle and winsome towards other denominations. We will also have theological forums to encourage churches to return to the gospel.
4. Revival and Evangelism Conferences
Pastor Wangyi: Through the years, we reflected on the structures of the Reformed church, and one of them is that Reformed theology has a strong emphasis on the word. There is a greater emphasis on academic learning when co-workers are trained – that is, the preparation by the word. Thus, there is an inclination towards rationalism. If we do not return to the gospel constantly, there is a danger of moving towards legalism. In the structuring process, there is an imbalance between institution and movement. We realized that there is a slowing down or even a loss in the momentum of the movement and in perceiving the Spirit’s work.
Therefore, in these past two years, we strongly emphasized that the Reformed faith needs to be united with the house church’s traditions of pietism and walking the way of the cross. This is especially true last year when we experienced the painful split. We reflected on past experiences in order to gain greater clarity on the balance between institution and movement, and the unity between the Reformed faith and the house church’s way of the cross. So we started to promote prayer more intentionally, beginning from switching morning prayer from 2-3 times a week to daily spiritual formation and Bible reading. We started to intentionally return to the traditions of the house churches (for example teaching on the history of the house church) in order to retrieve the tradition of revival, that is, the tradition of spiritual growth. Revival and spiritual formation seminars have been going on for about 1.5 years, and meanwhile we also encourage street evangelism. In these aspects we have seen some of the spiritual revival work that God is doing: the spiritual atmosphere, the power of prayer, the passion of brothers and sisters, and the missional direction of the church.
We always emphasize that we need to be a giving church – one that gives continually and generously for the sake of the kingdom. In the past 1.5 years, we clearly see that God is preparing a group of brothers and sisters for this task. In our reflections on the church and the team, and on the relationship between institution and movement, we established an evangelism ministry. The church encouraged brothers and sisters to do evangelism on the streets and form street evangelism ministries. When evangelists form these ministries, they will go to various places to preach. Correspondingly, there is a prayer ministry and over 90 brothers and sisters have joined the prayer group. The goal of the church is to train brothers and sisters into special forces for the Lord.
On the basis of our daily shepherding, we started to emphasize movement. In the past one year, I saw that God has prepared and called a group of people for full time ministry. The revival and worship event in September was one of the harvests. Among the 34 who stood up, 3 came from another church, 2 were already in seminary, and there was a 9.5-year-old girl. At the beginning of this year, we planned to expand a non-academic theological training center at our church. There is a need in potential future mission movements. For example, China needs around 100,000 preachers or full-time ministers. The graduates in seminaries in China, together with the few who returned from overseas, amount to about 10% of that need. 90% of the need has to come from the church’s ministry. Thus, we hope to prepare workers through this theological training center. This center is not too academically-driven. It focuses on the intimate relationship between the spiritual disciplines and practical evangelism and ministry. It is also closely tied to the local church.
We made plans for this in January, and if we are still doing this after June 4, we will officially form the “ERCC Great Commission Training Center” in September. On November 1stwe will begin the first batch of students. Most of the 28 brothers and sisters who are called will register. We will challenge them: in the span of one month read a book, write a testimony, preach on the streets twice, clean the streets, obtain reference letters, join a prayer groups, and so on. If they can fulfill this series of “homework,” they can register. We are also announcing in November that we are establishing this Great Commission Training Center. The curriculum is 1.5 years long, one course consists of four evenings per month and one full Saturday. There will be a 2-3 weeks break after every course. We encourage all who are called to full-time ministry to register. After they register, they should set aside some time and cancel all travel plans for the next 1.5 year. At the moment, there are 16 registrations. I will choose from among them and train them for full-time ministry. Although we do not know how many of the 30-odd trainees will eventually become full-time ministers (Half? One-third?), this intensive training will make them into more committed colleagues. There is another consideration: to prepare for persecution. If preachers are detained or lose their freedom during persecution, [these students] become the third backup team.
Three weeks ago, we officially commissioned small group leaders – the elders laid their hands on them and commissioned them. The small group leaders are the second backup team after the session and diaconate. We also considered that if the persecution expands so that the elders, preachers, and myself are detained and we lose our freedom for short or extended periods of time, and if the church is sealed off, and if we cannot find an open place for public gathering (we will fight for every step and we will not back off), and if eventually we have to split into several locations of worship, we will divide into different locations according to the 5 districts (every district consists of 4-5 small groups). At that point, the entire ERCC will be a church of 5-6 different locations, and 5-6 other evangelism centers. If we were to maintain the church’s DNA at that point, there must be a system to train the co-workers. Then, the Great Commission Training Center will not only train those who are called to full-time ministry, but also for the co-workers in all the evangelism centers and gathering locations. This preparation is not just passive but also active.
Interviewer: All of you have shared the two primary aspects of shepherding in 2018. One aspect is internal equipping, shepherding, and preparation; the other aspect is external revival and gospel movement. The main components of internal shepherding are gospel-centered preaching of the Word, shepherding of every member through small groups, spiritual formation of the entire church with the Bible as the foundation – shared Bible reading and spiritual disciplines, daily devotions and sharing from the pastor and elders, and the discipline of prayer – morning prayers.
Because of this firm, gospel-centered shepherding, the church can face persecution with vitality. The goal of the church is to glorify God and to preach the gospel of the kingdom in and out of season. Especially when facing and responding to persecution, the goal is not to preserve the whole church but to transform the situation into a gospel situation, even persecution. Concerning the gospel movement, how does the church promote this movement under holistic shepherding?
5. Evangelism and Prayer Ministries
Pastor Wangyi: One of the classic characteristics of a gospel movement is street evangelism. There were over 100 people who registered, but about 50 people went regularly. Basically, some small groups will do it on a weekly basis, and other small groups are less certain, maybe once or twice per month.
Preacher Li Yingqiang: Street evangelism is a gospel movement that is started by members of the church. The theme of the church this year is “Christ is Lord, Grace is King. Bear the Cross. Keep the Faith.” It brings a lot of continuity to the house church traditions. In the pulpit and the various gatherings of the church, the revivals of the Chinese churches in 1927-1937 were mentioned frequently, especially that particular group of domestic revivalists. In the process, a seminary student was encouraged to start street evangelism. He brought his small group and started doing street evangelism outside the entrance of the school, and he was taken away by the police after he preached. Later, a group of brothers and sisters who were working with him went to the local police station to pick him up. This happened in October of last year.
After that we pondered whether the church can scale this ministry of street evangelism. Eventually, the church encouraged every small group to start this ministry of street evangelism. The smallest unit is the small group, and there may be some units with several small groups. The small group that I led persisted in street evangelism, and they go once every one or two weeks. When it is more frequent it is a weekly affair; when it is less frequent, it is a bi-weekly affair. This ministry of street evangelism has not been actively promoted in the various aspects of the church, but we hope brothers and sisters will join as a sign of their response to the word, the love, and the grace of God. Not every small group has persisted in street evangelism, but most of them have done some street evangelism.
Since 1950, when the Three-Self movement started, Zhou Enlai stated that there must never be any street evangelism anymore. This deeply shackled the Chinese churches. Even though the church has grown a lot through these few years, but there is very little breakthrough in this area. There are very few churches who are bold enough to preach in the parks and public spaces. We also hope to break through this barrier. Because the Lord Jesus has given us the Great Commission saying that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore, go…” When you go, you go to everywhere and every place. In this city, there are no street and no alleys where we will not go.
Interviewer: How do you evaluate the results of street evangelism? How does this ministry of street evangelism influence the brothers and sisters of the church and influence your pastoral practices?
Deacon Zhao: From the statistics of the welcoming team, 45% of the people who come to church are unbelievers. There are some who come because of street evangelism, but the quantity is still very small and scattered. The majority of newcomers are friends of believers and members.
Preacher Li Yingqiang: Firstly, this is not an easy task. It is not a one-time event, but a continuous effort. In this process we have encountered the police many times, and we have a tacit agreement with them. When they ask us to leave, we will first sing some hymns and pray before we go.
Secondly, I also understand that not many will come to church through this ministry, even though some will come. Among the newcomers, there are always some who came because of our street evangelism and gospel tracts. One of the seekers in my small group now came because of our street evangelism. This will encourage us to continue.
Thirdly, brothers and sisters are being trained in this ministry, so that they are bold enough to share their testimony, sing hymns, and preach the gospel on the street. Some of the brothers and sisters became better in the process, so that they can share the gospel in 5, 3, or even 1 minute. How do you share the gospel with those who ignore and disregard you? How do you grab their attention? It is really difficult at the beginning, but now in the places where we do our regular street preaching, there are tens if not hundreds of people who listen quietly and even applaud after we are done. In the evenings, there are some who sit silently in the dark. They come not for other things, but solely for the preaching because we leave right after we finish. So there are some who come to listen. For those who preach, share, and participate, their lives are also built up in many ways.
From these three points, we see that street evangelism is beneficial and we continue to encourage brothers and sisters to serve in this way. Among those who are willing to be full-time, our requirement is that they ought to participate in street evangelism twice every month.
Elder Su Bingsen: The students from the Liberal Arts College wanted to participate in street evangelism initially to train their boldness, and secondly to train their homiletic skills. I saw that some brothers and sisters mainly shared their personal testimonies. This is a very good training in itself. For example, the students in the Liberal Arts College will have some exercises in rhetoric – to expound on a theme in 5-10 minutes. This solid training in classical rhetoric will help preachers greatly in the future. Another important aspect is training to submit to the Holy Spirit.
Pastor Wangyi: First of all, there are a lot of churches in a city like Chengdu. Even though it is not a huge percentage of the entire population, if they all speak out it is possible to let more people, or even the entire city, know about the church. We conducted a survey once: “Have you heard of the gospel?” We estimate that more than 50% of the people in this city have never heard of Jesus and the gospel. When you say Christianity or churches, they may acknowledge it vaguely: “I’ve seen this before” or “I’ve heard of this somewhere.” But if you ask about Jesus directly, those who know him are very rare.
Therefore, our first step is to break through the limitation in this city. Since the Three-Self Movement in 1950, Zhou Enlai met with Wu Yaozhong and several other representatives and proposed three conditions: 1) anti-imperialism – there must be a clear boundary with imperialism so that the bad elements are separated; 2) no street activities – you have to conduct your business at your own locations. Until this day, the state’s entire regulation of religions is not done in organization but by location. Their focus is to limit your faith and its expression to a particular time and space. Thus, we want to achieve a breakthrough in this limitation. This limitation has now been internalized, and it has actually evolved into a self-imposed limitation by the believers and the church: “We ought to do this, and we ought not to do that, because that is too radical and it’s wrong. If we do that, we are opposing the government and it is very dangerous.” Decades have passed by and this internalization has become a self-actualization. We want to break through this limit.
From May 12 to June 4, most of the brothers and sisters (over 95%) have been taken to the police station for the first time on account of their faith. Before this, they had never experienced it. Therefore, the fear is real. Even though there are some who were brave, there are also some with post-traumatic stress. The follow-up team [from the government] will talk to you and call you on the phone, so that they may induce fear in you by threatening your career and your house. Most of the brothers and sisters experienced this. The primary concern when meeting with these brothers and sisters is to encourage and comfort them.
Our comfort consists of two major aspects. The first is more passive. The church is like an army in battle – there are some who are on the frontlines, and there are some who provide logistical and medical support from the back. Maybe you are on the frontline, or maybe you are at the back, but you are both in the same army and you complement each other. We will thereby comfort the brothers and sisters. Some of them will admit that because of their fear, they did not attend; and they will question whether they are guilty spiritually when they meet those brothers and sisters who attended. They may not be able to walk freely before God and man. We have noticed from the beginning [the need] to curb the pride of those who have experienced these [events] so that the weak will not feel abandoned. Therefore, we continue the work of encouragement and comfort.
The second is actively removing your fear and moving forward. Thus, street evangelism is a good way to eliminate fear so that even those who did not attend may be encouraged. Even though there are only about 100 people who registered for this round, and only about 50 of them will go regularly, this is still a good way to eliminate fear in the whole congregation – this is the best and most wonderful way. We can see that when they posted pictures in our social media groups of going to the streets and preaching the message, the responses from the brothers and sisters were very enthusiastic. Even though they did not go, they were still very much encouraged.
Therefore, we have a picture: the first is to abolish our self-limitation, which is not a spiritual limitation but a long-term internalized fear among us. The second is to prepare for the expansion of the gospel movement by active participation and healing. There is a healing power for the events from May 12 to June 4. The third is to increase the contact between citizens and Christians, so that their chance of being saved is also increased. If we carry this out for 5-10 years, and if other churches also join in together, and if there are 10 churches doing this in Chengdu, the percentage of those who have never heard of Jesus may decrease from 50% to 20% in the span of 5 years. This is a large-scale continuous gospel movement in the city. Perhaps some will come to Christ and go to church, even though the percentage may be low.
Is this a better strategy in the gospel movement? We have discussed this topic as well. If we were a post-Christian society like America – where most have already heard of the gospel but are estranged from it – it would quite pointless to give them a tract in that situation. Most people will ignore it, with maybe around 1 in 100 or 1,000 who would treat you seriously. But we do not have the same situation. Most of the people here have never heard or read the gospel. The aim is to let 50%-60% of the city’s few million people hear the gospel, or at least hear of Christians and read the tracts. This is the most basic quantitative change in the gospel movement. This is what we aim to promote in the long run.
In the past few weeks, there were some who came to Sunday service because of the tracts we gave out on the street. When our brothers and sisters heard of those who came because of the gospel tracts, their hearts were especially joyful because they see the fruit. Therefore, we revamped the gospel ministry of our church. We reviewed the process between welcoming those who came to church for the first time because of the tracts to being baptized into the church. We emphasized the work of welcoming new friends. We planned gospel-centered seminars in conjunction with street evangelism. For example, we used marriage as a connection point. During street evangelism and tract distributions, we tell people there is a marriage seminar at the church and it is free if they bring the tracts. There are some other seminars concerning atheist education, cultural analysis, and other thematic talks. Combining gospel-centered seminars and street evangelism became a new model and strategy for the church’s gospel ministry.
Interviewer: The form of street evangelism is not merely a needed breakthrough for the church, but it is also a challenge to the society. Chinese society has no place for a culture of the public square; this will inevitably produce cultural clashes. If we see it from another perspective, based on the relationship between street evangelism and the local culture, what will be the influence on those unbelievers who come from a totally different cultural background? Should we also evaluate if street evangelism is beneficial for the greater spread of the gospel?
Preacher Li Yingqiang: Most people will be uncomfortable, and they will be annoyed. Some will have very strong opposition and they may even report us. Culture clash is inevitable, and we hope that this clash can open up some space to preach the gospel. We have a strategy: we hope that the small groups can launch street evangelism in their own neighborhoods. For example, our small group is near the church, and so our street evangelism takes place nearby. It becomes more common as time goes on. After that, some of our brothers and sisters also started having gospel conversations. Some of the people were attracted by the preaching. The brothers and sisters did not only give out tracts, but they also started gospel conversations with them, which leads to deeper sharing. These are topics that we encounter in the process of our experiment, and we grow from our experience as we experiment. This is also something new for us, and we do not have a systematic philosophy on the entire practice.
But what we saw is that when a space for the gospel is opened up, some will resist. But this sense of resistance is also a process of rehabilitating xenophobic tendencies, from fear (they will fear when they first hear it, thinking that this is Western religion) to gradual understanding. We often share our testimonies and tell them: we are your neighbors, who live in Chengdu, work here, have children here. I’m Chinese like you, and I will share how I came to believe in the Lord, and how the Lord took hold of me. In the process of our sharing, they will slowly let down their guard and nervousness. This process also challenges the daily testimonies of the brothers and sisters – if what you preach is marred by how you act, your work will be been in vain.
I have been pondering how we can better serve our neighbors in the society. In the past I’ve worked for 7 years in public welfare. I know a lot of social workers and their service to the marginalized are pretty good. To the homeless, workers, migrant workers, prostitutes, and other marginalized groups in society, the church has done far too little in caring and serving the marginalized. I think if the Lord creates more space and opportunity for us in the future, we can do more. For us, this is not merely a program, but we need to love the people around us. Our love is often only reserved for the internal community. We do not truly love those in society and bear witness to them. The Lord Jesus did not only preach the gospel, but he also healed the sick, exorcised demons, and showed compassion to the poor. We are to be with them, so that we can bring the gospel truly to them.
6. A Missional Community
Interviewer: Both your church contingency plan and Pastor Wang Yi’s previous interviews mention steps the church will take to respond to persecution. These include persisting in meeting together outdoors and then, as a last resort, possibly retreating to homes. What is the difference between persisting in meeting outdoors and just splitting up from the very beginning and meeting in homes? Some might ask why you would go through all of that hassle [of meeting outdoors] only to return to your homes. Why take this roundabout path?
Pastor Wang Yi: First of all, as I already said in the beginning, we want to try to raise the ceiling.We don’t want to act as if the situation were really bad before the situation actually gets that bad. Secondly, what are we seeking? We are not seeking external benefits for the church. We’re not even seeking external religious freedom. Shouwang Church has persisted in meeting outdoors because they have a very specific goal, namely to return to their church building. And they believe that it is right to return to their church building, that it will happen, and that God will bring them back to it. We are not making this claim. We are not claiming we can hold onto our church building or that we can hold onto the liberal arts college. From the very beginning, we are prepared that the next time they come they may take away everything. If our money is confiscated, then we will consider it martyred. If our building is confiscated, then we will consider it martyred. We don’t need to worry about them. This is what we’ve decided to do. We haven’t made any requests like returning to a certain church building at a specific location, or retaining our K-12 school, church, liberal arts college, or seminary. Our goal is simply to go where God is leading us. We will persist in church-based public worship because public worship is right. It pleases God. If we are not arrested, we will not give up.We will keep doing what we should be doing.
Interviewer: This is an entirely different way of thinking. This is what an autonomous, public, and open church life should look like.
Pastor Wang Yi: I’ll give you another example. After the May 12 incident, a lawyer from the lawyer’s fellowship discussed with me what defense should we present if I am arrested. He gave many suggestions. What I shared with him greatly surprised him. I said, “If I am arrested, the objective of my defense should not be my release or minimizing my sentence. The primary objective of your defense must be – through the courts and legal proceedings – witnessing for gospel and testifying for the significance of this in the Kingdom of God.” He sighed and said, “I’ve been a lawyer for many years. The professional objective of us lawyers is always the maximum benefit of our clients. This is the first time a client has told me not to make his own benefit the goal of his defense.” If God wants this to happen then it will happen.
Elder Su Bingsen: This year the church is preaching through the Book of Ephesians. In the Book of Ephesians, we see the greatness of the church and its place in history. Pastor Wang Yi once gave the following analogy. He said the headlines of this world all have to do with celebrities and movie stars or great political events. But in Heaven, the headlines are always about the church. God makes all things work together ultimately in order to display his manifold wisdom through the church. So all of the changes in this world, all of the various situations and political circumstances, happen in order to spur the church on toward maturity and continually increase the number of those who are saved. Even though the church is unremarkable in the world’s eyes, even marginalized, in the eyes of those who believe in God, the church is always the main subject of history.
Over the last dozen years, the number of Chinese house churches has grown to a certain extent. Why, then, did this number of churches have such a small influence on society? From the perspective of the church or even human ethics, the most important aspect of being human is our relationship with God and our worship of God. So when we gather together to worship God, we are manifesting a new society or a new humanity (these are the words of Pastor Wang Yi). So when we look at the church as God’s new creation, what is actually illegal is saying that the church is illegal. We ought to worship God out in the open.
Looking at the growth of the church in Chinese society, traditional house churches were forced to put up high wallsduring the early years of persecution. Preserving the fundamentals of the faith in the face of extreme persecution was already difficult enough. Focusing on the public influence of the gospel on society was simply too much. Over these past ten or twenty years of urbanization, churches that were once able to withstand the “red” persecution of communism are now having trouble withstanding the “white” persecution of secularism. This is why so many village churches are dying.
As the church changes, it is facing a few great pressures. One concerns theology. As missionaries and various resources enter the church, we have no choice but to begin to build up our theology, otherwise bad theology will undoubtedly cause us to veer off into theological confusion. During the extreme persecution of the past, China was cut off from the universal church while modern theology was gaining influence. At that time, the Chinese house churches retained the most fundamental tenets of the Faith and a belief in the Bible. It objectively became the most conservative church in the world. But now danger lurks on every side. Things like secular psychology, church growth strategy, and corporate management have all entered the church’s root and branches. So the church must have a basic theological and church government structure. The church must deal with the various problems of urbanization more thoroughly and more carefully through shepherding. If it lacks this structure, the church will surely face a crisis never before seen and may walk down the same path of secularization that Europe and America had walked down.
First, the church must develop its internal structure. Secondly, it must actively welcome cultural challenges. I’ve realized that the liberal arts college is very much like a microcosm of the traditional house church. Many of the students we’ve recruited have come from traditional house churches. Most of them said that they could not handle the great influence of secularism. So, on the one hand, the church must thoroughly reform its theology and polity and pursue the tradition of the universal church. On the other hand, as the church confronts the great challenges of secularism (including political and social culture), it must develop a critical framework to meet these challenges.
Looking at church history, a significant change within the Chinese church occurred when it was able to begin openly plant local churches inside cities. On the one hand, these churches were established in some sense as a result of loosening restrictions from the past. On the other hand, it was based on a certain ecclesiology. The last ten years we have seen a shift from small groups to local churches. So the Communist Party’s current suppression of the church is actually directed against our ecclesiology. From this perspective, we cannot only consider the importance of shepherding the church and our theology of worship. Even more importantly, we must consider how God has led the Chinese church over the past ten or so years.
One key point here is that we must be proactive in our interactions with the world. Suppose we wanted to plant an apple tree. Even if the world were going to end tomorrow, we would still plant it. Secondly, as we confront the evils of society and the growth of the church, we have a relatively realistic view. We do not believe that if the church gainsgreat influence over society, it will usher the world into a new Christendom. There are both active and passiveaspects in our eschatological views. “Active” and “realistic” go hand in hand. I consider it more important to have a correct attitude. For example, if the church does not, in every realm, actively shape the biblical worldviews of brothers and sisters, then they will be shaped by the values of the secular world. Neutrality is impossible. So, on the one hand, we emphasize the cultural mandate and actively engage with public life. On the other hand, we do not expect to achieve success in any general sense but to live out the gospel in every area of our lives. For the gospel’s transforming power is not limited only to our personal lives. You will display different aspects of the gospel to a greater or lesser degree in many different areas of culture.
Unlike this year, in the past our church did not often actively evangelize to the outside world. This is an age when the gospel is spreading quickly through public influence, especially through internet platforms. Early Rain may be the most prominent church in the public square. As a result, many people come here because we are famous. This has given the church access to many resources.The central problem at the moment is not increasing our numbers but rather building up a certain number of groups, helping them to live out the gospel authentically in every area—in their lives, through their visions, and even through the testimonies they give in their jobs.
In this stage, God has used an influential pastor like Wang Yi. We must meet in a large group. In the past, we tried splitting into campuses,but later we realized that even though the persecution at the moment is quite serious, when we look ahead ten or twenty years into the future, what will the house church look like? We act as a role model by standing our ground. Maintaining the structure of the church has great significance. In response to God’s leading, we are willing to do this. We may be suppressed because of our size, and we are willing. House churches do not need to actively confront the question of openness. It is passively being forced upon us. The church must actively consider its identity and place in the world, and it must actively understand its relationship with culture. How can it manifest the gospel in culture? So, considering these aspects, I think our large size at the moment is quite significant.
Pastor Wang Yi: After May 12, our church’s gospel ministries focused on growing in two ways, one internal and one external. The first was street evangelism, and the second was the Nicodemus Bible Study. After the May 12 incident, the growth in the Nicodemus Bible Study was very obvious. It went through multiple breakthroughs in the past several weeks.Both the upstairs and downstairs were completely full with nearly 100 people. Now (July, 2018), dozens of seekers attend each week. They are then brought into the small groups of the church. The Nicodemus Study is a Bible study especially geared toward seekers. It has continually grown from just a few dozen people. The Nicodemus Bible Study is our church’s fastest-growing fellowship group in these past two or three years, and it has continued to grow since the May 12 and June 4 incidents. This is tied to the street gospel movement. We can see a number of phenomena throughout this process:
1. Young people’s need of the gospel: Our liberal arts college has many students right now. We have recognized a great need among young people. The students at our liberal arts college all meet here for worship. A large number of these young people are not yet 20 years old. Between our short-term missionsand June 4, pretty much all of them went to the police station. Some even went there two or three times. The large majority have been taking part in street evangelism. We have very clearly seen these young people’s growth. As far as spiritual development is concerned, their growth is very evident. The transformation of this group of young people has been very surprising and unexpected.
2. Church workers’ transformation: We have also seen breakthroughs and growth in the lives of workers serving the church. May 28 was a very special day for me. Seven key co-workers and I went to the police station. The Lord greatly used that time to revive me spiritually. Because in the past, whenever I was taken there I was always alone, and they were never rough with me. They were always polite. My spirit was calm. I would pray little by little. I wasn’t in a state of excitement. But that wasn’t the case on May 28. One reason for this was because this team of seven co-workers was taken in at the same time. The other reason was because we were treated harshly. Inside, the seven of us were beaten, choked, and so on. During that time, we prayed out loud and sang hymns. During the course of these events we experienced the filling of the Holy Spirit. Regardless of what beatings we received, we still prayed. Our spirits were greatly strengthened. And as far as they were concerned, if they wanted to suppress us any more, they would have had to use a greater degree of violence. They had already used all the methods at their disposal. If they increased their violence, they would have run into problems. They were afraid to risk it. We turned it into a prayer and worship meeting. During that time, we experienced a great revival. It really was very similar to Paul and Silas’s experience.
When conflict and persecution become white-hot in certain places, spiritual conflicts suddenly become more real. There is an internal spiritual battle, and outwardly the police were yelling that President Xiis the savior. This is actually the idol of our age. This is the reality of the spirit of this age. But this is usually not visible to us. While the seven of us were in there, we realized that church revivals throughout history all happened through prayer. So we begged the Lord again for this kind of revival. Therefore on that day I experienced a great spiritual revival, and as I prayed, the questions I had previously been thinking about gradually started to become clear. What I very clearly and definitely saw was a gospel movement.
Some scholars say by the year 2030, China will have 240 million Christians and might become the largest Christian country in the world. This might happen. But it seems to me that from September of last year to May and June of this year, the number of Christians may have dropped, perhaps even dropped by 5 million. The growth of the Chinese house church over the past two or three years may already be at a standstill and may even be declining. That day when I was praying in there, I realized something: there are maybe 80 million Chinese Christians. Looking back, we see that the period from 1927 to 1937 all the way to the revival of the 1940s became the spiritual strength of the Chinese house church after 1949.The growth of the Chinese house church from 1980s until now is due tothe blood of the martyrs and a few revival preachers whom God greatly used. The new religious regulation is a turning point. The house church of today is no longer the church of the second half of the 1970s and 1980s, which grew out of suffering.
As a matter of fact, the main bulk of the house church is very weak, even very afraid. Like soldiers in a war, if the purpose of the war is avoiding sacrifice and sparing one’s own life, then the army will inevitably become very weak. This is a bit similar to the state of the Chinese house church in recent years. The churches in Henan or the churches where crosses have been torn down are completely different from those of the 80s and 90s. For churches during that time, the more they were oppressed the more courageous they became. Wherever persecution came, the gospel spread. While I was praying in there, I said, “Lord, in the past, the growth of the church was a bit like guerrilla warfare.” China has 1.3 to 1.4 billion people. Its civil society has 10 to 20 million people. If it does not engage with mainstream culture, if it does not impact Chinese society, if it does not come in sharp conflict with emperor worship, it can grow to 80 million, but it cannot naturally grow anymore after that.
Under what circumstances did the Chinese house church grow to 80 million? It reached the peak of civil society throughprivate sectors (it cannot preach openly and is not legally recognized). We have been engaging in guerrilla warfare and tunnel warfare in the realms of society, politics, economics, and culture. We have not been fighting a positional warfare. Under these circumstances, I think 80 million is the peak. If we want to reach new heights (growing from 80 million to 150 million is an entirely different magnitude), then we need a new round of persecution today. Current growth may already be at a standstill. Persecution and the new religious regulations force the church react.
Under these circumstances, we must come before God to pray for the church and for ourselves. I’ve prayed, “God, there are basically two possible scenarios in the next ten years. One is that I will be in prison for a relatively long period of time during these next ten years. If that is the case, I pray, ‘Lord, I will set aside all of my outside projects and devote myself to imprisonment, spreading the gospel in prison.’ The second scenario is that I may not be imprisoned for much time during the next ten years, or I may be imprisoned for a year and then be released. In the scope of ten years that is a short amount of time. I will be free for the great majority of that time. If that is the case, I ask you, Lord, to use me to turn the world upside down, to allow me to engage in even bolder ministry, to participate more fully in this gospel movement.” Because I’ve realized that in the next ten to twenty years, if a new gospel movement does not arise within China, it will be difficult for the church to reach a greater scale of magnitude in the future.
Looking at the experience of the church in Taiwan, after a period of growth in the 70s it slowed down. Growing 1% every ten years, it cannot impact the entire society. So I’m asking the Lord to raise up a group of revival preachers in the next ten years and to raise up a gospel movement like the revival between 1927 and 1937. I’m asking the Lord that as He raises up laborers for Himself, I might be included in that number. If He gives me another ten years, I will definitely retire before age 65. Regardless of whether or not I get to experience revival during these twenty years, twenty years is enough. After twenty years I will step down, and I may focus on writing. I’ve prayed to God, “I’m not asking for a long life but that you would give me 20 years. After I’m 65, if you want to continue using me, Lord, then that is your will.” I’m praying that God would use me in the next 10 to 20 years.
Another consideration concerns the mutual relationship between church polity and the gospel movement. My past thoughts about these were strung together. Chapter 4 of Ephesians says God has given us apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, and pastors. Prophets and apostles are the foundation of the entire New Testament church. Pastor and teacher are permanent roles within each church. But evangelist is not a specific role. Throughout church history they generally spoke of an evangelist as an “apostle to the Germanic people,” an “apostle to the Lisu people,” an “apostle to the Irish people,” or an “apostle to the Hmong people.” That is to say, when the gospel comes to a new people group and culture, in reality it is brought there by a group of apostle-like gospel ministers. After the Protestant Reformation, Catholicism quickly turned around and became one of the primary missional forces in the world. In addition to the control Catholicism had of the seas, another very important factor was religious orders.
Catholicism has always had two systems. One is the local church system—the diocese. The other is the monastic system. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, revival movements and gospel movements have all come out of monasteries. They have never come out of local churches. They have come out of religious orders. For example, the Jesuits quickly became a very important order within the Catholic Church. It became a primary force in a gospel movement, a gospel movement that spread all over the world. At the time, the Protestant church was establishing a church polity in which all pastors were pastors of local churches. Religious orders did not exist. Then there was a breakthrough during the time of John Wesley. He stepped outside of the church and evangelized the common people and miners on the streets. Then missionary societies began to pop up. These were Protestant religious orders. In this way, a Protestant gospel movement began to burst forth and expand throughout the world.
So it seems to me that the church actually has two natures. One is its local church polity. Theother is a gospel movement out of the everyday operations of the church,rooted in the local church, and with the goal of planting local churches. From this perspective, we can see that the same thing happened during the revival of the Chinese church between the 1920s and 1930s. A large number of mission societies wereborn out of the revival of the Chinese church—the Northwest Spiritual Organization, the Back to Jerusalem Evangelistic Organization, the Chinese Overseas Missions Union, and even missionary unions made up of church laity. I’ve also begun to reconsider Watchman Nee. He continually emphasized that he wasn’t a resident pastor but that he traveled everywhere, that he was an apostle. In reality he wanted to start a missionary society and promote a gospel movement. In fact, this brought about a flourishing of gathering places. These gathering places were not merely individual church plants. In reality they were a kind of national gospel movement, a kind of national missionary society that worked together to establish local churches.
Let’s look again at the five main [Chinese house church networks] during the 80s and 90s. Throughout the development of ecclesiology in the Chinese church over the past dozen or so years, believers have all been in the same place.During this time, new local churches were formed, visible bodies of Christwere established, shepherding and teaching were emphasized, and residential pastors arose. This has been an important movement within the Chinese house church over the past ten years. It has led to a transition within the church to local churches and church planting. The recent religious regulations are attacking this kind of churches. They do not attack individual Christians. You can practice your religion freely, but you just can’t practice it with others. You can’t practice it openly. You can’t practice on the streets, and so on. What they attack is the visibility and expansion of the church, this covenantal body, throughout society. This is the target of their attacks.
Looking back, I think we lost sight of something these past ten years (we react slowly). The fire of the gospel movement has already been extinguished, or at least it is very weak, but we haven’t realized it. We think the Chinese church is growing rapidly. We’ve been vigorously planting churches. The traditional five main house church networks led a gospel movement that planted churches everywhere.But because they have not established a framework for pastoral care, they have had their own problems. Over the past ten years, the Chinese church has faced the problem of establishing a local church polity.Throughout this transformation, the distinct characters of the gospel movement led by those missionary societies have begun to weaken. You could say that because the gospel movement lacked a support system for local church polity throughout the entire process, the movement’s growth has been stymied.
In the past, we tended to treat the formation of presbyteries and the formation of a gospel movement as one thing. We hoped that the presbytery can also become a gospel movement organization. But in these past two years we have clearly seen that there is a difference and a tension between presbyteries and gospel movement organizations. We must establish denominations,but the gospel movement and the creation of denominations, although related, are not the same. In reality, we must differentiate between the two. In church history, no movement has ever been started by church polity or the overtures of a general assembly. They have always come out of movements and cultures created by individual churches or people, who then influence more people and churches, eventuallyforming a gospel movement. This influence may be related to the polity of the church where you worship, but the two do not overlap. These are my thoughts on presbyteries. We need to think appropriately about the place of presbyteries. The churches where we reside should belong to a presbytery, but presbyteries are not the main driving force behind a gospel movement.
My hope is that Early Rain Covenant Church will be a missional church, that it would be a church that promotes a gospel movement. One aspect of this concerns church formation and pastoring, the other concerns the gospel movement.
After the June 4incident, we decided to appoint more elders and deacons. We wanted the primary function of the deacons and some of the elders to be pastoring the church, to facilitate church fellowship— generosity, relationship, and care.So our church has recently formed a care group for those struggling with depression. But there is another group of church workers that we hope can be the main force behind the gospel movement. We are currently slowly looking at the different gifts and special traits of church workers. A few elders from the church have created an evangelism team. A group of brothers and sisters from the church who are willing to pray for the Kingdom have created a prayer team to support the evangelism team. Our goal is to start a gospel movement through this evangelism team and prayer team. In the past, someplaces would invite me to go and evangelize by myself. But now we go as an evangelism team to serve. Of course, the evangelism team may become a para-church team in the future. This is the other aspect of my prayer to God, that church polity and the gospel movement may work together.
Interviewer: The church is in essence a missional community. There is tension between missions and community. How do you balance the two through pastoring?
Pastor Wang Yi: It takes time to reach a balance. We hope that the church’s pastoring and discipleship are oriented toward missions. Even though some people, throughout the course of being pastored, cannot follow the church’s mission and slowly leave this community (this is especially true when the mission becomes more and more clear, which leads to the danger of only a portion of church workers moving forward with it), this phenomenon is still unavoidable.
First of all, as long as any church wholeheartedly follows the Lord, there will surely be people who will leave it. This is unavoidable. If this church is urging you to yearn more for the Lord, to make more changes in your ultimate life goals, then this will cause stress. Missions is an important goal of pastoral care in the church. The goal of being pastored is to give yourself to God’s Kingdom. You can attend prayer meetings. You can help babysit while others in the church are serving. You can volunteer for some ministries. Every believer can do these things. But we want the church to be a strong support for the army up front. We are fighting the same war. We have the same mission. Those on the front lines know they belong to a community. We want them to have firm personal relationshipswith other brothers and sisters through small groups. When one person goes out, many behind him are praying for him. For example, for our last “spiritual warrior camp,” we required each brother and sister participating to find six brothers and sisters to support and pray for them. Our hope is that if 50 people are participating in the gospel movement, they are in reality closely connected to 300 people. Those in the front will not think that they are disconnected with the church and that no one is thinking about them, and those in the back likewise will not think they have nothing to do with those up front. The mission of the Kingdom is the goal of discipleship. It is an important standard by which we evaluate the effectiveness of discipleship.
As we are currently conceptualizing this, our pastoral team and team of deacons are both still quite weak. This is one of our main deficiencies. If the church grows too quickly throughout the struggles of these past few years, pastoral care will be lacking. I’ve also wondered if I haven’t been paying enough attention [to church members] if I haven’t been spending enough time eating with them. As far as our church is concerned, I haven’t spent enough time thinking about them. I haven’t had enough time to build relationships with everyone. There are still so many people I don’t know. As the size of the church continues to grow, the pastoral structure of the church must change with it. In the past, it was easy to talk with the pastor. Now, it is difficult. Now, if you want to invite the pastor to a meal, you may have to do it two months in advance. If our rate of growth slows down by half, then this won’t be a problem. But at the moment we are growing very quickly and haven’t had enough time to deal with it. There are also currently some brothers and sisters who, seeing that our church has several hundred people and a pastoral team, felt things are not the same as before anymore, and they are disappointed. The church is slowly trying to find a new pastoral care model, and the brothers and sisters there are slowly accepting this change.
In January of this year we began in our pastoring to emphasize grace-centeredness and spiritualfriendship between brothers and sisters. Through the course of these teachings, brothers and sisters slowly began to realize the differences between a large church and a small church. Large churches have their own advantages. In a large church, faith is manifested in multiple levels. In a church of 30 to 50 people, you can have very close relationships. But in a large church you can still foster very deepfellowship and build spiritual friendships with others in your small groups. Moreover, you can still cross paths with other people in the church. The Kingdom of God, the church, is presented to you on different levels, just like different levels of society. When you are walking on the street you don’t complain that you don’t know most of the people. You know that things happen on different levels. Some things happen on the level of two or three people; some things happen on the level of a dozen people; some things happen on the level of 180 people; and some things happen on greater, even unknown scales. You can experience rich unity with other lives on many levels within your spiritual relationships. You can experience life unity with othersin small groups, and you can experience spiritual unity in the church. Through multi-layered connections with other people, you can experience the richness of the community and the richness of grace. In this way, your spiritual experiences will be even richer.
Interviewer: Pastor [Tim] Keller once mentioned that a small group is like a family; four or five small groups are like a clan; and the church is like a city. I want to ask a clarifying question. What exactly is the mission of a missional community? The heart of a missional community is Christ-centered. It is living for Christ. From a certain perspective, if you define mission too specifically, you will actually lose the focus of the mission. There is some tension in this process. Do you think this will lead to some other problems?
Pastor Wang Yi: In January of this year, the church decided to express our mission with the phrase “Christ is Lord. Grace is King.” We then decided that the path to carry out this mission is “Bear the cross. Keep the faith.” For the past few years we have consistently discussed a vision of three “hua.”At the moment we have divided them into two aspects: one aspect is the nurturing and formation of God’s children by the local church. In this regard, we emphasize the same things as the traditional house church: the preaching of the Holy Word, the ministry of worship (the sacraments as the means of grace are very important), and the formation of fellowship. This is the Word-centered church structure of the reformed tradition.
The other aspect is the gospel movement. The gospel movement is also split into two large parts. The first is preaching and church planting. Brothers and sisters here are clear that the church must establish churches that plant churches (Our church is starting one or two at the moment. Since the church split two years ago until now, we have established two church plants. We now have seven total.) Brothers and sisters know that starting church plants is the direction this gospel movement needs to go. The second can be generally referred to as the cultural mandate. We have education, and through education we support apologetics and fight culture wars. This is tied to both education and also mercy ministries. Brothers and sisters here see that the church is committed to preaching, church planting, education, and mercy ministries. Brothers and sisters clearly see that the church has a great burden for preaching, for church planting, for education, and for culture.
In preaching and church planting, we also greatly emphasize creative ministries. Street evangelism was first started last year by a few young people in their twenties. They go out and sing gospel songs and pass out gospel tracts. They also write their own music. Recently, musicians from our church worked with musicians from Taiwan to put on a public gospel concert. Our theatrical troupe had a lot of influence last year. Since theater is not a very thriving industry in China, without the church it would be very difficult for a person to create a theatrical troupe. People in Chengdu are starting to learn about our theatrical group. They are realizing that there is Christian group putting on plays. Some creative ministries are currently in the works. In addition to the Spirit’s leading in the church, we are seeing His leading in arts and culture in this city.
Interviewer: Throughout this interview, I’ve seen an Early Rain Covenant Church that others don’t see, a more steady-paced and multifaceted church. What we’ve seen in the past one or two months is an aspect of the church that has become more visible through short-term goals and conflicts. But the rest of the church—a church that is rooted in pastoral care and that seeks personal growth out of which brothers and sisters take the initiative to start ministries—this part of the church is like the bottom part of an iceberg. It seems like everyone is only seeing the top of the iceberg. The largest part under the sea is the real Early Rain Covenant Church.
Pastor Wang Yi: Because of conflicts with the government, Early Rain has suddenly entered into the public sphere and it is the church-state conflict side of things that has come to the forefront. In reality, if we did not complete the church split last year, or if we had split a year earlier, we would not have faced the May 12 and June 4 incidents with the strength we had this year because we would not have been sufficiently prepared for it. In these preparations, if our church was not fundamentally prepared pastorally and logistically, we would likely have not been able to face this persecution. After being raided, temporary revival may lead to trend of decline rather than a state of continual fervor.
Interviewer: When looking in from the outside, many things may grow to the point of becoming homogenized. But looking at your church from the inside, even though conflicts with the outside are great, when you get inside the church what you really see and experience is the gospel itself.
Pastor Wang Yi: Yes. We’ve deeply felt that more and more people in Chinese society today are very hopeless. They long to find a way out through religion. This is when the church’s voice is most clear. The church’s voice is distinct. When it is attacked by social and political powers and does not retreat and is not afraid, this actually attracts all classes of people. They don’t come here because they want to do the same things we’re doing, but because they want to obtain whatever it is that is driving these people to do them, which is the gospel itself.
Firstly, the pulpit must address the needs of this society. We must emphasize Christ-centered preaching in the pulpit. The church’s teaching places more focus on man’s fallenness (this would establish a connection point with people’s sense of hopelessness about one’s own job, marriage, society, and country). When this general despair is vividly portrayed, your hopeless heart can then find satisfaction in the gospel.
Secondly, we emphasize ecclesiology. In our membership class, we ask everyone to share about their experiences in public life. Their general response is either that they have none—before coming to church they have never truly participated in public life, or that they have lost hope in it. As urbanization progresses in China, a large number of young people are living in another city. They are really attracted to church life. So we especially emphasize evangelism through the church. Brothers and sisters here have basically formed the opinion that the best evangelism method is by bringing people to church. One story that left a great impression on me concerns a sister who once brought her father to church. After church ended, a brother came up and hugged him. She said, “My father has not been hugged like this by anyone for many decades.” That kind of thing has a great impact.
Thirdly, as we confront this general despair within society, we emphasize mercy ministries in the city. Even though very few people participate in these ministries, they really are necessary. Many people who feel hopeless about Chinese society are often encouraged and attracted by the church’s mercy ministries, and they are deeply moved. Our church greatly attracts some liberal intellectuals, young nationalists, human rights activists, and people from civic circles. When they see that the church is doing small, practical things, they are very moved. For example, one brother (who originally engaged in human rights activism everywhere) was baptized in May. His first time coming to our church was when he attended our June 4 prayer meeting last year. He was extremely shocked. He said he had never been to a place like this where so many people were openly commemorating June 4, singing hymns, and praying. He cried listening to the worship songs. Later, he moved to Chengdu to begin catechesis. He was just baptized this year and decided to serve the church full time. Many people who are hopeless about society come to know their Savior Jesus Christ through justice and mercy ministries in the church.
Interviewer: Regarding church justice and mercy ministries, how does the church remain focused on the core of the gospel and thereby keep people from straying from the gospel in their hearts and falling into the social gospel trend?
Pastor Wang Yi: First, we believe that [ministry] organizations function under the church. When this is the case, justice and mercy ministries are gospel ministries of the church itself. This is the anchor bywhich we strive to establish gospel-centered churches. Brothers and sisters and church workers who take part in this work are very aware of this. They basically all believe that if we are not spreading the gospel then this work is meaningless. One reason people tend to drift toward a social gospel is because of institutionalization. Institutionalization will produce an orientation toward ministries and result in a single goal, drifting away from the goal of the church. When we anchor ministries within the church, then ministries will not develop separate goals of their own. Moreover, the entire church exists within a gospel culture. Workers who are participating in ministries are being pastored within the church, so they have a comprehensive awareness [of the church’s mission].
For example, when we serve petitioners, we share the gospel with them. I remember when we first began the petitioner gospel fellowshiparound 15 years ago, all of the petitioners who attended our meeting thought the church would help them present their petitions and find lawyers. The first time we met, just as I was halfway through sharing, one person stood up and walked out because he felt that the church wasn’t there to help him. It was when we mentioned forgiveness that he stood up and left. During small group discussions, a number of those who didn’t leave said that they absolutely would not forgive the Communist Party. So those who wanted to receive concrete help from the church didn’t come anymore. Those who stayed very clearly knew the goal of the church and did not hold onto these false hopes.
Interviewer: There are many critics of the jointly-signed pastors’ statement issued by Early Rain Covenant Church. The question we’re concerned about is “Why did the church start a signature campaign like this? What is the church’s position and to whom is it speaking?”
Pastor Wang Yi: That’s a good a question. The church is not simply speaking in order to defend itself. It is not as though we must speak up for ourselves because we are going to be beaten. God has given the church the role of a watchman. Therefore, the church has a mission to let the world know who the church is. Through the existence of the church and through the gospel it preaches, the world also must come to understand who the world itself is. So this is actually related to apologetics and missions.
Looking at the example and experience of the church throughout history, we see that as the early church faced more than 100 years of continual persecution by the Roman Empire, there arose a large number of martyrs and apologists. In addition to martyrs, there were also many apologists who defended the faith, telling the world that was persecuting the church, including the emperors, what we believe, why we believe it, why we do what we do, and why we hold to these positions. There has always been an apologetic tradition throughout church history. This was also the case during the Reformation. Luther and Calvin both wrote these kinds of apologetic documents defending the church’s faith. In Chinese history, Wang Mingdao wrote We, For the Sake of the Faithin 1955, which is also an apologetic work. We, For the Sake of the Faith is more of a personal essay rather than a jointly-signed document or declaration.
When the government persecutes the church, we don’t think it is only harmful to the church. In reality, it is also harmful to the government. Even unbelievers are harmed because their opportunity to hear the gospel is diminished. To the church, it is not just us who are being suppressed. The whole world, the whole country, all people are harmed. The blessing of God might be removed, and He may discipline and judge them because this is something God is displeased with. So the church has the responsibility to proclaim these things to society and to the authorities.
From this perspective, we are not fighting against the persecution of the church within the public square using the language of the public square. This isn’t “fighting for rights.” The church explicitly refuses to appeal to worldly authority. We do not bring up the constitution, and we do not bring up laws. We do not say that it is wrong for the government to do this because it violates the constitution, and we do not say that it is wrong for the government to do this because it violates its own laws. We don’t mention these things. We only mention our faith. The reason it is wrong for the government to act in this way is because the Bible says it’s wrong. We believe the Bible, we believe God, and therefore we believe this action is wrong. We are not the only ones who will suffer loss. You will also suffer loss. The whole country will suffer loss. So we have the responsibility to proclaim this to society.
If we do not speak, then we have not fulfilled our responsibility as watchmen. This sin will then come upon us. But if we tell the world, and the world still keeps doing what it wants, then this sin has nothing to do with us. This is the responsibility of a watchman. So we only appeal to biblical faith. We do not appeal to any sources of secular authority. In essence, this is a gospel act. It is an apologetic and missional act. It is not a human rights movement. It is not an attempt to defend or fight for our rights in the public square.
Some say that the new regulations violate the constitution and that we should call for their abolishment or for a review of their constitutionality. This is not a religious appeal that a church or a group of pastors should make. I think it is great if Christian lawyers and intellectuals make this appeal on these grounds. But when pastors represent the church, our position is presented purely on religious grounds.
This declaration does not present any specific demands, and it is not written to the National People’s Congress or to the president. It is simply a declaration of pastors. Of course, we hope that everyone will see this declaration. We hope that the authorities, the leaders of this country, and the people will see it. We hope that Christians and non-Christians will see it. Because we have presented this joint declaration to this society, to this world into which the church is sent with a gospel mission.
Moreover, why do we insist that it be pastors who speak out? Because the focus of this persecution is directed against an ecclesiology. The goal is not actually to make every person renounce their faith but to prevent believers from gathering in one place. Why is the government tearing down crosses? Because you have publicly influenced this society. So how should the church respond? We respond to the government’s suppression of ecclesiology precisely by continuing to uphold our ecclesiology. Therefore, we are asking pastors to stand up and reveal their identity as pastors. I am not bringing this up in my role as a Chinese citizen (if this were the case, it would turn into a human rights movement). I am a pastor, an elder, a preacher. I stand before the flock, I represent the flock, and I act as a role model for the flock.
The Chinese church at the moment has not yet become an open church. There is not a strong consensus within church circles.Under these circumstances, if pastors don’t speak out then the church will not know what to do, and many believers will not know which course to follow. So at this point pastors are not only responsible for the churches and congregations where they reside, they also have a shared responsibility for the Lord’s flock. China has so many churches. Churches in many places are small and weak. Some places may not even have pastors. They need to be comforted. Through the clear voice of churches, we can encourage them and help them affirm and hold onto their faith. We can let them know what the basic attitude of Christians should be as they face these situations. So in this sense, the joint statement instructs and pastors the Lord’s church in China, the Lord’s flock.
Pastors who sign the joint statement may face increased danger. The decision of whether or not to sign the joint statement is not made based on considerations concerning how it would benefit one’s church, but rather on considerations concerning how it would influence the Kingdom. From another perspective, this burden is a shared burden. As more pastors sign the joint statement, they divide up the pressure among themselves. From a nationwide perspective, this is actually a kind of burden-sharing. This allows churches that are under a lot of pressure to reduce that pressure, and churches that aren’t under pressure can take upon themselves some of that pressure. This is the how the Body works together.
In my article “In the Face of Persecution, What Will I do?” there are more personal considerations. It contains some suggestions that pastors and churches can refer to for help in their Kingdom work. But the purpose of this article is different from that of the joint statement. I’ve shared with church colleagues and brothers and sisters that if someone wants to discuss something with you, the simplest method is to first show your cards. If you do this, you will be at ease. After you have thought clearly about what you want to undertake and what you’re willing to undertake through the grace of God, you can place that thing to the side. You don’t need to think about it anymore. This has also helped me to make my own resolutions. After I communicate this resolution, in reality I also hope that relevant government departments will see it. This reduces the cost of communication. Some things become easier if you already know what I’m going to do. This is also a kind of psychological preparation for me, for my family, and for the church. Because when you aren’t quite sure what cards you’ve got, you are continually thinking about them. But when you’ve decided for sure, there is nothing more to think about. You are free.
7. The Renewing of Life
Interviewer: I want to ask a relatively pointed question to Pastor Wang Yi. The fact that everyone paid so much attention to you between May 12 and June 4 illustrates the problem of people paying too much attention to you, so much so that some aspects of the church get covered up. Moreover, many people will say that Wang Yi is doing these things to become famous. Regardless of whether they are done on the street, online, or on Wechat, many of them are done for the sake of fame. How would you respond to these questions?
Pastor Wang Yi: I don’t generally try to explain [myself] because some questions (for example, whether I am doing something for fame) are not asked from the perspective of the church and faith, but are judgments about a man’s heart and way of doing things from a worldly standpoint and mentality. So I think that if these different voices are appearing inside the church, the essential reasons are likely as follows:
First, they don’t know me. There are all kinds of criticisms of me on the internet, and they influence people. When you have already made up your mind about some people or things, that is how you will view them. It is difficult to defend myself against these people. I will not respond to them or try to publicly defend any of my actions. There are negative comments about me in the public space, and these negative comments will influence some people who do not know me very well. On the one hand, I can understand why this happens. But on the other hand, I have no way to explain myself.
Also, I don’t think the church has learned or is aware of how to consider questions from the perspective of God’s kingdom and the gospel movement. First of all, like I just said, an old gospel movement has already passed, and a new gospel movement needs to arise. The essence of the Three-Self Movement is that this country wants to domesticate the church and make ita part of itself. From this perspective, the Three-Self Movement has, for all intents and purposes, succeeded. Its success lies in the fact that within the Chinese church today, a relatively large number of churches have successfully been domesticated by the country. Many house churches have also been influenced in some degree by the Three-Self Movement. Even though they haven’t joined the Three-Self Church, in reality they have been internally influenced by it. For example, Zhou Enlai told the Three-Self Church that the church cannot take to the streetsanymore. Both the house church and the Three-Self church have obeyed these words. Until today, they have become an unwritten rule internalized by you.
The second reason is upholding the independence of the church, upholding the sovereignty of the church before the state. When this happens, the church is upholding the sovereignty of the church within private domains, upholding faith through basic Bible reading and prayer, upholding worship on the Lord’s Day. Upholding the sovereignty of the church through these few most basic things is the house church’s position. Over these past ten years, the house church has unavoidably begun to become known in public society. The church is maturing. It is no longer hidden. Through preaching and teaching the church is also participating in and responding to society. Much preaching is actually a response to social problems. The church will engage in mercy ministries like during the Sichuan earthquake. The church has already inevitably become an active presence in society. Under these circumstances, how can the church maintain its sovereignty and independence before the state? When we describe this problem in terms of church-state relations, we make it too narrow. Or, in other words, we enter into somebody else’s framework. Even though church-state relations refer to the mutual relationship between the church and the state, when we use this term, we seem to be speaking from the perspective of the state and not the perspective of the church and of the kingdom of God. So recently, as I’ve spoken to brothers and sisters, I have often used the phrase “church diplomatic relations” to describe it.
The third reason is I have a deep sense that because of the expansion of the internet, the church and the general public in China have experienced a period of liberalism over the past ten years. The values of liberalism have influenced the Chinese church. Because I used to be a liberal, I pay attention to social phenomena. In my preaching, I will also occasionally use them as examples. I have recently seen many pastors and preachers commenting in great numbers about social issues in their friend circles on WeChat, reposting articles in great numbers and writing things that express the sentiments of average Chinese citizens. This trend toward liberalism has become a very widespread phenomenon in the Chinese churches over the past five or six years. Ten years ago, most pastors would not have done this. In my friend circles on Wechat, I never repost any social news. It is only during prayer or when I’m talking about the gospel that I may say one or two things about the news. Since believing in God and serving in the church full-time, I have never written an article that is not related to the gospel.
Interviewer: Pastor Wang Yi, personally speaking, after going from being a liberal to a pastor, where have you seen the greatest personal transformation, either in your thinking or in your life?
Jiang Rong: Throughout this process, I’ve seen a great transformation in how my husband expresses love and care. Because Wang Yi is a man who likes to think, he doesn’t pay attention to people. He was not the most sensitive person. But after going through these experiences, I’ve realized that he has changed a lot in his preaching, in his actions to serve his family and the church. In the past, he would think that as long as he explained an idea clearly you should understand it. He wouldn’t patiently and caringly walk with you through the gap between the word and the day-to-day experience. I’m not saying that he now fully walks with people in their growth, but he is now very conscious about doing this. I also think he is very selfless toward his family. As I’ve gone through these things, there have been times when my heart was weak and my body tired. Even when he is also tired, he still serves our family with joy.
For example, church workers come to our house every week for Bible study. He asked me a few times if we could invite everyone to our home for dinner in the evening. I always hesitated because once you start it you have to do it to the end. I wanted to wait a while until I had enough strength and energy to do it, and then I would think about it. Then later he said, “You don’t need to cook. I’ll cook.” And then he simply began by telling everyone, “Those of you who get off work late can come to our home for noodles.” Then we had a fellowship meal once every month. Throughout all of this, he took the pressure off me, and he relieved the tension that everyone felt trying to hurry over to our house. He made the food himself; even if he is really busy, he still remembers to cook noodles for everyone on Fridays. He will also make sure to spend time walking with our child and me through our growth. As long as he is at home, he will lead family devotions. He regularly takes our child on a “date” to watch a movie or do something. Even if he has a lot to do, we will still chat for a while in the evenings.
Pastor Wang Yi: For me personally, the most basic transformation is in my thinking. A liberal sees individual rights and the individual as the foundation. This is completely contrary to Christianity and the conservative gospel. The beliefs I held before I believed in God are what I criticize now. I’ve also seen that liberal ideology is continually fermenting in the minds of young people. Many in the younger generation use individual rights as the standard to make sense of the church. They use their individual selves as the standard to make sense of what is happening in the church. Last year, I wrote an article listing a set of values that conservative churches should hold. What the church holds is completely opposite of what liberalism holds. The church values community. It does not eliminate the individual, but it values community. The significance of the individual is made clear and fulfilled in the context of community. The church values responsibility over individual rights. The Bible teaches self-denial and responsibility, not individual rights. The impact of liberal ideology on the church is actually very great. I think this is at the root of many of those comments about the incidents between May 12 and June 4. They are made within the linguistic context of liberalism, and they are rooted in conspiracy theories and fear of Chinese politics. They speak with the language of liberalism and fail to assess things from the church’s standpoint and from God’s kingdom perspective. If you assess things from a church and kingdom perspective, even if your views and mine are completely opposite, it doesn’t matter because the language behind them is not the same.
I’ll give another example. This is my own personal reflection on this.I think I’m very different now than I was before the constitution was amended. Because before the constitution was amended, I still wanted to connect with some pastors and tell the National People’s Congress, “We believe that what you are doing violates the constitution and goes against our faith.” But after the constitution was amended, I thought this was completely meaningless. What does amending the constitution mean? Its ideology portrays the dominance of the Communist Party and the supreme authority of atheism in this country. What does this mean for the church? Does it mean that our attitude will be completely different from the past? There is something else that happened after amending the constitution, namely the unification of party and government. The Chengdu Cultural Affairs Bureau is now no longer part of the Chengdu city government but rather part of the Municipal Party Committee. The Religious Affairs Bureau is also no longer part of the government but rather part of the Provincial Party Committee. This is no longer just about church-state relations but church-party relations. What does this mean for us? The independence of the church has become a more pressing question now than it was in the past. In other words, the focus of the government’s attack is ecclesiology. But the government is not just attacking Christianity. It is attacking the transformation of the whole society. How can the church protect its independence and sovereignty in the midst of this social transformation? So when you think about the question of whether the church should hold prayer meetings, and you do so from an ecclesiastical perspective, you will not consider whether May 12 or June 4 are sensitive dates. Because when you consider whether a certain day is sensitive, this is not out of a consideration of ecclesiology, it is not proceeding from the standard of the kingdom of God and the gospel; it is not proceeding from the church’s gospel burden for lost souls in the midst of these events. The government says, “Don’t go out onto the streets.” Even though you haven’t joined the Three-Self Church, you have already internally accepted this command. They are saying, “Don’t discuss politics. June 4 is sensitive. Don’t talk about it.” Even though you haven’t joined the Three-Self Church, you have already absorbed the Three-Self ideology into your bones.
I have gone from being an individualist to an ecclesiasticist, from believing in the supremacy of individual rights to emphasizing responsibility, sacrifice, and courage as the highest value standard for Christians. This is the kind of preacher I have become.
Interviewer: Let’s consciously look again at what “openness” means from the perspective of biblical theology. Even though you used the word “openness” when you speak, I think this means something different from the “openness” that the church spoke about ten or twenty years ago. What does openness mean to you?
Pastor Wang Yi: A dozen or so years ago, when the church spoke about openness it wanted to become a part of public society. That openness was defined as being recognized in the realm of society, which was symbolized by legalization, maybe even having a gospel position—the church being given more space to do more things (even opening a door to advocate for some kind of universal values within civil society). First of all, from the perspective of a pastor, this is not our line of thought. But intellectuals may speak like this. For pastors, this might not be their line of thought but rather a kind of linguistic strategy. “Doing this is good for society, generating healthy power for a socialist society.” This is the kind of rhetoric they use because they are speaking to the government. But as a strategy, it has a weak ecclesial ontology. So when I speak of openness, I am not talking about becoming a part of mainstream society or obtaining a position in mainstream society. I am saying that that the house church in essence has a tendency to privatize itself. The house church may not be conscious of the church’s place in the universe and in world history.
In the past, we hid underground when we met. It appeared as though we didn’t have any relationship to politics. But in reality, it resulted in a high degree of politicization. This is the point I want to communicate. You are viewing yourself through their framework. You understand yourself as Christians meeting together. We don’t need to establish a church. We’re just meeting together. This in reality is the Chinese house church’s privatization of self-knowledge. It reflects a low view of eschatology. You are in reality understanding yourself according to the rationale of this world. It is not a spiritual understanding. The church is shining, open, and bright. When I talk about openness, I meant that the church must openly manifest itself in the world. God wants to show his church to the world: “This is my church, my children, the body of Christ on earth.”
Ephesians 3:10 says, “…so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” God has placed the church in the most open places throughout the whole world so that everyone will see it, in order to display the his wisdom, especially his wisdom in salvation. From this perspective, we need to correct the church’s understanding of itself. The kind of openness I’m talking about has nothing to do with legal status. I don’t care whether the government recognizes us or not, whether it legalizes us or not. The church is already open. What openness means is that the church doesn’t need to be recognized by the government in order to exist openly. The church has existed openly from the beginning.
Practically speaking, we want to strengthen our ecclesiology. The vision of “three hua” is actually a kingdom perspective of the church. Of course, it’s not easy to find a form of expression aimed at the current situation in China. Our ecclesiology is weak, and not just from the perspective of the formation of churches—no one is being appointed to holy offices and confessions of faith are not clear– but also in our understanding of ourselves — Who am I? What relationship do I have with world history? If the supreme God is sovereign over all the kingdoms of men, then what relationship do I have with the kingdoms of men? (Interviewer’s note:our macro-narratives and micro-narratives are not centered on redemptive history.) I’ll give an example. When I was taken in for the first time on May 12, they said I was being charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” They used as evidence a few articles I wrote after September about the religious regulations, including the article “When the Police Come Knocking.” The part they were most offended by was not the point I made about the constitution—that according to Chinese law these regulations are wrong – but rather that I said they are evil from a religious perspective, that they are hostile to Christ’s church, that they are hostile to God. That man said that this was the most intolerable portion because I used an entirely different set of language. He said, “How can you use the word ‘evil’?” I said, “Evil is a moral and religious term. If you believe in God, then there is such a thing as righteousness and evil in relation to him. If you don’t believe in God, then saying you are evil is just like saying you are ugly. There would be nothing for you to be embarrassed about. Why then are you so anxious?” First of all, he didn’t like to hear that. And second, it was difficult for him to talk about this in political terms,because I was using religious terminology. He sensed that he and I were talking in different realms.
Interviewer: So, on the whole, you have switched realms in your logical framework and linguistic norms. This change of realms is done with the church at the center. Between May 12 and June 4, have you consciously been acting from the realm of the church and not entering the realm of politics? Have you considered this or are you aware of this?
Pastor Wang Yi: Yes, we have. In our legal training, us church workers have been speaking and acting this way. We refuse to obey the entirety of the new religious regulations. Why? Because they run contrary to our faith. According to the Bible, this law is wrong. They will say, “This is what the law says,” and we will say, “We are Christians. The Bible is our highest authority.” This is generally our standard response and appeal. We don’t discuss questions of the law. Those are for lawyers to discuss. Our team of lawyers will file lawsuits. They will use legal terminology, and of course they will also emphasize our faith. But the church directly speaks the language of the Bible. The highest authority for Christians is the Bible. The way we often expressed this in the past was, “The religious regulations are wrong because they violate the constitution.” But since May 12 and June 4, we have given up this way of speaking. Even though lawyers will speak this way, the church has completely switched to using church language.
Interviewer: When you say that we must manifest the gospel through the cross, what do you mean by “the theology of the cross” and “the way of the cross”?
Pastor Wang Yi: The first aspect concerns eschatological views, and the second concerns the fact that the future world has already entered into the present world. Because of sin, the present world is an inversion of the world that God created. The cross flips this inverted world back around. The gospel has a strong eschatological nature. The good news of the gospel is not good news about how this present life is transformed. Even though this life is part of it, the focus of the gospel extends to eternal life. In this present life the gospel subverted by sin, the good news of eternal life must be manifested through subversive means—the means by which Jesus saves us. The cross is what we believe, and it is also the means by which we believe. The cross is not only the content but the form. This form tells us that the world is not yet complete—God’s creation is not yet finished. My life is also not complete when I leave the world at 80 years old.
How then do I manifest an invisible world? How do I show my true wealth in this life? I show it practically through poverty. How do I display resurrection power? Through suffering. I can suffer. I have the ability to suffer. I can give because I have. What I give testifies to what I have.
Just like my classmate once said about Desmond Doss in the movie Hacksaw Ridge, he wouldn’t use a weapon because this had to do with his faith. How did those people know that what he said was true? Simple—they beat him up and saw how he reacted. If, after being hit, he got angry and hit back, then this would prove that what he was talking about wasn’t real. But if, after being bullied continuously, he still kept saying the same things, then what he said was true, or at least he believed it was true. So Christians witness for Christ in this world through the subversive means of the cross. The one is the subversive work of the cross, and the other is the unfinished nature of the end times. My life, God’s creation, and the entirety of world history are all unfinished. The cross means you build your hope on the future instead of realizing it in the present.
Interviewer: Pastor Wang Yi, in your article “The Cross and the Landfill,” you spoke about the theology of the cross in a very unique way. During your church’s retreat last year, you also spoke specifically about this topic. How has the theology of the cross affected the pastoral care of the church and your personal life?
Pastor Wang Yi:In my own assessment, there is a strong consensus among church workers about the theology of the cross: because of the gospel that we believe, the church must walk the way of the cross. In the past, this consensus was not clear or strong, but now it is very clear and very strong. In their preaching, the different speakers all preach a theology of the cross and the way of the cross in different ways. As for the congregation (I can’t say for everyone), grace and the cross seem to have become two focal points in their understanding of the gospel through the preaching and pastoring of the church. I’ll give in an example. On May 12, May 28, and June 4, the church often sang the hymn “The Old Cross is My Glory.” When we were being detained inthe police station we sang “The Old Cross is My Glory.” This worship song has become our theme song this year.
8. Words to the Church by the Congregation
Brother A: I’m grateful for God, for my brothers and sisters, and for our pastor. Thank God for giving us good shepherds and preachers who are able to preach the true Word, who take responsibility for burdens that the world cannot carry, and who comfort those who are suffering. This is the power of an indispensable faith.
Sister Ji: May the brothers and sisters of Early Rain Covenant Church, in the midst of these external pressures, increase in their love of and trust in the Lord and desire even more to walk the way of the cross with the Lord. May their faith be strengthened. They have a reward in the Lord.
Brother Li: I want to thank the church. The faithful service of our pastor and the team of elders and deacons have allowed us to receive better pastoral care in every area. I am truly thankful! I thank this church, and of course, ultimately, I thank God!
Sister Zhang: I love my church! I really love my church!
Deacon He: My greatest desire is that everyone would face the coming persecution with unity and joy, for this is what God has allotted to us. We must face it joyfully and not speculate about God’s reasons. We must move forward according to what God has appointed to us.
English translation provided by Moses, Ryan, and Brent Pinkall of the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.