Editor’s note: The following is Part 5 of 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 and the entire English translation here. To understand the people and places discussed in the article, please refer to China Partnership’s Early Rain Prayer Guide. We will be sharing additional sections of the interview in the coming weeks.
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?
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.
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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.
English translation provided by Moses, Ryan, and Brent of the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.