Editor’s note: This series comes from a sermon given at a conference on discipleship for Chinese house church leaders. It was shared by a house church pastor who leads an urban church of young professionals and university students.
This sermon has been translated and edited from its original version.
Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors writing and thinking critically about issues related to the spread of Christianity in their nation. They are committed to preaching a grace-centered gospel, developing resources for the church, and loving China’s urban centers.
Discipleship that Unites Theology to Real Life
Thus far, I have explained the relationship between the church and discipleship. A correct understanding of the church brings about vital discipleship, and proper discipleship will build up a healthy church. These two are related. The problem with today’s church is that either our theology is ambiguous, leading to a misunderstanding of the faith; or our theology is orthodox, but far from practical application for daily life. John Frame, in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, redefines theology as the applications of the Word of God by persons to all areas of life. This rejects a separation between the interpretation and application of the Bible, which is the reason why many seminary students who study theology find they cannot pastor a church. Their theology has been separated from practice. This separation is the main problem in today’s church. To be useful, theology must be applied to daily life; to be fruitful, life must practice theology. The two are inseparable.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Small groups and one-on-one discipleship can help theology meet real life. In the process, we must focus on one goal, which not only resolves the harmful separation of theology and practice, but also releases the church from individualism and collectivism. There are many people in the church who view the group as the priority, lacking a sense of personal self; while there are others who view their personal selves as the priority, ignoring group welfare. As a result, some get lost in the group, while others leave the group to uphold themselves. The church must resolve these problems. The church is a place where you can find personal freedom (for we have been set free in the Lord Jesus), but the church is also an intimately connected community. Gospel-centered discipleship put the individual and the collective in their correct places, and bring us back to God’s original will for creation. From the revival of the early church, we see the gospel is not only heard, but also seen. Through the church, people perceived the power of the gospel, the kingdom of Christ, the household of God, and the church as the pillar and foundation of truth. Acts 2:41-47 describes the life of the church itself as the message of the gospel: the believers found favor with all the people, and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Developing a Gospel-Centered Culture
The early church lived out a gospel-centered culture of life and faith, and developed and promoted that life through discipleship. This gospel-centered culture, which was developed through discipleship, directly impacted the growth of the church. That is the healthiest method of church growth. Three thousand people repented after Peter preached his sermon! Even so, we may easily overlook that the apostles immediately made disciples of those who were baptized. The new believers were brought into relational discipleship. Along with the growth of these relationships, the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Brothers and sisters, not every church has a minister as powerful as the apostle Peter. Most pastors are unknown. Powerful pastors are rare; one per century would be good enough. The vast majority of pastors are like most families in the world: unknown and unnoticed. However, we can do discipleship in the church as Peter and the other apostles did. We can bring the congregation into a relational discipleship, build up the church to live out the gospel, and pass on a gospel-centered culture from generation to generation. Even though the church needs a powerful minister, it is more in need of a sensible minister who can shepherd the congregation according to scripture. When a church is functioning under this premise, and the church members are taught in this way, the church will grow and attract people to come to the Lord Jesus Christ.
I believe a church that is revived through groups is more likely to be sustainable than a church revived through the charisma of a leader. If a church’s revival relies on the great personal charm of a leader, the church will fall apart and decline immediately after the leader’s passing. However, if a church develops a gospel-centered culture (which is not only an audible message but also a viable lifestyle), then the members would teach their children and guide new believers in accordance with that lifestyle. Culture is very resistant to change. But once the church has developed a gospel-centered culture, not only is the foundation laid, but the church can also pass on the gospel from generation to generation. That church may avoid the tragedy of the new generation going astray once the old generation passes away. I always tell my church members that if our church ended with my death, I would have failed in my ministry and my service would not have been in line with God’s will.
A strong church can still healthily operate when the pastor is suddenly taken away. This is because the brothers and sisters of that church know and live out the gospel. Of course, the church I have been pastoring is far from what I have just described. Nevertheless, my goal is to create a gospel-centered culture and discipleship in the church. This may be a long-term process. The transformation is still undergoing, and we must work hard to reach the goal.
How did the early Church develop a gospel-centered culture in such a short time? The early Church was the apostolic church. The apostles’ godliness and power, including their calling, were beyond all measure. Another important fact is that their church members were mostly pious Jews that were converted. They were like old vessels in God’s treasury. After being renewed by the Lord Jesus, they became useful instruments right away. This was God’s marvelous preparation for the early Church. As for Chinese churches, we lack this groundwork. We are in the beginning stages of church development. It is hard for us to develop a gospel-centered culture and spirit in a short time frame like that of the early Church or the Puritans, who in their works and families lived out the gospel. We have to make more effort. If we in this generation may lay down the foundation, perhaps the next generation can bring about a greater revival.
Let us pastors rectify and reform the church pulpit, then church governance, and then small groups and one-on-one discipleship. We need to persevere, because this goal conforms to the Bible and the teachings of the Lord Jesus. I believe that, after some time, church members will talk about Scripture when they fellowship with one another. They will often say, “This is what the Bible says,” or, “That is what the gospel means.” They will intentionally return to the gospel when they counsel or teach one another. They will exemplify gospel centrality in their personal lives and families. On that day, you will find that the brothers and sisters have developed harmonious relationships, and they are committed to the church. They have been renewed and inspired by the gospel to grow and live as an intimate community. A pastor can leave this world with peace of mind if he has shepherded such a church.
May God bless us. Let us pray together.
We once again give you praise, thanks and glory, for your Word is so clearly disclosed to us in the Bible. Lord, we are grateful to have gospel-centered discipleship in these days. We must admit that, in the process of doing the works you have entrusted us, we have had a lot of weaknesses and have failed numerous times. However, today we want to say that, in Jesus Christ we will rely on God’s promises to promote discipleship in our churches, and we will rely on the power of the gospel to develop a gospel-centered culture. We ask you to rekindle the church in China, to revive each pastor and ministry leader here. Thank you for your grace that is with us.
We pray in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!
Translation provided by Jane and the China Partnership team.
How does gospel-centered discipleship resolve the tension between individual freedom in Christ and the connection and demands of a church community?
What does it look like for discipleship to put the individual and the collective in their correct places?