Editor’s note: Each month, CP is intentionally praying for a specific issue Chinese house churches face. This month, we are praying for discipleship within China. We are privileged today to share wisdom from a house church pastor who is passionate about discipleship, and works within his own church body to integrate evangelism—discipleship of those still outside the church—with building up and enriching those who are already a part of the church body. He shares here his observations on the need for discipleship within the Chinese house churches, as well as many of the common obstacles and pitfalls house churches face as they seek to implement discipleship.
Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors thinking and writing 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.
CP: What is the biggest challenge when it comes to discipleship for Chinese house churches right now?
Wang Jianguo: The greatest challenges to discipleship in the Chinese house churches are regarding the concept of discipleship and persecution.
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CP: What is needed to address these challenges?
Wang Jianguo: In terms of the concept, many house churches do not have discipleship mechanisms or awareness. This is a big problem. They may just have gatherings, and this is considered good enough. Even when they have trainings, some use unorthodox materials or simply go online to download materials, some of which contain mistakes.
I visited a church recently, and the person who led the training transferred a lot of his wrong understanding to the participants. For example, because Peter had a mother-in-law, the leader extended the meaning, saying that in order to be a pastor, a person had to be married. That is just one of the mistakes. The leader did not think about how neither Paul nor Jesus were married. There are problems with this kind of discipleship.
Sometimes house churches use materials with heresies in them, but they cannot tell until someone else points it out. First, due to theological issues, they have a need for discipleship, but do not know where to turn. Second, the church as a whole is not strong in doctrine and orthodox theology, so they implement discipleship programs from charismatic traditions or other places. As a result, they become more confused about the truth.
This kind of concept of discipleship does not work. The pastors of the churches are not formally trained, so they do not have an orthodox doctrinal foundation. Meanwhile, they do not understand the need for discipleship, nor do they know how to disciple. It is not only the textbook teaching, but also the methods and the content that they do not quite understand. Some just give lessons, which is not bad. Some do not know how to train disciples, how to transform their lives, instruct in basic church life, and so on. All this is lacking in many churches.
CP: What does discipleship look like in the middle of persecution?
Wang Jianguo: Persecution causes people to think that, if they are able to meet on Sundays, that is good enough; discipleship can be done online. In the long run, this can produce good results, and it is worth cultivating this method. But this lacks face-to-face interactions. Online activities cannot replace spiritual communication and interaction, so this kind of discipleship is less personal and more intellectual.
CP: Many leaders are recognizing discipleship is a big need for Chinese Christians. But at the same time, many house churches are young and may not know what discipleship looks like in practice. What are some ways churches are trying to address this issue?
Wang Jianguo: There is a lack of systematic, comprehensive thinking regarding discipleship. Many churches do not realize that the content of sermons from the pulpit are discipleship. In fact, preaching is the first important component of discipleship. Many brothers and sisters are able to participate in fifty-two weeks of this type of training. In fact, theological themes and methods of biblical interpretation and truth can all be manifest through clear teaching from the pulpit. However, many house churches are weak in this. On the other hand, basic discipleship consists of different levels, moving from initial faith formation, to general discipleship, to more advanced discipleship. It is difficult for small churches to achieve this kind of advancement. Thus, many churches have inadequate discipleship.
Some churches—for example, some overseas college student ministries—simply focus on discipleship. They train five or six people at one time, hiring a variety of teachers to equip them. I know some organizations in China use this method. They do not want to grow their numbers, because they think it could become dangerous. They accompany five or six people for two or three years, then move on to a new group. I personally feel that although this can be effectual, it does not help the general house churches in their way of doing discipleship, because it is very resource-intensive. The average house church does not have that many resources.
The Reformed churches may have a greater sense of discipleship, because they have a higher demand for truth. They want to have discipleship in place. But the problem is that the discipleship of the Reformed churches is more rational than personal or pious. For example, they are weak in prayer and evangelism. Instead, there are various trainings on doctrines and confessions of faith. This kind of discipleship will produce big-headed Christians, and even weakens the love of the church.
It is difficult to do discipleship. It needs to be comprehensive, not only in terms of knowledge, but also in the practice of piety, which includes love for others, and evangelism. It is not easy to do discipleship well in a comprehensive way.
CP: How did you grow and develop your own personal view of discipleship?
Wang Jianguo: Discipleship is related to the specific context and growth of our churches. It is difficult to simply copy a discipleship system from another region, country, or culture. In the case of my own church, our discipleship mechanism has been developed gradually and organically.
We used to have a weekend class serving as one of our discipleship trainings. Then we started an evangelical Christian discipleship program and decided to make this the main focus. This became our night school, open to brothers and sisters from inside or outside of our church. Later, we began a more advanced weekend class called Bible Study Class. Its content is much deeper and broader, including systematic theology, exegesis, homiletics, church history, apologetics, biblical counseling, and even some survey courses. Students of this advanced class are selected from laypersons, who have already acquired a certain amount of training from our night school and are interested in continuing their studies. We invite them to join our weekend class. This class does not happen weekly, but about once every two months.
On top of these classes, we have gradually extended our training for new believers. I teach on some important topics, which are divided into about ten lessons: about who God is, who Jesus is, what the Bible is, whether evolution is right or wrong, salvation, their understanding of sin, and why they should attend church meetings.
Lastly, there are basic applications, such as marriage and work. This serves as a gospel class to build the foundation of faith for many people. In the meantime, it is an evangelism class for people who are interested in joining us. Generally speaking, I would consider a person who has taken these courses as someone who has been trained in the Word and who has built a foundational framework of faith. Through this process, we can observe if they are truly willing to continue to commit to the church.
These are the ways of discipleship at our church. By giving our example, I mean to say that our discipleship program has been developed in an organic way, according to our own needs. If there are brothers and sisters who cannot join weekend class after finishing night school, we will start to host book clubs, or have coworkers to lead groups for various studies, such as simple theology. Or we try to again open some classes that are similar to the weekend ones.
In this way, we have more discipleship opportunities for laypeople, on top of the evangelical Christian discipleship program. Then, I ask people to participate in our morning prayers, or evangelism or small group leader training, in hopes that they can organically integrate into the church, become group leaders, and expand the kingdom of God. Because of the gospel class, there will be a constant flow of converts coming in. In this class, new believers will be strengthened, and unbelievers will become believers.
That is how our small groups, like the young adult fellowship of our church, keep expanding and increasing in number. That is also why we need to train small group leaders and provide continuing advanced studies for them, so they can continue in this learning system of the church. Besides this, they also learn how to care for others, how to evangelize, and how to lead every talk into a spiritual conversation, or to see every situation through a biblical lens. These things need to be established organically and gradually, at least that is the case in our church.
There are some other churches that have a more advanced curriculum that has nothing to do with the gospel, because their discipleship is geared to believers. I have taken a look at the discipleship programs of such churches, especially some Reformed churches that are not Christ-centered. They have more systematic theology studies or various forms of discipleship, but the problem is that they are weak in evangelism. As a result, they are only entertaining themselves. It is obvious that they think they are better than others, because other churches don’t know this or that. However, in reality, they cannot grow, because they don’t share the gospel.
Christ-centeredness and gospel-centeredness are very important in the church’s evangelism and discipleship. It is essential to share the gospel and train disciples to follow the Lord. After we share the gospel, we need to follow up with discipleship in order for the church to grow steadily.