Editor’s note: In order to reach the hundreds of millions in China’s pressure-filled urban centers, Chinese Christians are planting churches in cities across China. Pastor Hu Yongjie is among this group. In order to present the people of the city with a gospel that speaks to their lives, he believes that the church must understand the geography, history, and culture of the city, as well as the specific idols to which people in that context are drawn.
My church is located in the new technology and art center of Shanghai, near the headquarters of Alibaba Shanghai, Westbank Art Center, and the starting point of Adidas Runbase. We were founded in February 2020 [in the midst of the initial COVID-19 outbreak]. In sixteen months, we have grown from the sixteen people who came to the first service, to 120 in attendance on Sundays with another thirty to forty joining online.
First, as the founder of a church, I cannot deny that, in this very moment, I am shaped by the culture of Shanghai as a whole. I am not only familiar with the geography and history of the city, but I also love and am familiar with the culture of the city. This is not because of my own personal preference, but because I believe this to be the prerequisite and foundation for any church planter. When Paul arrived in Athens, he spent much time in the synagogues, (i.e. the city’s religious circles) in the marketplaces (the workplaces of Athens), and in the Epicurean and Stoic schools (the academia of the day). He got to know these places and learned about the idols of the city. This prepared him to preach the sermon which convinced even the magistrates in the Areopagus. We cannot point out cultural idols and preach a gospel which can be understood and believed if we do not enter into and understand the culture of the city.
Secondly, when we chose the location, we made it clear that this is a church in the city. Entering into the culture of the city, interpreting that culture, and expecting to influence the culture is in the DNA of our church. Even the very name of our church is itself less religious. After all, if we had named our church Covenant Church, maybe seventy percent of the people in the city would immediately think: “This church has nothing to do with me.” We are a church that exists in the city and gives life to the city. On Sundays, we try as much as is possible to use language that non-Christians can understand. I illustrate my sermons with examples from current events, or I draw on issues that brothers and sisters within the church are facing. We put a lot of emphasis on meeting in third spaces outside of Sunday gatherings. In fact, more than half of our brothers and sisters meet together each week in cafes, gyms, museums, and so on.
We often mention the balance between our dual identities of being rooted in Shanghai and sojourning in Shanghai. In the church, we have a map where we mark our workplaces and places of residence. We do this for two reasons—first, to find our neighbors, but also to reinforce the idea that when our church disperses, we are scattered throughout every corner of Shanghai, just as seeds are scattered about a field.
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Finally, as a response to the current cultural situation of our city, our church has also begun some ministries targeted specifically to singles, parents, and professionals. We help brothers and sisters to face the cultural situation of Shanghai, and to make biblical and gospel-manifesting responses to their context.
One last thing. As a preacher, I often ask brothers and sisters how that week’s sermon or Bible studies have helped them to face problems in their workplace or marriage. I ask them how they can find, in the Bible, relevant responses to the problems they are experiencing in their workplaces and their homes. As much as possible, I focus on specific vignettes. I want to train people to build bridges between what they see in the Bible and the practices of daily life. In the process of discipleship, I want to plant the concept of theological vision.
As I reflected on our church’s call to the city, I also spoke with a member of our church and asked him how our church relates to Shanghai. I also asked him how he views my work in engaging in dialogue with the culture of this city. I share his thoughts below. He said:
“This church returns to the biblical teaching that the church is in the world, but not of the world. We do not leave the seductive crowds of the city, but we also do not win over hearts by using fear and judging others with a critical eye. Rather, we are called to be light and salt in the city. I pray that the desperate and mourning souls of this magical city can find a heavenly home on this earth.
In my eyes, our pastor is always changing and growing. One year ago, just after the church was planted, he was more like a hardcore theologian, albeit one with an entrepreneurial streak. Every week, he spoke from the pulpit like the director of a movie, with each sermon its own cinematic show, full of ups and downs. Back then, he faced every problem within the church with a “come at me” attitude. As the church grows and our congregation becomes more diverse, many of the church’s problems can no longer be solved overnight.
What has not changed is that Pastor Hu still leads us back to the Bible. What has changed is that there is a greater emphasis on changing lives with lives. The goal is not to solve problems. Rather, it is to use the Christian life to influence and change the believers around us. In turn, these Christians will continue—to a greater and lesser degree depending on the individual—to pass on this culture of change to the whole city.”
Hu Yongjie is a pseudonym for a church planter in Shanghai. In his spare time, he enjoys trail running.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray for Pastor Hu and his church plant to bring the good news of the gospel to the busy and hectic culture of Shanghai’s art and technology center.