Editor’s note: This month an American church planter shared how his relationships with Chinese pastors have strengthened and helped him through the last several years of tumult and unrest. Witnessing the perspective Chinese pastors take toward their own suffering has encouraged him to persevere in his own call.
This past March, leaders of a large church in the PCA invited me to speak to them about how they can be more effective in reaching the diverse neighbors in their surrounding community. Toward the end of my presentation, I told them: if they want to welcome minority people into their church or into churches they plant, they must understand it will be costly. Though adding diversity to their church and its plants is beautiful and Biblical, it makes leading and pastoring even more challenging than it already is.
I recounted some of the painful losses we endured during the two-plus years of the pandemic in the church I pastor, Trinity Park Church in Cary, North Carolina, where we have people from 25+ ethnic backgrounds in our church community. It was nearly impossible for our medium-sized, multiethnic church to navigate conversations about Covid and masking, George Floyd and race, and politics surrounding the 2020 election.
While we were enduring this already difficult season, the school we rented for worship was closed due to Covid restrictions. Overnight, our church became homeless. During the next 23 months, we would meet online for four months, and then outdoors in three different parking lots for 19 months.
I leveled with these leaders: at times, pastoring our homeless, multicultural church through the pandemic felt like more than I could endure.
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Toward the end of my presentation, one of the elders asked me: “So Corey, why are you still doing this? What has kept you from resigning?”
My answer: The main thing that kept me from resigning has been walking alongside the global church. The encouragement I received from my friends who are fellow pastors and church planters in China made the biggest difference for me because they helped me connect my suffering to the person and work of Jesus.
As I’ve navigated this season, I’ve learned at least three things about the gospel and suffering from my fellow pastors and church planters from China:
1. When I suffer as a pastor, it is both normal and essential.
Chinese pastors are not surprised by suffering. They have understood the call to ministry as a call to suffering from day one.
When I graduated seminary and took a call as a church planter in North America I did not necessarily see the call to church planting as a sign-up for suffering. But these last two-and-a-half years have shown me that the call to suffering is not reserved for the persecuted pastor or the foreign missionary. The call to suffering is for every pastor and every Christian who faithfully follows the Lord Jesus – even here in the United States.
My Chinese brothers are teaching me that suffering is not something to be afraid of, but is the path the Lord ordains for the growth of the church. The church came into being through the suffering of Christ, and it now grows as the church around the world, even in America, suffers for his name.
2. When I suffer as a pastor, I am not alone, but am in fellowship with a great cloud of global witnesses.
As I look to the past cloud of witnesses mentioned in Hebrews 12:1, the martyrs who have gone before us, I also look to a present cloud of witnesses – to my fellow pastors and church planters around the world who are keeping the faith through suffering. Suffering as a pastor can feel like a lonely calling, but I have found a sense of belonging in this global fraternity of pastors and leaders.
Consider this – how many American pastors could advise me in pastoral leadership as we walked through 23 months of church homelessness? A few, but not many. American churches our size have rarely worshiped online or outside for nearly two years.
But when I looked across the ocean to China, I found many leaders who could relate to our Covid journey through inconvenient lockdowns, worship service changes due to weather, and gathering in parking lots. In my friendships with Chinese pastors and planters, I found a global cloud of witnesses who were trusting God with me for the next Sunday of worship.
3. When I suffer as a pastor, I should not question my calling but should see this as confirmation that I am following Jesus.
I was tempted at various points over the past two years to interpret our church’s suffering as a result of my leadership insufficiencies – that if I had preached better, pastored with more care, or led with more clarity, our church could have avoided the suffering we endured. And looking back, I admit I see clear examples of weakness in how I pastored through the pandemic. But as I walked with the global church, I was reminded that even good, Christ-centered leadership is often accompanied by suffering.
My Chinese pastor friends have each endured suffering over the past two years, particularly due to the on-the-ground impacts of China’s zero-Covid policy. Watching these faithful brothers suffer while doing good helps me see my troubles not through an American lens – where church suffering is often considered to be a result of leadership failure – but through a gospel lens, where suffering is the way of following Jesus.
Jesus perfectly followed his Father and endured suffering for his obedience. Why would we expect our call, as imperfect pastors who follow Christ, would be any different? The struggle of my fellow pastors in China reminds me suffering for doing good is not an occasion to question my calling, but instead is an affirmation of my calling.
Were it not for the friendships I enjoyed alongside pastors in the global church, I might have lost my way during these past two-plus years. God, by his grace, surrounded me with Chinese brothers who helped me understand that suffering is on-the-job description of anyone who follows behind a crucified Savior. As I press on, my fraternity of Chinese pastors encourages me to believe that suffering is never the end of our journey with Jesus: the joy of the resurrection is always waiting for us on the other side.
Corey Jackson is the Senior Pastor of Trinity Park Church in Cary, North Carolina.
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