Editor’s note: When the church encounters persecution, how will she respond? In 2019, several pastors shared their thoughts on how the persecuted church can and ought to face her troubles. In this first excerpt, a pastor shares how Early Rain Covenant Church responded once persecution hit — and how other churches can also prepare to face difficult times while remaining faithful to Christ.
This excerpt has been edited and condensed for both clarity and length.
Editor: In the midst of persecution, how can the church remain faithful to the Lord, and to the church’s mission and vision? (For example, amidst persecution, brothers and sisters might be fearful of oppression. It is also easy for feelings of doubt, suspicion, and distrust among believers to arise.) How can the church, as a unified and organic body, establish a system of pastoral governance when persecution is occurring?
Pastor Chen: A church under persecution is in great difficulty. Communication among members is limited. Believers face great pressure, and many spiritual challenges. The church’s leaders may have lost their freedom and be unable to carry out their pastoral duties. Under persecution’s pressure, the weaknesses and struggles church members experience are very real. At the same time, previous systems of pastoral care and governance may have been disrupted. How can a persecuted church remain faithful to its mission and vision?
This is a great challenge, and tests the very mission and vision the church professes. In the case of Early Rain, the church’s mission and vision became clearer and more concrete through persecution.
First, we face persecution in the gospel. Early Rain had a plan: different levels of pastoral care, coping mechanisms for various situations, and adequate preparation and training. That said, when persecution occurs, no one can adapt and acclimate as quickly as needed. How the gospel calls us to deal with the current situation of persecution is a central pastoral question.
Do brothers and sisters have courage to admit their fears and weaknesses to gospel light? Can they, at the same time, be strengthened by that gospel? Can we, with gospel strength, begin to restore church order and resume worship, instead of falling apart? Can we use the pre-established plan to start worship programs and sermon content back up as quickly as possible? (Early Rain, for instance, follows the Heidelberg Catechism.) That way, even if groups cannot gather, the church may be forced to disperse, but still remains united as one.
Second, we have confidence in the Word itself. As we continue to develop pastoral care, new church leaders will emerge. God uses the unequipped to pastor his church. These brothers practice preaching to one another weekly, give one another feedback, and then: they preach. Everyone is surprised to discover God’s Word is what truly shepherds us! God can use unequipped brothers to nurture his church; he does not need just Pastor Wang Yi. This is faith in the Word itself.
At the same time, gospel power is seen in how brothers and sisters respond to the Word. Those who do not sing praise songs or share the gospel in prison often find they are weak once released from jail. On the other hand, those who openly shared the gospel in prison have much better spiritual health once they are set free. Although they may have been disoriented at the beginning of their time in jail, as they gradually talk about the gospel, they earn the respect of drug addicts, thieves, and even guards. They experience repentance from their sins and faith in the gospel, and their hearts are set on fire.
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The Truth, the Spirit, and the Kingdom
Third, shape the church community in the truth. When a church faces persecution, brothers and sisters may experience suspicion and distrust. For example, some might be fearful they will be held responsible to manage donations. We must allow truth to shape relationships between church members.
Fourth, our witnessing should reflect our longing for our loved ones. But at the same time, we should also show the Spirit’s beauty and goodness as we deal with police and in the way we carry ourselves. This is true both in and out of prison. These testimonies are very precious.
Fifth, our view of the kingdom must be shaped in the gospel. How does the local church interact with her presbytery? During persecution, we can reflect deeply on this. When elders are absent and could not give communion, courageous and caring churches in the presbytery opened their doors, inviting persecuted members of Early Rain to join their service. Brothers and sisters took note of the connection between churches, and began to form the concept of the kingdom. Before, there was a strong “me” mentality; people thought their church would no longer be intact if they worshipped at a different church. But now, they are grateful to other churches for accepting them.
Ephesians says we are one body, and that body transcends any one congregation. We belong to the universal church. In the midst of persecution, church members began to become a deeper and more active part of “one holy catholic church.” They were grateful to see so many churches caring about, helping, and praying for them. Brothers and sisters realized they are part of Christ’s body. They do not gather in the name of Early Rain, but in the name of Jesus Christ.
Finally, during persecution, effective communication channels need to be established. This is an important part of planning. Now, using the Internet, we can dig up treasures from the past, like Pastor Wang Yi’s sermons. We can also share resources and pray for one another through these working communication channels.
Pastor Chen has been in ministry for more than 20 years. He and his wife are the parents of two adult children.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray for Chinese churches facing persecution to root themselves in the gospel and in Scripture.