Editor’s note: How does a church under pressure stay renewed in the gospel of grace? For 70 years, house churches in China have grown amidst cultural marginalization, political disenfranchisement, and periods of active persecution. In recent years, a growing movement of Reformed, urban house churches have begun to articulate an important theology of ‘walking the way of the cross’ which shapes their ecclesiology, evangelism, and discipleship. As North American churches navigate the increasing pressures of a polarizing culture, there is much to learn from our brothers and sisters in China.
This essay is adapted from a seminar at the summer 2023 PCA General Assembly.
Saying it was hard to lead over the last three years is an understatement. Our church has a beautiful diversity of about 25 nations. With that came a multitude of thoughts and cultural opinions on all kinds of things: Covid, race, politics, and finances. Pastoring was extremely challenging.
Along with that, for Covid reasons, our church was kicked out of the school where we had been meeting. In the midst of everything, we were homeless. For the first four months of Covid we met online, then, for 19 months, we met in a parking lot. I was not prepared to pastor a church in parking lots.
Chinese pastors have learned how to pastor in tumultuous times. They have learned what is essential about gospel ministry. They know what you can hold onto and what you can let go of, even if you are in parking lots.
Where did I find encouragement in this time? I believe walking with the Chinese church helped me not to resign. Here are a few things I have been reflecting on.
Suffering Is Normal and Essential
I have needed to learn that suffering as a pastor is normal and essential. Chinese pastors are not surprised by suffering. When they signed up for ministry, they signed up to suffer. I didn’t. I signed up because I loved to study theology, wanted to use my gifts, and felt a sense of calling to ministry. I did not wed my call to ministry to a call to suffer. Yet these last years have shown me suffering is not just the call of global pastors or international missionaries, it is the call for everyone. Every single pastor signs up to suffer for Christ.
Suffering is not something to be afraid of, but is essential for the growth of every church – even churches here in the U.S. The church came into being through Christ’s suffering, and the church will continue to grow to fruition through suffering. Union with Christ is the key to all this. We know this theologically, but we have had to learn how to live it out practically.
A Great Cloud of Global Witnesses
When I suffer as a pastor, I am not alone, but am in fellowship with a great cloud of global witnesses. These witnesses exist in history past and future, but they are also in history present, and we have them as a cloud of witnesses to show us how to walk through suffering. These brothers and sisters are not surprised by suffering. They have already been ministering in times of suffering. I am not talking about personal suffering, but an era of church suffering. I haven’t walked through that. Maybe some minority cultures have walked through more suffering than me, a member of the majority culture, but I have had to learn how to suffer, and how to lead a suffering church.
When I suffer as a pastor, I should not use it as an occasion to question my calling, but should see it as an affirmation of my calling. Suffering should affirm us that we are following the crucified Savior.
How many other American pastors could instruct me on how to pastor through 23 months of church homelessness? I think almost zero. Maybe now some in North America have experienced that. But when the pandemic started, there was no one I could call. But I could call Chinese pastors and talk to them, because they have been on the move for a really long time, and they have learned how to pastor in tumultuous times. They have learned what is essential about gospel ministry. They know what you can hold onto and what you can let go of, even if you are in parking lots. I found myself in a beautiful fraternity of global pastors who could help as I planned for the next Sunday of worship no matter where we were worshipping that week.
Suffering Affirms the Pastoral Call
When I suffer as a pastor, I should not use it as an occasion to question my calling, but should see it as an affirmation of my calling. Suffering should affirm us that we are following the crucified Savior. In the midst of the pandemic, at various points I was tempted to interpret suffering through the lens of my own ministry. Maybe, if I preached better, counseled better, if I was better leader or we had a clearer vision – maybe then we wouldn’t suffer. Looking back, I absolutely made mistakes in the pandemic. I have learned a lot through the last three years. But I also know that we suffer for doing good as we follow Jesus.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
When I look at Chinese brothers and sisters, I see that circumstances are outside their control. I look at how the Chinese church maneuvered in Covid, and realize they are not suffering because they are bad pastors. They are suffering because this is hard. I can reinterpret suffering through the lens of “following Jesus is hard.” I do not have to make suffering a referendum on my own pastoral ministry or the ministry of others.
Jesus followed his Father and endured suffering. Why would we expect any different? Watching the resilient faith of Chinese pastors as they leaned into their union with Christ is beautiful and encouraging.
Suffering is not a time to step back, naval gaze, and question ourselves. It is a time to lean forward and love our neighbors.
The end of union with Christ is not suffering or crucifixion; it’s resurrection. We have learned where to hope. In the midst of suffering, we hope in Christ and in the new city to come. The Chinese church is looking ahead. They live in their eschatological doctrine. This, here, is not a lasting city. This is not a lasting country. We seek a city that is to come.
Suffering Is the Time to Love Others
Finally, when Chinese pastors and churches are in the moment of suffering, that is when they are more prone to lean into mission and loving their neighbor. They already have Christ. Suffering is not a time to step back, naval gaze, and question ourselves. It is a time to lean forward and love our neighbors.
Corey Jackson is the Senior Pastor of Trinity Park Church in Cary, North Carolina.
Pray the Lord will use suffering to make you and your church more like Christ.