Editor’s note: This fall, Hannah Nation wrote for byFaith magazine on how interacting with Chinese has encouraged and awakened American believers. She spoke with several PCA pastors about how reading the writings of Chinese house church believers has encouraged, challenged, and blessed them in their lives and work — and helped them stand firm to persevere in their own challenging times. This month, we are re-publishing that article in several parts (you can check out the first half here).
In a “dog eat dog” society, many house churches seek to adopt postures of service, sacrifice, and prophetic preaching.
The Chinese house church pastors I know love China deeply. These same pastors are brutally honest regarding the state of Chinese society. Over and over again, Wang Yi writes about the gospel against the backdrop of the hopelessness Chinese citizens feel — about marriages and families, workplaces, or the callousness they perceive in society.
In one moving essay, Wang Yi describes the world as a sinking ship, a ship that is not our final, eternal home. But it is still a ship that we need. He writes, “It is only on this old ship that we can understand the form of the new ship.” He goes on:
The key is faith, and faith needs a stage. Faith is like a master ballet dancer dancing gracefully on a dilapidated stage. On the one hand, as long as the dance is beautiful, what does it matter if the stage is in tatters? Alternatively, imagine how glorious and resplendent it will be the day this master dancer performs on a magnificent stage. For now, however, God says that the value of the dance must be expressed on a dilapidated stage.
Rather than resenting society for its brokenness, many house church pastors lean into servitude.
Rather than resenting society for its brokenness, many house church pastors lean into servitude. House churches were on the front lines of the response to the disastrous Sichuan Earthquake of 2008. When Covid-19 hit, they quickly responded to physical needs. When not addressing national disasters, they are present in unassuming ways. Again, from Wang Yi: “… as we confront this general despair within society, we emphasize mercy ministries. … Many people who feel hopeless about Chinese society are encouraged by the church’s mercy ministries.”
Even this often challenges the narratives of Chinese authorities. The church’s role in serving and protecting human life is often seen as subversive because it implies that the actions of the authorities have been inadequate or even harmful.
For many in the PCA, house churches willingness to suffer for their cities is glaringly noticeable. Kelly Kapic, professor of theological studies at Covenant College, observes that Wang Yi talks about martyrdom as an important sign of Christianity. There is a rise in conversations about persecution among many American Christians, but “it’s really not about suffering for your neighbor — it’s about suffering by your neighbor.” Wang Yi talks about it differently. “He talks about love — constantly talking about identifying with the suffering of Christ, rather than taking vengeance on people.”
The church’s role in serving and protecting human life is often seen as subversive because it implies that the actions of the authorities have been inadequate or even harmful.
Jay Harvey in New York City observes that this posture seems directly tied to the house churches’ understanding of themselves as a minority group in society. He says, “This is actual suffering. So much of what can be protested in our circles is theoretical.” While fear of persecution leads many American Christians to retreat, “Wang Yi wants to be out of the house, he wants to be public. That’s the whole reason he is in prison, because he’s not content with [hiding in] the house.” Going on, “You see him, as a cultural minority, as a leader of a church that is a cultural minority, trying to advocate for his people. They know the state has its sphere and the church has its sphere, and the state should not be interfering in this way. But, if you let the church be the church, we’ll be the best citizens, not the worst.”
Ultimately, perhaps it simply comes down to our expectations for Christian life and ministry. At a seminar during the PCA’s most recent General Assembly, Corey Jackson, senior pastor of Trinity Park Church in Cary, North Carolina, spoke about what he has learned in his own pastoring by walking with the Chinese house churches for more than 20 years. As a former missionary with many ongoing connections and relationships, Jackson told listeners that house churches have challenged his expectations for what a pastor’s calling entails. He says:
I’ve learned that when I suffer as a pastor, it is both normal and essential. Chinese pastors are not surprised by suffering. When they signed up for ministry, they signed up to suffer. I didn’t do that! I signed up for seminary because I love to study theology, I wanted to use my gifts, I felt a sense of calling to the ministry, and maybe I’d have some fun, too … there are a lot of reasons. But I did not necessarily wed my call to the ministry to a call to suffering.
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I’ve learned that when I suffer as a pastor, it is both normal and essential. Chinese pastors are not surprised by suffering. When they signed up for ministry, they signed up to suffer. I didn’t do that!…My Chinese brothers and sisters are teaching me that suffering is not something to be afraid of, but rather it is something that is essential for the growth of the church.
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But the last two and a half years have shown me that the call to suffer is not just a call to the global church or the international missionary. It’s a call for every pastor. My Chinese brothers and sisters are teaching me that suffering is not something to be afraid of, but rather it is something that is essential for the growth of the church, even here in the United States.
Chinese house churches invite us to understand the church’s sacrificial posture toward the city, even when the city aims to do the church harm. After all, as Kevin Smith reminds us, “We are Americans. We think it has to pay. Is it worth it? [Chinese house churches] remind me, yeah, Jesus is worth it. And his kingdom is worth it … Suffering will not have the last word over God’s people. The last word over us is glory.”
Hannah Nation serves as managing director of the Center for House Church Theology and as content director for China Partnership. She is an editor of Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church (Kirkdale Press, 2022) and Wang Yi’s Faithful Disobedience: Writings on Church and State from a Chinese House Church Movement (IVP Academic, 2022).
Pray for Western church leaders to be encouraged and challenged by the Chinese church’s attitude toward suffering.