Pray, Plan, Persevere: What the Chinese House Church Teaches Western Churches Amidst COVID-19

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EF Gregory grew up in the American South East, but spent seven of the past thirteen years living and working in China. She currently lives in the Los Angeles metro area with her husband and three small children. Gregory serves as CP’s Assistant Blog Editor.


It’s a sight now ubiquitous among churches across America: the Zoom app open, familiar faces lined in little boxes across the screen. People starved of contact with one another gather to worship God together, apart. As the U.S. is now knee-deep in its own encounter with COVID-19, churches across the States have canceled services and moved online indefinitely. 

Thankfully, as the North American church confronts spiritual life under quarantine, we do not have to problem solve alone, but can look to the experience of our brothers and sisters in China. Chinese citizens first faced strict measures on January 23rd as China locked down Wuhan, a city of 11 million and the epicenter of China’s outbreak. More than two months later, life in China is now beginning to return to some semblance of normalcy as restaurants, businesses, and school slowly reopen.

There is no direct scriptural mandate for steps to take in responding to an epidemic, although the central command to love God and love one’s neighbor does provide the principle which ought to undergird all action. In my work with China Partnership, an organization dedicated to serving and resourcing the Chinese church, I have seen how Chinese churches and Christians responded to COVID-19. There is much for us to learn from their example. 

Pray

Christians are called to acknowledge that God is in control and seek him through prayer. Prayer is not secondary, but the foundation for every other proactive step. 


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Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, the home church of imprisoned Pastor Wang Yi, released a public prayer in late February. ERCC began by repenting of their own sin: “The people who are called by your name have sinned greatly against you. We honor you with our mouths, but our hearts are far from you… We despise the widows and orphans in this country and close our hearts against them.” 

American Christians can learn from this posture of humility and dependence on a sovereign God who is in charge of plagues and rulers. ERCC also prayed for authorities, for medical staff, for those afflicted by or struggling in the epidemic, as well as needs specific to their congregation. Christians can pray with hope for what God will do in the face of disease and tragedy, just as ERCC did: “Bless many through this disaster. As [people] reach their end, as they enter the valley of the shadow of death, may they meet the God of hope in their despair, and come to know the Lord of life in the darkness of death.”

Plan

Church leaders need to prepare for the drastic changes brought about by COVID-19. Pastors and leadership must think strategically and proactively about how to care for their communities as they wade through this epidemic. As churches face these issues, Chinese churches have already weighed their response to physical separation – in China’s case, brought about not only by coronavirus, but also by persecution and government harassment.

 Hebrews 10:25 says clearly that Christians should not neglect “to meet together…but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” As Christians pray for wisdom in responding to COVID-19, concrete steps must be taken in order remain faithful to scripture’s directive.  

One church in Shanghai elected to suspend normal services due to COVID-19; instead it conducted a private broadcast of its service and encouraged members who were not ill or in an at-risk group to continue gathering in small groups to worship together each Sunday.  The pastor wrote to their congregants: “[The command in Hebrews] is not just for churches during normal times, but especially for churches in ‘wartime.’…In that case, why can’t the church meet as usual? Our primary concern should not be to avoid person-to-person infection, but to avoid causing panic and uneasiness to our neighbors, property management, neighborhood, and community. As we love our neighbors and carry one another’s weaknesses… we have suspended our meetings.” 

Different local realities call for divergent responses. Although no one yet knows how long and to what extent quarantine measures will remain in effect across the United States, pastors and leaders must diligently plan for all eventualities. Infrastructures throughout the U.S. were caught off guard by the extent and ferocity of COVID-19, despite seeing it rampage through China, Italy, and Iran. Churches must not play catch up by optimistically hoping for the best and turning a blind eye to the worst, but should prepare and plan for the long haul impact of a virus that may drastically change the way Americans live and worship. 

While this epidemic will create innumerable challenges, the opportunity to love communities and individuals through their pain is actually a special opportunity for the church to emulate Christ. As the Shanghai pastor wrote, “…Bearing each other’s weakness is the teaching of the Bible and one of the reasons the church exists.” American churches should embrace the wisdom of their Chinese brothers and sisters and also look to bear the weakness of others.

Across China, Christians served as the face of compassion in a nation that publicly laments its lack of altruism. Churches in Wuhan and elsewhere handed out face masks to delivery people and street workers, and looked out for neighbors and elderly people unable to buy groceries or supplies. “We want to share the full gospel… and also show people how we can live,” another pastor in Shanghai said. His church plant successfully launched at the height of China’s battle with the epidemic, thanks to daily online prayer meetings. “We are not in the [midst of the] epidemic panic, but we have people coming to the church who lost their job because of the virus. So we pray, fast, and give.”

Christ-followers should be prepared to share the hope they have because of Jesus’s death and resurrection. One pastor in Chengdu shared the gospel via telephone with the sick mother of one of his parishioners, who believed and received Christ before she died. The gospel was again shared at her online service, and many friends and family members also professed faith. 

Persevere 

The COVID-19 epidemic will call Christians to persevere for many months, not weeks, as the world fights this pandemic. Americans are not known for their patience. But Christians can learn much from Chinese brothers and sisters who have endured restrictions and quarantine measures for more than two months now. Again, more than just covid-19, Chinese Christians have faced persecution and difficulty for decades. Chinese Christians are uniquely prepared to bless the global church with the wisdom gained by hard-fought experience in the fires of oppression.

In the midst of extended social distancing, Chinese churches have seen God do amazing things. One Christian shared, “Praise the Lord, my parents – who do not believe – finally heard the gospel [watching the service online] with me at home.” Other churches even planned online evangelistic events as people were stuck at home for week after week. Some churches have begun gathering each morning for online prayer together. The epidemic has forced creativity and originality. 

A house church pastor in eastern China exhorted his congregation to remember that, even as the situation in Wuhan was grim and physical death separated many families, “This is not the greatest tragedy. The greatest tragedy is being separated by eternal death.” 

Often, it is when mortality is at the forefront of human minds that God chooses to call people out of spiritual death and into spiritual life. In the face of disease, the daily compassion and gentleness of Christ displayed in his people, the church, can offer great hope to an anxious, weary world.

The Chinese church planter found encouragement for these grim days in scripture, saying, “Even in the Bible, we rarely see churches built up in peaceful and prosperous times, because people do not find the gospel precious in those kinds of times.” 

Perhaps, as Americans realize that our money, power, and comfort cannot ultimately shield us or our loved ones, we will prize the gospel anew and cling to God as our hope and Savior. Perhaps we will learn from the Chinese church and see God’s hand of mercy, even as he confronts us with our collective helplessness and anxiety. As the old hymn says, “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears reliev’d.”

 


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More COVID-19 Resources

We’ve put together a special page devoted to ways we can learn from, love, and pray alongside our Chinese brothers and sisters during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

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Further Reading

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The Internal Cross: A Pastoral Letter
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The External Cross: A Pastoral Letter
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Qingdao: How to Pray
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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