Living Out Theology to the Utmost, Part 3: A Church That Preaches the Gospel Every Sunday Morning

This is third post in a weeklong series relating the experiences and observations of a Chinese house church pastor visiting, evaluating, and learning from an American church. These posts were originally posted in Chinese on his personal blog with the aim of helping and encouraging his fellow pastors. Check back every day this week for new posts in the series.
 

We must first answer two simple questions.

First, if someone who had never encountered the Christian faith came to your church on Sunday, heard a sermon, earnestly listened and took notes, would he then be able to clearly know what the gospel of Christ is by the end of the service?

Second, when our brothers and sisters witness [for Christ] at their jobs or share about their faith in their circles of friends such that those friends and coworkers are willing to discuss matters of faith, how many of these brothers and sisters have enough faith in their church to say to their friends and workers, “Come to our church this weekend?”

At this point, in order to avoid the misunderstanding that this is an Emerging Church, let me first talk about the Sunday sermon.

TPC’s yearly preaching schedule is very rigorously composed, generally made about half a year in advance; even guest speakers must be part of this schedule and preach according to the designated passage. We were just in time for a series on the Book of Ephesians, on which each preacher would speak for ten to twelve services. The series was titled “The Many and the One: Studies in Ephesians” and the topic of each sermon was based on the theme of what we have in common – a common story, a common hope, a common shame, a common life, a common identity, a common witness, a common love, a common goal, a common darkness… this was clearly the result of a lot of study and hard work.

On the Sunday that I was in attendance, the sermon was the third [in the series] on Ephesians 2:1-3, “A Common Shame.” The sermon took 35 minutes and though short, it was direct about what mankind has in common: sin. It pointed out the commonality and inevitability of sin, pointing to many traditional and postmodern points of view, using reductio ad absurdum on them (making this [sermon] relevant for the local Christian families and UVA students). Once the pain and tension of each point was described to the extreme, the pastor then lead everyone to Christ, describing how Christ took care of the matter of sin on the cross, and brought the great comfort of the gospel. There were hardly any wasted words in these 35 minutes; [the sermon] was evidently a labor of love that was the result of quite a bit of hermeneutics and contextualization.

My assessment of this sermon is as follows. It was faithful to the original text, unafraid of addressing the sin in men’s hearts, and used a clear [presentation] of the gospel to bring the comfort of salvation. This is not easy to do in the current American society; I believe that they can because of their faith and loyalty to the power of the word of God. I hear that this church’s Sunday attendance ratio is rather high [compared to other churches]. At least as far as this sermon went, both the Christian and non-Christian would consider it both cutting and comforting.

This should be a reminder to all of us preachers – when there are problems everywhere in the church and we are beset on all sides by ministry pressures, the absolutely necessary, perhaps even sole necessary task is to faithfully and correctly handle the word of truth. If your church has one or several preachers who are willing to put deep roots into hermeneutical preaching and raise high [the name of] Christ, then I am truly thankful to God on your behalf!

“Whatever subject I preach, I do not stop until I reach the Savior, the Lord Jesus, for in Him are all things.” – [Charles] Spurgeon


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Today, ideas such as Christ-centered preaching and hermeneutical preaching are gradually influencing the pulpits of China’s city house churches. Regrettably, we have also encountered the [phenomenon] where an excellent speaker preaches a Christ-centered sermon, but for a variety of reasons the audience can only absorb 60% of the content, with only 40% left after lunch, and one is lucky to have retained 20% of it by Monday.

In three details of this Sunday’s worship, I saw how TPC strives to make the sermon enter into the congregation’s hearts.

  1. Hymns

The worship with hymns is one of the major factors in conveying Sunday’s message; I have experienced this in person during many worship services, and even seen several Sundays ruined by unsuitable hymns. I don’t mean that the singing is bad or that the music quality is low, but that the selection is incorrect, or in an order that doesn’t make sense. Everyone should know that the importance of hymns is second only to the sermon in terms of conveying any Sunday’s message. Christ-Centered Worship is a book that every worship leader and preacher should study diligently, as it is one of Bryan Chapell’s major works.

TPC’s hymns have gone further than the foundation of “Christ at the center.” In giving thanks to God, one of the hymns called “What the Lord Has Done in Me” left a deep impression. The hymn was done four times – first, a solo from a sister in English; second, a solo in Spanish from another sister (I was surprised because I thought Spanish was big only in California); the third time featured only music, with a disabled sister using sign language to perform the lyrics; the fourth time, the entire congregation joined in. When I thought such a presentation was strange, I remembered that the theme for this series on Ephesians is “The Many and the One;” this was no show, but another way of conveying the pulpit message! While we of the church in China may not yet be able to reach this level, we can put more thought in arranging the various aspects of the Sunday service so that the congregation can focus better on the sermon message.

  1. Adult Sunday School

Previously, I mentioned how many overseas Chinese students come to this church on Sunday, many of them brought by their friends. As students who have English as a second language, it is quite difficult to listen to the sermon, especially since Pastor Craig’s vocabulary is by no means simple; I even heard him using some flowery rhetoric. And so even if they could pick up anything, the students who were left in a bit of a fog were invited to attend Chinese adult Sunday school. This is similar to the small group discussions and prayer we have after our own meetings, but better organized and with clearer goals.

First, the leader selected a hymn that was sung [earlier] and had Chinese lyrics. That day, the hymn [picked] was “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and in singing together, all sense of unfamiliarity disappeared.

Then, the leader reviewed the entire sermon in Chinese, and recommended a commentary on Ephesians (that the leader wrote himself and even signed), hoping that those who freely took it would be able to read it. [The leader] also invited everyone to share what he or she got out of the day’s sermon and even gave the verbatim English manuscript to everyone. This was quite shocking to me. As every preacher knows, it is two different things to preach from the pulpit and write a manuscript worth giving to people. The paper was very well written; I could probably use it to study for the GMAT. I believe that some students likely read it when they got home, [as] I myself have read it over once again. Finally, we split into smaller groups to discuss the sermon’s personal application and share things to pray about. We then prayed together.

My response to this section is that as one who is more serious about preparing a sermon and the hermeneutical process during a sermon, I’ve always felt that 45 minutes is not enough time to preach. I always wish I could have 40 minutes to analyze the scripture alone, but that does not leave much time for application, not even the most basic principles thereof. When it comes to limited preaching times, there is a lot of tension between clearly explaining what the passage conveys and how to apply this to the different circumstances in the congregation’s lives. What I never hope to happen is that I try to teach the congregation what to do before I have explained the passage clearly.

Another major problem that exists for one who is earnestly listening to the sermon is that it takes a lot of thinking, and most of this happens in the brain’s short-term memory. If not reinforced that day, it will basically be forgotten. On top of that, no matter how clearly, accurately, or simply the preacher spoke, the one listening will always lose some of the message, either because they were not paying attention, or in the very process of thinking things over.

So it is important to proactively look back on a sermon and let everyone know what one got as well as what one missed. This also allows people to share what aspects of the sermon they focused on so that the congregation can minister to one another and discover [who has] the gift of teaching. While we are worried about finding those who are interested in the Bible and can teach, perhaps this practice can reveal such people. This is similar to how after watching a movie (I’m only making an analogy, as I have no intension of saying that church is [simply] like going to the movies), a group of friends gathers at Starbucks to drink coffee and discuss what they got out of the film, helping each other have a deeper knowledge and understanding of it.

The small group’s discussion continued the topic of the sermon and went deeper into personal application; it was even able to set up accountability for one another for the following week while they put [the sermon] into practice. Comparatively, the small groups in China’s churches often leave topic when they pray for one another, turning into a small group that only complains and has a to-do list of who needs jobs and who has problems at home. For this reason, I call the small group at TPC one that [not only] hears the word, but also analyzes scripture. So long as God’s word is preached among the body of saints, then inner and outer change will be possible.

  1. Monday

I spent Monday at the church to see the elders and staff members, getting to speak with some members as well. I discovered an interesting point of commonality – they were still excited about the previous day’s sermons. They said things like, “Just [as] our pastor said last Sunday…” Truly, the culture of hearing the word has been established at this church, and the congregation is willing to let the word of God reform their hearts and actions.

 

Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors writing and thinking critically about issues related to the spread of Christianity in their nation. They are committed to preaching a grace-centered gospel, developing resources for the church, and loving China’s urban centers.

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Further Reading

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Qingdao: How to Pray
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Qingdao: Locals and Outsiders
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Qingdao: Good Soil for the Gospel
Read More

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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