In 1874, in his memorial to Emperor Tongzhi of the Qing Dynasty, Li Hongzhang, a Chinese politician, said that the situation he faced was “a great change for thousands of years”. Today in 2021, we can still be said to be in a new “unprecedented era of great changes”. The same is true of today’s churches, especially those in the post-pandemic era.
The COVID-19 pandemic weakened the prominent role of in-person gatherings and intensified the rethinking of ecclesiology. At the same time, many realistic thresholds in public and the environment are rising, which makes it difficult for the church to find the primitive, extensive, and friendly social atmosphere within religion that existed before the pandemic, especially from the last two decades of the 20th century to the first decade of the 21st century.
The real changes brought about by various environments can easily stimulate the tendency of Chinese churches that have experienced decades of difficult times, especially during the Cultural Revolution, to live more conservatively. Therefore, the vision of openness seems to have to sink in halfway through, and many churches have consciously returned to the basic needs of “survival” and stepped into the semi-underground way of meeting again.
However, the vision or purpose of the church is not only for survival but also for serving believers and the world, which are the truest manifestations of our service to God. Simply put, the church can’t forget its mission just to survive.
Perhaps today we are indeed facing a new “unprecedented change”, but God’s call to the church has never changed, and it has been so for thousands of years no matter how times change.
So, what is God’s calling for the church? Or what is the church’s mission?
From the teachings of the Lord Jesus, in a word, they are “the Great Commandment” and “the Great Commission”.
Human history has been changing, but God’s sovereignty and mercy are beyond these. His church also serves God, believers, and the world in different historical times and situations. What has changed is only the means and ways, which is the area where the church needs to exert its creativity most today.
For the history of Chinese churches, we can also find precedents to follow. Looking back at the history of how and when the gospel took root in China, it was not a friendly environment that foreign missionaries faced at first, and objectively speaking, it was more difficult than what the church faces today. However, according to their own advantages and needs of the Chinese people at that time, they creatively tried many ways, such as translating the Bible, writing books, and telling stories, opposing foot-binding for women and infanticide, establishing newspapers and magazines, creating and translating literature, introducing modern science and sports, caring for young children, and carrying out relief, etc. They then widely applied the three-legged ministry route integrating the church, medical care, with education for decades, which had a profound influence on China in breadth and depth. This can give us a great deal of inspiration today.
The experiences from 1950 to 1980 brought a very deep scar of suffering to the Chinese church that tried localization in the 1910s. On the one hand, it tempered its pure and passionate love for the Lord. On the other hand, it also had a habitual tendency of marginalization and recessive existence. The coexistence of these two styles led to the vigorous growth of local churches after the re-implementation of the policy of freedom of religious belief in the 1980s, but on the whole, it was through an “extensive running” mode. The driving force and result of growth were mostly a bright and hot religious manifestation - it was basically confined to the church-based mode rather than the European-American church as its foundation. Of course, there were many Christian ministries in culture, society, and life. Surely this has much to do with the historical and cultural foundation between China and the West, but on the other hand, it also reflects the “narrowing” of the belief manifestations and ministry outlook of local churches in China.
Today, in the post-pandemic era, Chinese churches, whether active or passive, have to broaden their ideas so that their faith isn’t just restricted to religious manifestations.
In the new era, it has at least three areas of manifestations that are worth trying:
1. Manifestations of socialization
Love can transcend religion and secularity, Christians and non-Christians, and races and cultures. Wayne Grudem summed up the mission of the church in his work Systemic Theology. In addition to serving God and believers, he emphasized a third point of serving the world. However, these three points are often ignored by Chinese churches at present.
Sociologist Rodney William Stark analyzed the growth of Christianity in the Roman plague era. In his book The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History, he put forward a brand-new and far-sighted point of view that the religious circles also felt: Christians believed that the doctrine of eternal life allowed them to enjoy inner peace in the plague, and at the same time, the doctrine instructed Christians to act, love each other, and sacrifice themselves for others. Therefore, in order to care for the sick, many Christians also contracted the plague and even gave their lives. The behavior of the pagans was the complete opposite. When the plague spread, they would abandon their infected relatives and friends, so even relatives were no exception. Sometimes family members were left on the roadside before they died, but they still couldn’t get rid of bad luck. In the plague, the noble moral character of Christians and their kindness to strangers made pagans feel inferior to themselves, which became a very important realistic factor for the rise of Christianity.
Over the past decade or so, one of the biggest dilemmas of religious organizations in charity was the tension between charity and missionary work, which led to distrust from the government. Nowadays, religious charity is facing greater pressure than in the past. Some scholars have observed that in charitable efforts such as bringing aid in the wake of a natural disaster, the religious identity of religious charitable organizations often makes religious organizations fall into “alternative embarrassment”.
Comparing the operation modes of many successful religious charities in Hong Kong, Taiwan Province, Europe, and America, we can see that these successful charitable organizations put the charity role above the religious role in their efforts, and their sociality is greater than religion, which is a key point worth learning from.
Practically speaking, it is not our teachings that can cross the church walls and social barriers and win people’s hearts, but the eternal love, which needs concrete actions. Therefore, the socialized charity needs further specialization and deepening.
2. Cultural manifestations
Broadly speaking, when religion develops to a certain degree, its presentation is a culture with faith as its core, and it is also an important part of the whole social culture. At present, the blending of the global village and modernization makes the human society present a state of coexistence of various religions and cultures.
The manifestations of religion can keep our faith in a stable and safe state within a small range, but the development of religion does not stop there as it will develop and become the most important element to promote and feedback culture.
Looking back at history, missionaries such as Matteo Ricci, Giulio Aleni and William Alexander Parsons Martin, as well as indigenous Christians such as Xu Guangqi, Rong Hong, Wang Tao and Mei Yiqi, who made far-reaching contributions to the development of Chinese culture, all had a great relationship with their religious beliefs.
By studying the Gospel of John and Acts in the Bible, we can also see that John and Paul at that time were sensitive to the culture of the region where they served. They were not only familiar with the existing culture, but also thought with the eyes of faith, and had dialogues and interactions with the local culture so as to enter it, update and create a new culture, which had profound influence.
Faith is penetrating and touches the soul. Culture is rich and all-encompassing. There are many forms of culture, not only literature, music, drama, movies, architecture, and other forms, but also the carriers around us, such as bookstores, coffee shops, memorials, museums, galleries, art galleries, or restaurants all of which have culture elements.
Faith can be a boost to protect and promote the diversity of cultural manifestations. These diverse cultural carriers and forms can also make our faith more vital and expressive.
3. Life-oriented manifestations
The slogan “Let faith come alive” has been a very popular phrase among Chinese Christians for more than a decade, which expresses the simple and sincere expectations of ordinary believers.
Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in the Bible are the main records of the law. Through these books, God teaches his children how to live out their beliefs. Apart from obvious religious manifestations such as sacrifices and festivals, many of them are details of life, such as the cleanliness and hygiene of homes, how to treat quarrels and fights, and how to treat vulnerable groups such as orphans and widows.
Life is trivial and realistic. Money and fame, relationship and self, being single and married, children and parents, suffering and success, aging and generation gap constitute life, and these are the real challenges that everyone must face in life.
Can our church and our faith provide unique and practical resources to help the vast masses in this world live a more meaningful and valuable life in times of pluralism and full of crises? This is a field of manifestations worthy of investment.
To broaden the manifestations in these three areas mentioned above and get out of the dilemma of religious manifestations, first of all, it is necessary for today’s Chinese churches, especially grass-roots pastors and leaders, to change their views. Instead of taking the church as the vanguard and main body of service, it should become the “rear base” of silent cultivation, helping to cultivate Christians from all walks of life, to enable them to take root in their beliefs, to equip them with the ability to serve, and then send them to serve in crowds to live out their beliefs extensively and richly.
A pastor of the Central Plains Church who started thinking and trying to transform several years ago said, “The real farm is not the church, but the world.” He said, “Drivers will go to the gas station, but they didn’t buy a car to live in the gas station which just helps. The gas station is not our destination. We enter the gas station just for us to walk on the road, so we have to enter the gas station to replenish. In the same way, we come to the church for spiritual supply, but the real farm is not the church but in family, society, and even the world. Otherwise, the church will say that the church is closed today, and we have no ministry to do. Our work is in the world, and so is Jesus’ sending His disciples everywhere. If we are confined to a certain church, it will be very difficult.”
May more churches and pastors see this, and let the Chinese church get out of her “Three Gorges of Transformation” and become a more mature and God-like bride of Jesus Christ.
- Translated by Charlie Li