A study shows that 20% of Christians in general and 52% of young Christians say that they do not often go to church now. Instead, they attend worship online which is a new trend.
On May 25, 2020, an online seminar entitled, "The Positioning, Responsibility and Development of the Church in the Current Era" was held on Zoom. The speaker, Professor Zhang Zhipeng, visiting professor from Nanjing Institute of Technology, gave his thoughts on the topic.
What kind of era are we in?
Professor Zhang quoted from Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities": "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."
People of every era will be deeply touched by hearing these words. If we look at the future in 200 years, will that future only be the first halves stated in the quotations above? In other words, will the future become only the good part as stated in the quotation with the bad halves eliminated? NO. Professor Zhang stated that no matter how many years it takes, human society will not become heaven.
This is the limitation of human society which will never become a purest and best, because people are imperfect, as each of us is born this way.
The deeper revelation here is that human nature is unchanging. The yearning for goodness in human nature is unchanging. This indicates that people have a constant desire for better things and changes for the better. Looking at Chinese society at large, change and transfer are also what the current era demands from the country and its society. What changes does China need now? Professor Zhang emphasized three “changes”: globalization, information issues and legal enforcement.
Concerning globalization, Professor Zhang referred to the formation of equal and voluntary trade rules between countries instead of violent wars. For more than 2000 years, however, China has not had a rule to which the country needed to adapt. For instance, a rural person needs to learn to flush the toilet when living in a city. So as China has joined the World Trade Organization, China must adapt to new rules.
Regarding information issues, information transmission, for example, has long existed from the ancient times to the present. Beacons were used to send signals during times of war and birds were used for sending letters. These were methods of information transmission used in the past. Today, it is mobile phones or computers. From a development perspective, today's information transmission is far better and more efficient than in ancient times. However, efficiency is not the key to information technology. There is an idiom in Chinese, which when translated in English literally means, “greeting with eyes on the road”. At the time when the idiom was invented, people who met each other on the road or on the street could only greet one another by looking at each other. They were too afraid to talk in public because they were under a cruel and tyrannical system. Even a simple greeting was not given. Compared to ancient times, the Professor termed information issues in China today as "a transmission of information protected by freedom of speech."
Regarding legal enforcement, there were laws in ancient China of all forms, but they were different from the current laws. Professor Zhang believed that the current legal enforcement is constitutional and is widely agreed and accepted. A constitution is the most basic, public, and fundamental programme which stipulates to a certain extent what basic rights and behaviors are to be restricted.
To Professor Zhang, it is only by recognizing the issues mentioned above that the topic of how the Church should respond to this changing era can be discussed.
Why do we need a church?
From a secular perspective, Professor Zhang believes the reason why people have gone to church is because the Church has been able to solve their problems. To highly simplify people’s lives, most have only two problems throughout their lives: living – how they live, and death – where their spirits go after death.
Professor Zhang believes that faith is relevant to every moment of one’s life. Every part of daily life is about the acceptance and growth of one’s faith – to live, based on a faith or belief.
"You will face all kinds of major or minor troubles in life. A home you may hear irritating noises from construction work in the street. What should you do about it? What if your child is treated unfairly at school? What about your child's academic achievement? The reason for people having chosen to walk into a church is out of hope in having their issues resolved," said Professor Zhang.
With the support of their faith, people can better solve their daily life problems. After solving them, they are further convinced of their beliefs and realize the truth of their faith. Faith or belief must work for people so that they believe.
Professor Zhang answered the question about why people needed the church. The church is not only a spiritual place, but also an organization, an entity. This organization can proclaim the gospel to the world in order to save souls, but can also guide people's behaviors and actions in their daily lives so that they can better explore their faith in life.
Changes the Church should make
People are now reluctant to go to church. Maybe it is time for the church to reflect well about this matter. Professor Zhang thought that the church should first consider whether it can truly solve the believers’ problems. Actually, in China, many pastors in many churches are not very knowledgeable. It is not about having theological knowledge but rather about having knowledge apart from the faith. After someone loses their job, he can use his faith to restore their confidence in finding a job again. However, it is still necessary to learn about the employment. This shows the importance of having knowledge about sociology, economics, laws, psychology and many other disciplines.
Professor Zhang's advice to pastors was be open-minded and keep learning – learn what they had not learned before. It is necessary to master the basic knowledge of a discipline. To understand the basic factors behind the events that are changing society is essentially important.
His advice to the church was to first accurate position itself. A church should not be omnipotent--able to solve all the problems of all the people. Instead, it should address specific issues of its congregation. The core needs of believers should receive targeted services. In this regard, the early Western missionaries were very successful.
Zhang thought that, for example, the church could develop and improve the knowledge level of pastors who might in turn provide some intellectual and philosophical knowledge and other contributions to the society. Or the church might train rural believers in planting and breeding techniques so that they can alleviate poverty. This is a very good way of ministry. There are many areas of knowledge that can be taught for this kind of non-profit ministry. Some could tackle the problems of young people and some could train the disabled. There are fellowships targeting at the industry and business sectors who could provide training for enterprise development. In turn, wealth that is accumulated could be returned back to the society and used for social care ministries, for example.
How should a church position itself? Again, the answer is congregation-specific–-to understand the needs of your congregation. This requires that pastors and clergy in the church strengthen their learning and enhance their abilities through their own learning, and become able to assume the responsibilities necessary for this era.
- Translated by Charlie Li