It has been over two centuries since Protestantism was introduced into China. A special model and culture have been formed in the Chinese church owing to different reasons. However, the church in China faces various challenges and problems due to its harsh circumstances and the rapid development of the times. More and more pastors discern the necessity of church transformation and try to find a way out to help the church adapt to the new environment.
Rev. Cui, who was born in the 1980s, is one of them. He used to be disappointed at and critical of conservative churches, then founded a new church in southern China. It was like "opening up a new undertaking" during which he experienced all kinds of setbacks, difficulties, controversies, and dilemmas. He began to realize that although critical ideas were enlightening, it was not easy to put them into practice. Therefore, he put his criticism aside and attempted to build a new "open" urban church more responsive to this age and young people.
Rev. Cui shared his case of church transformation in an interview with CCD.
The intention of starting a new church
Rev. Cui became a Christian 15 years ago. He stayed in a closed and conservative church and served there from 2002 to 2011, witnessing the church's revival to its decline. The church attendance reached around 1,000 in its prime but fell sharply to only dozens in its waning days.
He held that the church should reform itself and absorb the young generation to become vital, but it remained conservative when he left the church. Then he went to study in a seminary and during the school days he served in two or three local churches.
Despite having a busy schedule, he didn't have any hope. "I felt that I was an employee. " Rev. Cui said. His church leading pastors seemed moderate to subordinate younger pastors, but they were actually in a commanding positioning and treated them as hired hands. He proposed pursuing higher theological education but was rejected by the church due to his lower educational attainment.
In 2011, he and his family moved to a city in central China and intended to found a new church with two brothers there. Motivated, he finally commenced to implement his idea, but the new city didn't celebrate their arrival with welcome, but a straitened circumstance. His previous ministry experience proved useless in the new "undertaking".
He had to start from scratch. The "entrepreneur" and two partners studied whatever category of theology and church construction they could find on the Internet. They also ran into trouble due to learning anything they could access. It was impressive that not knowing how to start a church, they found themselves incapable and prayed to God at five or six in the morning.
In the early days of church founding, they tried a variety of evangelism methods, but none of them worked. Meanwhile, a brother who lived with him in a rented apartment gave up the church founding, leaving Rev. Cui alone. "At that time I thought people around me were unreliable and so was the church. I have to depend on myself. " The pastor added.
The good news was that some factory workers reached by a brother who arrived in the city before Rev. Cui came to the church. But the booming days didn't last long. His conservative preaching style inherited from his previous church failed to be completely transformed. As a result, the old-fashioned and inflexible sermons were unattractive to the congregation and a portion of people left the church.
He had to make a fresh start again. When he suffered from the biggest difficulties, he thought of turning back three times, but finally persisted.
Reflection and practice
Rev. Cui wanted to plant a migrant-worker church, but it was unsuccessful after years' of effort.
Feeling discouraged, he came in contact with a Christian teacher who also sensed the urgency of church transformation. Not only giving him support and encouragement, the teacher also initiated gospel salons with him. New young people attended his church and brought vigor as well. However, a new problem emerged. Seeing the effectiveness, some surrounding conservative churches began to secretly push his church aside out of envy. "At that time I fully despaired of churches which stick to traditions and lost hope in them... We disregarded their voices and just have our head down doing our job."
Since then, he reflected on traditional churches and criticized intensely the problems of traditional churches online and offline, but the criticism "scared away" his members who held the traditional faith.
Meanwhile, he found Internet evangelism was a good way and tried it. The result was remarkable that 80% to 90% of his current congregation came to know his church through the Internet. He invited people to attend lectures and those who chose to stay in the church were mainly well-educated with stable jobs and high incomes. At the same time, many newcomers left because his sermons were overly critical.
As more and more people left the church, Rev. Cui discovered three disadvantages of excessively critical sermons:
1. Even though many critical thoughts were enlightening, it was not easy to put theory into practice and even some thoughts were not practical. Jesus was incarnated and came into the world to let people understand truth and the kingdom. He preached Word and became an example.
2. People with mental illness couldn't bear criticism. Sometimes people struggling with mental disorders came to the church. Hearing critical sermons, they didn't receive any healing and comfort but were hurt and left. That was not what a church should be. So Rev. Cui changed his mind and decided to build an environment of love and warmth. They should have trust in the church before hearing truth.
3. Excessive criticism was not helpful to cohesion. Ministries could not be carried out with personnel. The staff was a sheet of loose sand if there was no cohesion. Criticism brought a failure in building close relationships between people.
Understanding the consequences of too much criticism, Rev. Cui paid attention to offline ministries, things relevant to life, and putting ideas into reality. He came up with the idea that the church should offer spiritual care and practical help to them and teach them the concepts a normal person should have little by little.
Forward in the fumble
A group sharing part was added after the Sunday service to strengthen solidarity. Group members were free to tell their struggles and give one another a hand.
In 2015, Rev. Cui and a few co-workers put forward an idea: cultivating "healthy" Christians. In spite of the difficulties of putting the idea into practice, they obtained good results. The hostile churches also acknowledged their work. For people with mental illness, Rev. Cui would unite the church to help them as much as possible. For example, he gave some money to people who couldn't support themselves and solved their mental, work, even relationship and marriage problems.
In addition, Rev. Cui insisted on being unpaid by the church. He never received a penny from the church and did a part-time job with his wife to gain financial independence.
In the end, Rev. Cui summarized ministries could not run without a church, one that was responsible, capable, and cohesive. There were indeed lots of problems existing in traditional churches, but criticism made things worse. Rather than criticize drastically, it's better to build a platform where people are willing to change and help others form a stable organization, fellowship, or church to put theory into practice.
- Translated by Karen Luo