Three Pastors Share General Situation of Grassroots Church in China: 'Realistic and Complicated'

The picture show an aged believer putting some money into an offering box at an unknow date.
The picture show an aged believer putting some money into an offering box at an unknow date.
By Zhang YaoJune 8th, 2022

In the past two years, the recurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the pace of many people’s work and life. The fear of the pandemic and the worry about the future have become a common “emotional disturbance” that plagues the public. Confusion, sadness, and tangle are such depressions that are gradually felt on the Internet. In the popular trend of self-deprecation among countless young netizens, there emerged a new online catch phrase, “I have emo” (emo traces back to "emotional hardcore" and here means "I'm down in the dumps").

In the Baidu Encyclopedia, “emo” generally refers to all unstable emotions caused by sadness. Unlike pessimism with negative tendencies, emo denotes more negative expressions when under pressure.

Under the current pandemic situation, emo will more or less appear among fellow believers in the grassroots churches. For instance, difficulties to resume in-person worship and the lack of love on online platforms may all be the reasons for their emo. For pastors, the emos they have to a great extent shown their judgment and thoughts regarding the situation in their own church.

Recently, the Gospel Times, an online Chinese newspaper, had an interview with three pastors of several grass-roots churches in North China. Though the emotions they show are different, behind this sad or anxious mood is actually the realistic and complicated situation that the grassroots church is experiencing.

(At the request of the interviewed pastors, their church names, addresses, and other relevant details are not revealed in the text.)

The melancholy of hard times

Church A, located in a small mountain town in North China, is the central church of the local county. Because the area covers quite a few rural gathering points, the number of believers is large. Since the pandemic, this church has been in the cycle of opening and closing.

Since the Spring Festival this year, the church has been suspended for half a year. Although online ministry is still going on as planned, Elder Z is very sad when it comes to the current economic situation of the church.

“In the past two years, the pandemic situation has had a significant impact on my church’s income. True that the number of churches in urban areas has also decreased, it is passable, but the situation of rural grass-roots gathering places is not optimistic.” Elder Z said, “Grass-roots churches themselves receive fewer donations every year. When small-scale village gathering points and rural churches are suspended, it basically equals ceasing income. The daily water supply, electricity, heating, equipment maintenance, and visiting ministries of the church all need funds, and it is even more difficult to update information as to which church needs techno support. For important expenses, the church can pay some money in advance, but such a big project as house repairs can only be delayed if it can be delayed. However, when will the churches be resumed?” In his sharing, he mentioned that in the past two winters, the church would often fail to pay for heating.

For Church A, the economic situation not only affects the actual operation of the church but also concerns the viability of the nearly 100 grassroots pastors. According to Elder Z, because the church’s income itself is not sufficient to support the pastors’ living expenses, there is no financial subsidy for them except for a little subsidy for theological students who do the monthly ministering practice. With the impact of the pandemic in the past two years, the economic situation of the church has become increasingly tense, and sometimes even subsidies are not available.

“Although there are currently no pastors in our church who have quit their service posts due to a lack of financial support, some voluntary pastors will focus more on maintaining their daily living than serving. I think this can also be counted as another level of loss of pastors,” he concluded.

Talking about whether the church will look for some other ways to maintain its normal operation in the face of today’s post-pandemic era, Elder Z said helplessly that there was no good way for the time being. “The church has no channel in terms of resources and talents, but it can only be put in prayer. I hope the church can resume as soon as possible so that everyone can return to the temple to worship as soon as possible. I believe that God’s preparation will exceed what we ask for and imagine!”

Confusion when leading the fellowship

Different from the situation of grassroots Church A with relatively scarce resources, Church B, which is located in a prefecture-level city in North China, has not been greatly affected in terms of income. However, another rather realistic situation is also troubling the pastors of the church.

Pastor W from Church B, a young man, has been in his particular service role for 10 years, after graduating from his seminary. In addition to regular pastoral work, he is the head of a youth fellowship in his church. In his personal opinion, the biggest challenge brought to him by the pandemic is the pastoral leadership of the fellowship.

“Although there are many believers in the church, there are not many brothers and sisters who are willing to participate in youth fellowship.” Speaking of youth fellowship, Pastor W said, “Before, there were at most 100 young people, but during the pandemic in the past two years, there are only over 20 fellowship participants, sometimes even fewer.”

Similar to the vast majority of small and medium-sized cities in contemporary China, the phenomenon of youth leaving is also prevalent in the local area. Countless young people are unwilling to have a dull life in small cities, and they have chosen to pack their bags to integrate into the prosperous first-tier cities. The direct impact of this phenomenon on the church is that there are fewer and fewer young believers, and the middle-aged and elderly groups have become the mainstream groups of the church.

Due to the sharp decline in people and the current situation of pandemic prevention and control, the pastoring and leading work of youth has been restricted. “Now many activities of the fellowship are suspended, and there are basically no activities online. It’s just that there are often some prayers or spiritual sharing in a WeChat group.” W said.

“Actually I won’t lead the youth fellowship either. I don’t know how to gather everyone’s hearts in the Lord, and I don’t know how to attract more young people to join the fellowship.” Facing the next steps of youth fellowship, Pastor W gave a helpless long sigh.

“We’re semi-problematic. It can be said that this is the case in our church.” W explained, “Compared with small churches, we have the ability to establish a diversified fellowship for believers, but we lack as rich experience in fellowship leadership and energetic staff as churches in first-and second-tier cities. I also tried to learn from the excellent experience of foreign churches before. When I came back, I found that many conditions were quite low and could not be applied. So, where is the fellowship going? How can it be developed? I can only explore it by myself.”

Recently, in addition to offering prayers to God and communicating with the pastors in the church, he has been contacting theological students who serve the front line all over the country, constantly learning from the exchange and sharing, hoping to find some new ideas.

Tension in the face of crisis

Different from the situations of the above two grass-roots pastors, Pastor F, who is also in charge of a county-level city church, is facing a much more severe situation, and “nervousness” has become his emotional state almost every day recently. When it comes to the reason why Pastor F is nervous, it has to start with the pandemic.

With the suspension of in-person activities during the pandemic, the church started “online” and “small group” ministries. However, since the second half of last year, he gradually discovered that some abnormal state existed among some believers and even the serving staff.

“For studying and service arrangements, there are always three or five people who make excuses to say that they are too busy to attend.” Pastor F recalled, “At first, I thought it was an occasional phenomenon, but later, they repeatedly disobeyed the arrangement of the church, did not attend studying, and stopped serving the church. I slowly discovered that something was wrong.”

After a focused observation, Pastor F learned about a situation from informing believers. It turned out that these believers had participated in an “online devotion group” active on the Web and had long-term online gatherings.

As this “online spiritual group” is not a pastoral group set up within the church, Pastor F was immediately alerted, suspecting that these believers might have been “sheep-knapped” (a slang among Chinese Christians meaning attracting membership from one church to another, translator’s note).

After some scrutinizing, Pastor F found that there was a mystery behind this so-called “network spiritual group”. It not only disguised itself by plagiarizing theological theories, but also used the Web to infiltrate into grassroots churches, confusing believers, and urging believers to keep wooing new believers to leave their original churches and join the “network group”. At present, this “network group” has a considerable membership in many places such as Northeast China and North China.

Pastor F, who realized the seriousness of the matter, quickly inquired about it from the church pastors in the surrounding areas, only to find that the “network group” had already carried out the work of infiltrating in the neighboring areas. A church meeting place in a neighboring city was almost completely wiped out, and most of the people from the meeting place to the believers were tempted to join the “group”, resulting in the division of the church.

The situation is urgent. After the Spring Festival this year, Pastor F held staff meetings with the pastors many times and asked the responsible staff of the pastoral groups to take strict precautions against the infiltration of extreme heresy on the Internet of an unknown origin.

“I didn’t realize that I was a step behind, and the staff in the church were actually brainwashed.” When mentioning the situation of the church, Pastor F’s tone was full of sadness. “This staff served on Sunday and was also the head of the group. I didn’t pay too much attention to the situation before. Who knows that she will affect the lay believers.”

After learning about the grim situation facing the church, Pastor F carried out more systematic training on the theological equipment and leadership ability of the group leader. Moreover, they began to warn those brainwashed fellow believers, hoping that they could quit the “groups” of unknown origin as soon as possible and stop the “sheep-knapping”.

As for the lay believers who fall into the trap of “sheep-knapping”, the church wants to help them believe and that they listen to them, by strengthening pastoral care and having focused talks. As for the “brainwashed” staff who actually participated in the service, Pastor F and other pastors decided to suspend their services as soon as possible to prevent more believers from being affected by it.

“Jesus also said, ‘It's better to lose one of all the members than to throw the whole body into hell.' The church plans to make a decision as soon as possible and not let the Lord's sheep get lost during the suspension of the church," he said.

As for why the church is facing the present situation, Pastor F has also done introspection and thinking. He explained that facing the pandemic situation, some small and medium-sized grass-roots churches adopted a laissez-faire attitude of "lying flat" because of the lack of conditions or one-sided judgment on the general environment. Their pastoral care for believers is limited to Sunday, thus giving the heretical cults on the Internet an opportunity.

Nowadays, in the era of information explosion, the Internet not only facilitates people's lives but also brings many temptations. He added that many lay believers think that they could not get enough spiritual food to sustain themselves, so they started to search for spiritual resources such as Taoism on the Internet spontaneously. However, if they were hungry, but they didn't have the ability to discern, they would easily fall into the trap of fallacies, resulting in the situation of being "pulled by sheep".

"So, on the one hand, we need the pastors of grass-roots churches to be alert all the time. The more churches suspend meetings, the more we need to strengthen the pastoral care and management of believers; In addition, it is necessary to pay more attention to the equipment of the group leader, emphasize the connection between the group and the church, emphasize unity, and not let the church become a situation without sheep to graze after resuming," Pastor F concluded.

- Translated by Charlie Li 

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