China: The Church on the Move

In a corner of bustling XuZhou, China, a strange occurrence plays out Sunday after Sunday. Residents make their way to their cars on the street and voluntarily vacate their assigned parking spaces to make room for others yet to come.

The residents move with purpose … and gratitude. Touched by acts of kindness by members of an MTW partner church in the area, the residents are giving back. It started with small gestures by local church members wanting to share Christ—sweeping dingy sidewalks and paying for electricity to illuminate dark community hallways in the apartment complex they share. Neighbors noticed and reciprocated—joining clean-up efforts, painting lines for parking spaces, and moving their cars so that church members had space to park on Sunday mornings. One woman stopped when she saw a church member sweeping the sidewalk and simply said, “Praise Jesus.” These gestures may be small and understated in a city as large and frenetic as XuZhou. But the implications for cultural change in China are enormous. Let’s look at how the gospel is taking root and transforming individuals, churches, and communities.

Gospel DNA takes root
MTW’s China Partnership, a coalition of 40 churches from different denominations, has been working for 13 years to assist with church planting in China. In 2011, the group began offering two-day seminars called “Gospel DNA,” based on training developed by Rev. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. These trainings encourage pastors to grasp the gospel personally and be transformed, and provide a theological vision of the gospel and the city. With more than 1,200 Chinese pastors from over 50 cities trained in the past two years, the Gospel DNA seminars have had a profound impact and are spreading rapidly, with trained pastors now training others.

“If the Gospel DNA takes root in China, Christianity will become a major voice in shaping Chinese culture in the years to come,” said Dr. Wang*, a Chinese national who serves as executive director of the China Partnership. “When we have the same Gospel DNA we can work together toward common goals, growing within the same gospel ecosystem, and unifying church, ministry, para-church, even social efforts.”

And this is no small thing. Wang cites China’s recent political and cultural climate as a unique opportunity for the gospel to take root and change lives on both small and large scales.

“In the history of the world there has never been a society as large as China to have its cultural core so accessible to the gospel,” said Wang. “No other country has spent 100 years systematically eradicating and uprooting its own cultural foundation. After 100 years of cultural instability, China’s approach has totally failed, leaving her people to rebuild from scratch.”

Herein lies the opportunity for believers in China, said Jeff, an MTW worker who serves as the U.S. manager of the China Partnership. “The [Chinese] Church is making the shift to think about the city. Cultural foundations are being opened and exposed to the gospel.” He added that the Chinese have been left with little moral framework because of the tumultuous history of the last 100 years. “They’re searching for answers to deep questions,” he said.

Moving toward transformation
Stories of transformation like that of the neighborhood in XuZhou are not uncommon. In cities from XuZhou to Hong Kong, pastors are grasping a theological vision of the gospel and the city, and are experiencing personal changes that are evident to those around them. As this happens, churches are moving away from moralism and legalism, and are embracing the full grace of the gospel.

One Chinese pastor named An confessed he had been serving for years out of obligation, not joy. Through the Gospel DNA training he is learning how to pastor differently, how to be a godly leader and husband, and how to experience true gospel rest. Another prolific church-planter, Gao, initially attended the training with the intent of sharing with others his formula for success, but left with a desire to leave behind moralism and legalism and promote gospel-centered church planting in China.

As these stories of transformation multiplied, Chinese nationals and leaders of the China Partnership set about formalizing the Gospel DNA trainings and setting them within a broader context. In 2012 they launched a joint initiative to return to the truths of the gospel in the Reformation era: living out Christ’s resurrected life, becoming worshipping, living sacrifices to God, and becoming blessings to China.

The initiative, which seeks to see the gospel catalyze a visible kingdom of God consisting of thousands of [Chinese] churches and Christian organizations, is on its way, said Jeff. He reported that many were greatly encouraged at the success of a conference in Hong Kong last year that involved more than 50 churches and hundreds of pastors. “They were shocked—it was all in Chinese, not led by Americans.”

Facilitating, not leading One of the hallmarks of this new gospel initiative is its leadership—it is led entirely by Chinese nationals. This reflects MTW’s growing focus on facilitating the work of church planting alongside nationals rather than leading it.

A story from a major city in southwest China illustrates this progression. MTW missionary Tim moved to China in 2010 to help Chinese nationals flesh out their vision of reaching their city for Christ.

Rather than coming to pastor, Tim moved to China to assist national church leaders with implementing their vision for reaching their city for Christ. Now, three years later, they are doing just that, via a seminary that provides theological training to more than 100 students and a pastors’ forum that includes pastors in more than 15 provinces in the area.

Will the gospel prevail in China at this critical cultural juncture? It is a battle of life and death, according to Wang. The church can either engage and transform the culture or be marginalized.

For now it’s about doing the faithful work of serving everyday needs, just like the street sweepers in XuZhou.

“We pray, we move slowly, and we trust in the Lord,” said Wang.

* names have been modified for security purposes

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
 
We spoke with Jeff, an MTW worker who serves as the U.S. manager of the China Partnership, about recent changes in the Chinese Church.

Are Chinese house churches under as much scrutiny as they have been in the past?
This is a complex question because every situation and city is different in China.
The persecution faced by earlier generations is not happening today. Churches and
pastors do still need to be careful in what they do and say but it’s different now.
In general, the regime is much more tolerant of churches compared to a decade ago.

What has changed?
Many pastors are no longer living in fear but are humbly taking a stand. They believe in their constitutional rights to practice religion. They often meet with government officials and are unafraid to say that Christians are of no harm or danger to them. Christians are called to live out the gospel in all of life—bringing peace and love to their communities and cities. Christians long to see the city prosper. Officials are receptive to this message and goal of churches loving communities. As long as pastors and churches are not making statements about sensitive matters they are permitted to do things past generations were not able to. It’s almost a dance, with movements forward and backward, but at least the church is dancing rather than sitting on the side.

How can U.S. church members help church-planting efforts in China?
Churches in the U.S. can help by learning to love and appreciate Chinese people and culture. It is easy for missions to be about an experience or a trip. We want churches to find ways to love and serve Chinese people locally and globally. If a church is able to love Chinese people locally, they will be of greater help globally. The Church in China and the U.S. have much to learn from one another, and for this learning to occur the U.S. Church needs to see themselves not as experts but as learners of Chinese people and culture.

For more on China Partnership visit www.chinapartnership.org or www.facebook.com/chinapartnership. Or email info@chinapartnership.org

Melissa Kelley on Mar 17, 2014

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