Ministering to the church in China
God has blessed his people in the UK with a great heritage. For centuries the gospel has been preached here. We have a wealth of Christian literature, many excellent Bible teachers, conventions and Bible colleges.
In many other areas of the world the church is much younger. God’s people do not have access to books and other resources. Opportunities for learning the Word of God more deeply are rare and understanding of the truth is shallow.
In many places, believers and church leaders are well aware of what they lack in this respect. They are pleading with UK Christians to help them. One of our greatest responsibilities today to our younger brothers and sisters in Christ is to share with them the heritage with which God has blessed us.
A number of church groups in China have asked for our help in teaching and training their leaders. The underground churches of China are usually referred to as ‘house churches’. However, in the Chinese language the same word, 家, pronounced jiâ, can mean either house or family.
The underground churches really think of themselves as ‘family churches’ — the family of God in a particular location; a loving family made up of all the members of the congregation.
In a situation where some believers may be ostracised by their natural families or where some members of Christian families find themselves in prison for their faith, to know that the church is your true family is very supportive and comforting. But for the church family to prosper, it needs pastors and preachers properly equipped to feed the sheep.
I was in Zhejiang province a couple of years ago. I had been teaching the book of Genesis to a group of about 20 young people. They had been hand-picked by the network of family churches to which they belong, as the key leaders for the future.
One of the students was from the massive city of Chongqing, about 1200 miles away. At the end of the week he came up to me and said, ‘You taught us to see Jesus Christ’.
I was thrilled to hear that. We are familiar with the truth that all Scripture is Christ-centred, and that every part of the Old Testament points to him. But for this lad, that was a new insight. He, like so many others, had read Genesis just as a series of moral lessons for us to imitate or avoid.
Now, as he understood for the first time that the ram which Abraham offered instead of Isaac was a picture of Jesus dying on the cross as our substitute, he was so excited.
In May I visited trainees from two different church groups. Our topic of study was apologetics. One of these groups was in Hebei province. There were about 25 young people in this class. The other group was in Shandong province. Here there were 70 pastors and church workers. The age range was very wide.
The study of apologetics involves thinking through how we might answer objections to the Christian faith raised by unbelievers. I began the course with both groups by asking them what objections they hear most often in their context.
The answers were similar each time. The number one issue was atheism — not surprisingly in a Communist country. Linked with that, was the subject of science and evolution, and the idea that Christianity is just a superstition with no scientific basis.
Atheism also breeds an attitude of self-reliance and the pursuit of success and material prosperity in the present life. This can make people so busy that they have no time to bother to think about spiritual things. The students wanted help in thinking through how to address such people.
Next came the problem of suffering: if God is a God of justice and love, why are there so many disasters, and why do good people have to endure such difficult lives?
The students also mentioned the objection that Christianity makes such exclusive claims. Jesus is the only way to God, we say, but aren’t all religions basically the same?
All these issues we can recognise as objections we are constantly hearing here as well. But there were two other issues which are specific to their culture. The first was the rejection of Christianity as a foreign religion. As we discussed this, I was interested to notice a completely different approach from each group.
The Shandong group spoke about Christianity as ‘a western religion’, and acknowledged that, while the pioneer missionaries from the west were motivated by genuine Christian love, nevertheless, the history of mission was confusingly intertwined with nineteenth-century British gun-boat diplomacy and the unjust treatment of China at the hands of the western imperialists. They said that this can create a hurdle which it is difficult to get over.
The Hebei group bypassed the idea of Christianity as a western religion, and came straight to the fact that in Christ the God of Israel has thrown open the door of his grace to all the foreigners throughout the world. That seemed to me to be a far more positive approach to this objection.
The other issue specific to China was ancestor worship. People converted from non-Christian families find themselves under great pressure to participate in what they now regard as pagan superstitions at those times of year when the dead are honoured.
We wondered whether Elisha’s words to Naaman were helpful here. When Naaman voiced his concern that his job would involve him in unavoidable compromise, where he would have no option but to bow down in the temple of Rimmon, Elisha neither condemned him, nor urged him to find a way out, but simply said, ‘Go in peace’ (2 Kings 5:18-19).
The group in Shandong mentioned one other objection that unbelievers sometimes raise: some Christians do not behave well.
We had to concede that there is sad truth in this comment. It was an occasion to remind ourselves that apologetics, like all aspects of Christian service, has to be backed up by godly living, if it is to have any credibility at all.
We also recognised that our skill in answering people’s objections will never be enough on its own to convince anyone. Only the Holy Spirit can open blind eyes and enable sinners to see the truth as it is in Jesus. So the most important thing we must do as we engage in apologetics ministry is to pray.
Despite the Chinese political environment, God is at work in China today. In September 2010, I spent two weeks with a group of students in south-east China.
One student invited me to spend the weekend in his home town, a few hours’ drive away. The population of the town is 120,000. My friend took me to see the church building where he is doing the practical side of his training.
It was an amazing place. It houses a bookshop, seats 1800 and is full every Sunday. Several hundred children attend the Sunday school, and they have numerous classrooms inside the church building and in an adjacent block of flats, which the church also owns.
Each week a church catering team of 60 people lays on Sunday lunch for about 1000 members of the congregation. This church had begun as a church plant from another congregation just seven years before.
I was back in that area in January 2011 and the student told me how encouraged they had been with their Christmas outreach. They had spent the week leading up to Christmas visiting door-to-door to invite people to an evangelistic rally, followed by a meal on Christmas Eve.
On the night 10,000 people turned up for the rally. They packed them in to the main worship area, and rigged up overflows connected by closed circuit television in other parts of the premises.
About 8000 people stayed on for the meal. The security police were there to ensure that there was no breach of the peace, so they heard the gospel too. My friend told me that about a third of the population of that town have been converted!
It’s not like that everywhere in China though. On one visit I asked a colleague, a Brethren leader from Hong Kong, what message he had for the Christians of Britain.
This was part of his reply: ‘We need a lot of prayers for the salvation of souls in this great land. Even though many have come to know the Lord Jesus, there are many more in … the rural or remote areas. They have not heard the gospel yet. So prayer for the gospel and prayer for the salvation of souls’.
Zhou Lao Shi