With so many items on our prayer list, why should we pray for churches and Christians in other countries? For one, they are members of the same body (1 Corinthians 12). The whole body of God is infinitely impoverished if believers from another country are weakened. Conversely, the whole body of God will benefit if believers in another country thrive.
As we work with churches in China, they continually ask for prayer because they have seen the power of prayer in their ministry and lives. So why wouldn’t we in the West want to join them in prayer when that is what they are asking for? At China Partnership, we want to raise up a great cloud of witnesses to pray – people from different time zones lifting up prayers throughout each day, all praying in unison over the same needs, requests, and praises.
As I reflected on the church, I realized that she is our mother, and a healthy church must be balanced. The preaching of the word, the practice of sacraments, and the enforcement of church discipline: all three have to be there. Some say that faith is a personal matter, and that salvation has nothing to do with being part of a church. However, it is only through being part of a church community that people can examine whether they actually have genuine love. Only the church has the authority to carry out discipline measures, to warn us against our sinful natures, and hold us accountable for sinful acts.
I had always heard how vibrant the church in China was, but had never had the opportunity to see it up close. So when I arrived in Hong Kong for Reformation 500, I was looking forward to rubbing shoulders with these hearty saints. I don’t want to idealize them as we are all sinners being saved by grace together. Yet the astounding growth of the church against such large odds is certainly one of the great events of church history. Reformation 500 did not disappoint.
I heard godly American speakers conveying decades of acquired learning and wisdom, and the Chinese audience receiving it gladly. But meanwhile I saw Americans and other foreigners being refreshed and re-centered by the vitality of our Chinese brothers and sisters. In fact, I did not merely see this, I felt it.
Before [going to the conference] I was content with my life in Boston. I felt it was enough to focus on my home church, until my friend came and informed me of a much greater “battle” that is going on. And so, I joined the “fellowship of Grace to City,” not expecting much. By the end of the trip, my perspective had changed.
It is my belief that the Chinese church is mature and is finding its dependence on Christ, and does not require the assistance once provided by the church in America. The church in America needs to recognize the strengths and maturity of the Chinese church—the church in America needs to step back and release the Chinese church to be the church and serve without unneeded dependence on the American church.
The gospel of “grace alone” brings church leaders to think hard about true grace: Jesus Christ has accepted who we are, even while we were sinning against him. We do not need to earn our salvation; we do not need to earn our sanctification. We already have them in Christ. For church leaders, this is the source of power to imitate our Lord and serve the local church. Change in the lives of leaders brings about change in local churches. The culture of “saving face” can be replaced by the culture of grace. All fake dragons are exposed by the light of the gospel, and the Real Dragon, Jesus Christ, reigns in the ancient land of the dragon. He will set his people free!
In one sense, the history of the church of Christ in China is only about two hundred years, but in a spiritual sense our history can be traced back to the history of the New and Old Testaments. The Chinese church should receive the blessings of the Holy Spirit in history, not start over as a completely new reformation. We can build on the great Reformation of the 16th century. The Reformed confessions are the common heritage of the whole church among all nations, including the Chinese church.
These stories help highlight why CP exists and why we pray the Reformation 500 convention has an impact. We desire to equip pastors and church leaders in order for the Chinese church to be renewed in the historic gospel of grace, because through such gospel renewal, churches become better able to engage and love their neighbors, opening their doors to those seeking answers in Christ.
In this case, I think that the value of the Reformation for the Chinese house church lies in this – a conscious identity with the true meaning of the traditions of the holy universal church in theology, ministry, governing systems, etc., brought about by the rediscovery of the gospel. Apart from anti-institutionalism, I think the traditions of the Chinese house church are much in agreement with the spirit of the Reformation, but it lacks a self-identity. This self-identity can come either from an intellectually-led social identity or from the rediscovery of the gospel.
Later in my study of doctrine such experiences increasingly made me feel deeply about this question: why was the impact of the gospel was so powerful at the beginning of the Reformation, but the same doctrine passed down to us today makes no similar impact on the church? At the time of the Reformation, every doctrine was clear and lively expressed in the lives and ministry of the people. However, in today's church, the doctrines are often abstract and not easy to accept and grasp. We spend a lot of time teaching the content of the doctrines, but believers only get abstract knowledge, and in real life their intuitive focus is still on what to do and how to do it. They are very earnest in doing things and learn a lot of knowledge, but what is reflected in their behavior is not the vigorous response brought about by studying the doctrines. The doctrines do not genuinely shape their lives. So why? I think maybe it is because they do not really understand these doctrines. Those who teach Christian doctrine may give a complete presentation of theology, but it is still alien to how the doctrines are actively applied in practical life. Our teaching of doctrine is merely intellectual recitation, and so naturally people’s responses are not the intended transformation.
We have few works originating from Chinese church leaders. There are some possible reasons – persecution, lack of a reading culture, busy ministry, low education, etc. Yet we can see an enormous benefit from the pastors who wrote during the Reformation. We know about the Reformers through their numerous writings.
In the period of time it has taken me to write this short piece, I have been monitoring the chatter on our network (denomination) chat group. The pastor of the church under investigation has never before experienced this level of harassment, but other pastors in the chat group have extensive experience with being harassed and even arrested. The outpouring of concern has been very encouraging. Pastors offering support to other pastors, in the form of advice, prayer, encouragement, and admonishment – these are all things that every church, every pastor and every congregant needs.
By God’s grace, through retrospection and discussion, we may rediscover the invaluable inheritance of the Reformation. Let dust-laden history shine once more and speak to today’s church. Let the same God, same Christ, same gospel that once moved the reformers of the past move us today through the Holy Spirit. Let us see how the gospel of the Lord that once inspired them can also motivate us to change, hold fast, and proclaim, just as our resurrected Lord directed his disciples through the Great Commission
These questions were key not only to the Reformation, but for all of world Christianity. This is why we want to celebrate it. We do not simply want to celebrate a historical event. We want to celebrate God’s gospel. We celebrate history today because we are blessed by God in Christ through the gospel that was renewed in the Reformation. This movement, the Christ-centered or gospel-centered movement goes back to the same gospel discovered in the age of the Reformation. This gospel is the same gospel you can see so clearly in Acts and the early church. We celebrate because we want this gospel to show up and work. We want to let people see that the gospel movement that we are doing in China is not something new. It is only new in that Christ is always new. But it is the same gospel as in the past. It is the same gospel as in the Bible and today we want to go back to it again.
I was running around during the conference, but knew I needed to take the time to enjoy some of the sessions as an attendee myself. During one time of worship, I had that experience of realizing just how amazing this event was. As I looked around and heard people worshiping in Chinese, led by a Chinese worship team, and surrounded by Chinese Christians from over one hundred cities, my eyes filled with tears and I felt immense joy. We were giving these leaders an opportunity to freely worship together, and to focus their minds and hearts on the gospel. Seeing their joy and their celebration was more than enough for me.