New Wine and Old Skin, Part I: Current Context of the Chinese Church
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a three-part series by a Chinese house church pastor in response to a preaching workshop conducted in Shanghai by a prominent American pastor. The workshop focused on how to preach the gospel, and in particular Christ, through the book of Genesis. The China Partnership is thankful to this pastor for assistance with developing a curriculum on gospel-centered preaching. Check out Part 2 and Part 3 to complete the series.
Chinese society’s rapid secularization and urbanization has greatly challenged the traditional house church in China and has caused the old way of preaching the gospel to loose credibility under the impact of a host of contemporary issues. Additionally, many congregations have found themselves confronting the crisis of confessional superficiality as the house church moves towards transforming into confessional churches. Therefore, these churches need abundant provision from the “new wine” of the gospel throughout the process of forming denominations.
Christ-centered preaching in the framework of redemptive history proclaims the gospel with a new intensity and strength. Only the power of God can change people’s hearts to face the challenges of this age, and only lives that have been changed can establish contemporary urban churches that are confessional, constitutional, and full of grace and truth.
First of all, let’s consider some contextualization issues in the Chinese church. Most Chinese churches are traditionally conservative-evangelical, putting their emphasis on the gospel message of “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Chinese churches have been proud of this stance. In the history of the Chinese church, people noticed the basic elements of the gospel message such as suffering for faith and separation from secularism when the message of the cross was preached. A number of witnesses still alive today influence the churches with such a message. These witnesses identify themselves in their own experiences with a suffering Christ, demonstrating a spirit of “living sacrifice” that is admirable among churches around the world.
However, situations change with time. On one hand, Chinese churches encounter enormous temptation from secularization, and the moral decline of the whole society brings a new generation to the church that is hurt by sin and deeply impacted by secular values. On the other hand, the older generation is fading away gradually. Even if their lives and influence could be sustained today, the older generation would still lack practical understanding of the context of this age. Therefore, the new topic of this age is how the church can preach “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” today and bring forth the power to change lives in the gospel.
A well-known old preacher in Wenzhou who kept his faith while suffering for the Lord greatly influenced the local churches in that area. When he died, a huge number of believers went to his funeral to express their condolences. Yet his grandson, who is a businessman in Beijing and a Christian with adequate knowledge of the Bible and church, found his own family in the dilemma of how to keep the Christian faith. He once told me disappointedly that he did not know how to face the challenges of doing business, educating his children, and raising his family. He had no idea how to handle the difficulties of each responsibility. The things his grandfather had taught him were not capable of empowering him to face these contemporary challenges.
Secondly, after decades of separation from the universal body, Chinese churches are gradually returning to fellowship with the larger Church family. Many churches are beginning to clarify their theological stances and take steps forward in the journey to forming confessional churches. We can see that Chinese churches are now in the trend of establishing denominations, and personally, I consider that establishing denominations among Chinese churches is important and significant. As long as the concept of denominations is properly considered, the founding of denominations will help to effectively solve serious problems of tribalism in the Chinese church.
In the process of establishing denominations, external liturgy is the easiest thing to imitate and internal culture is the hardest to assimilate since it comes from the unique provision and leading of God to a particular denomination in her history. Because of this, older traditional churches in China are often critical of new, younger, urban churches in their constitutionalization processes to establish denominations. It is very easy to import a denominational book of governance or church constitution or doctrinal catechism. Forming a proper governance model or church membership system is not a hard thing to do.
Though the establishment of a denomination seems like surface work, yet in its essence, it is work to establish Christ’s Church. Therefore, in this significant process of constitutionalization, how can churches that intend to establish denominations not only inherit precious historic traditions, but also receive “new wine” in the gospel of Jesus Christ? How do they respect their own histories and face the challenge of this new age at the same time? These are very important topics nowadays.