This is second post in a weeklong series relating the experiences and observations of a Chinese house church pastor visiting, evaluating, and learning from an American church. These posts were originally posted in Chinese on his personal blog with the aim of helping and encouraging his fellow pastors. Check back every day this week for new posts in the series.
The first stop on this trip to America was Charlottesville, Virginia. (The local Chinese affectionately call it “Xiatsun” for short, so I did as well, as “Charlottesville” has far too many syllables.) We were invited to a local PCA church called Trinity Presbyterian Church, hereafter referred to as “TPC.” There, I listened to the introductions of the various ministries, met with all of their elders, and got in contact with the person responsible for managing the Chinese overseas student ministry. These things were not unfamiliar to me as almost every 1000+ member church in America is like this and the churches in Korea easily outdo any of these churches in terms of buildings and ministries.
But if we only looked at buildings and ministries, we wouldn’t be able to learn anything or bring anything back with us. Which house church in China would be able to mobilize over a thousand people and care for a dozen full-time staff members? Therefore I was much more excited about attending their Sunday [worship], observing how they put their theology into practice. Thankfully, after attending that Sunday, I had the opportunity to review the service and discuss some of my questions and observations with the church’s elders on Monday.
I wish to discuss this church from three aspects:
- Their situation - I used what people these days call “field research.”
- Their strengths - their self-understanding determines how they do their ministries.
- Their practices - I focused on Sunday [worship] and added some of my own observations of some details as well.
This church’s motto says, “Seeking the renewal of all things through Jesus Christ.” Before I went, I had seen it on their website and wasn’t impressed, as I could come up with any kind of motto for my circle of friends no matter how impractical. It wasn’t until after I had attended their Sunday worship that I discovered this wasn’t just talk, for not only did they seek the renewal of the church and the congregation, but the renewal of the community and city, as well. Furthermore, they believed that this renewal could only come through Jesus Christ, a very important distinction to mistake
In my estimation, their pastoral practice had two key foci:
- To be Christ-centered.
- To be welcoming towards seekers.
Note! These two points must not be switched in terms of priority!
- TPC’s situation
This is a Presbyterian church near the University of Virginia, whose congregation is composed of either the local residents or university students. Different from America’s city churches, the non-members in attendance are largely brought by friends, with very few here because of the church’s reputation or simply because they passed by. In this, at least, the church is very similar to the house churches in China’s cities.
Because of its proximity to the university, the ratio of seekers and minorities is higher; by my visual estimation, about 10% [of the congregation is composed of minorities]. Because of the continued surge in Chinese students studying abroad, UVA’s status as a good public school has attracted many such students, bringing them to TPC’s doors. Their pastors, elders, staff, and even members have brought up this last point quite a bit; evidently, they are very clear on where the church is, and that the church’s mission is to be used by Christ and renew the place where they are.
- TPC’s strengths in the community.
When we discuss a church’s excellence or strengths, we usually think about her musical worship, workplace ministry, student ministry, etc. In other words, we think of some kind of ministry. But if you asked me where TPC is strongest, I would tell you the preaching; more specifically, its “Christ-centered preaching.”
The pastor on that Sunday, Greg Thompson, has quite a few titles and schools to his name; of these, Covenant Theological Seminary is the most familiar to me. If I’m not wrong, when he was a student, Bryan Chapell was still the president. Thus I’m certain that Pastor Greg is deeply immersed in the truth of Christ-centered preaching, and that he deeply believes that so long as he faithfully preaches and lifts high [the name of] Jesus Christ, both believers and unbelievers will be renewed and become more willing to know Christ. As he continues to challenge the believers from the pulpit, the power of the gospel will influence them such that every believer becomes willing to share their faith with their friends and invite those friends to church and listen to the preaching. In the words of one of their elders, “This was an organic process; we didn’t arrange for any of it at all.”
From what I can see, with this church’s situation and their strength in understanding and believing in the power of the word of God, their practice is a slight expansion of the two points I mentioned earlier. First, the commitment “to be Christ-centered.” This is mostly embodied in the preaching and worship; every aspect of the Sunday morning worship exists to draw attention to the pulpit and help everyone understand the message, and even the hermeneutical method behind it, so that they can correctly understand the Word of God (the Bible) for themselves and know Christ.
Second is the commitment “to be welcoming to seekers.” This is not just offering them meals and convenience, but also to help them understand the gospel better and more clearly when providing such services. They don’t draw people to the church via food or drink, but by challenging them to make breakthroughs in their faith. Finally, the members of the church are continually given motivation and support so that every one of them are able and willing to bring new friends to the church.
From this, [we can see] that we in the Chinese house churches have a lot to learn.
Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors writing and thinking critically about issues related to the spread of Christianity in their nation. They are committed to preaching a grace-centered gospel, developing resources for the church, and loving China’s urban centers.