Living Out Theology to the Utmost, Part 4: Seeing the Gospel in the Details
This is the fourth 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 tomorrow for the conclusion of the series.
In my introduction of Trinity Presbyterian Church (TPC), I have repeatedly emphasized how she is distinct from the so-called “Emergent Church,” and these differences are not in the degree to which the church is contextualized, but in the solid grasp of the Bible as shown in the pulpit and [other] teaching and meticulous focus on the Bible. In this section, I will be sharing some more practical observations; this is what Chinese churches like the most, because it is easy to pick up and learn. [But] I hope that when everyone reads it, they don’t just imitate it [blindly], but that it helps them have more gospel-centered thinking, such that our worship has more of the gospel’s power.
Let me first start with a few details, and then will focus on their hymnal worship and sacraments [in my last post].
Detail 1: The Meeting Place
TPC is not a small church (it has 1400 members), so it is probably fairly well-to-do. The main chapel of the church is a wooden structure and behind the pulpit is an empty cross; it all looks quite beautiful in natural light. However, what stuck out were the chairs: instead of the expected long pews (the kind in a typical church, with a slot in the back for bibles, hymnals, offering envelopes, and used communion cups), there are simple chairs [more] suited for someone’s home. I had seen such chairs in some of the churches in China, where they would hang a bag on the back of the chair for Bibles and hymnals; but at TPC, they simply set out the chairs row by row and place the Bibles and hymnals neatly beneath those chairs.
This felt out of place with the design of the building to such a point that I went out of my way to ask the staff members about it. This was the answer I got: it was a decision they made after much thought. Of course, one of the reasons was to save money; home-use chairs are much cheaper and easier to replace and maintain than made-to-order wooden pews (placing the Bibles and hymnals on the floor is also so that it is convenient to put the chairs away, [as] labor is more expensive in America). In this way, a chapel that can hold over a thousand people is also a large, versatile space that can be used by the local community (including for exhibitions, indoor flea markets, art galleries, etc.). I hear a lot of churches rent multi-functional spaces (such as school auditoriums or gymnasiums) for Sunday worship, but it is much more rare and unique to allow their chapel to become a multi-functional space once they are able to build their own church!
Whether purchased or rented, most house churches have their own stable meeting place; and like many of the Three-Self churches, they have high vacancy rates from Monday to Saturday. When we are willing to open our churches on Sunday, but do not see many seekers in attendance, why not encourage people to be physically present on the other days of the week? Isn’t it all but impossible to not discuss the gospel while in a church? I think it is very different to say to a friend in a Starbucks, “Come to our church on Sunday,” compared to saying to that friend in a church, “Come again on Sunday.” When we add Christ-centered preaching on top of that, it would be difficult for the church to not experience growth.
Detail 2: Parking
In American parking lots, the closest and most convenient parking spots are for the disabled. It is the same for TPC, [but in addition] they reserve spaces for newcomers next to the disabled parking spots. I feel that this isn’t just a matter of convenience, but to serve as a reminder for every member that, “There will be someone who is here for the first time.”
There is also a table full of information for first-time visitors to take; by my observations, many members will take the initiative to take these materials, greet the newcomers, and then take a seat with them. [While] there are also deacons greeting and making sure that almost no newcomers are left to their own devices, it would be difficult to organize this [newcomer greeting effort] purely on an administrative level and using [only] specialized deacons. I believe this is [the result of] a long teaching [process], as well as a church culture built up by the arrangement of various details and reminders; in other words, this church has welcoming newcomers in her “DNA.”
This takes us back to the issue of TPC’s vision and practices. If every member is certain that the purpose of the church is to preach the gospel, lead people to the Lord, and establish new churches, and the pulpit continues to preach the gospel and encourage the members to participate in the work of the gospel, then it is possible to mobilize everyone and it is all but inevitable for [everyone] to think more maturely on all sorts of details.
Detail 3: [Worship] Proceedings
When observing regular pastoral practices, it is not difficult to notice that seekers have problems getting used to the Sunday worship. Part of it is the ceremonial words that are familiar to Christians (such as the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed); when faced with [a congregation] that is reciting the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed, or hearing the worship leader say, “Peace be with you,” and then the congregational response, “And peace be with you,” I’m not sure that a seeker would not come away with the impression that they have entered into some kind of clique with its own terminology and language — and that is a terrible impression to get. Overseas churches do better on this matter, [as] most of the things a congregation is required to say will be written on the program or projected on the screen.
During these proceedings, one detail we often neglect is when giving various announcements, resulting in two common problems. Some feel that [the announcements] are not relevant to them, while others [feel overwhelmed] by the amount of Bible verses or reflections, wanting to have it all said again. TPC solved the latter problem by one simple rule — it all has to be written down first. The person responsible for the announcements went on stage and read all of the announcements in a simple and easy-to-understand way without wasting any words.
The hymns, announcements, preaching, and prayer, plus the interactions of the congregation are all very well organized; even the 1,400-person communion proceeded without delay. The entire service took 1 hour and 45 minutes, with each section not being off by more than 2 minutes. After a 15-minute transition, the first service went to attend Sunday school, and the second service began taking their seats. Some might doubt the flexibility of this kind of service, but I want to use an example from sports to explain why time management is very important to the Sunday service.
What kind of training increases one’s athletic ability? Every act of training must be done with dedication and wholeheartedness in order to get the most out of it. One of the factors influencing the lack of good, quality training is “additional practice:” the trainer feels that there is not enough training, so they order more practice in order to improve results, but it backfires because the athletes will not give their all. Because they are not sure when training will end, they will try to save their strength.
Worship and listening to sermons is the same way; long sermons may have valuable information, but since the audience is not sure when the sermon will end, they cannot focus and it is unavoidable that they will fall asleep or slip out to use the restroom. Even Paul had someone fall asleep to his death because he preached for too long in Acts 20. So unless you have the gift of resurrection, do not drag out the service or the sermon. A Christian might be able to patiently listen through the whole thing, but a seeker will not come a second time.
Detail 4: Church Plant
TPC spent three years planting a new church (Hope Presbyterian Church) some distance away. This was mentioned during the announcements and there were some points that stood out:
- A church plant is the best way to bless the community and expand the kingdom.
- This church is not the mother church of the new plant, but its sister church.
- If you live closer to the new church, you can go there, since that would be helpful for personal pastoring (don’t forget to transfer your membership).
- If you know any seekers, please introduce them to the church.
- To know more, please pick up the materials introducing HPC that are at the door.
- Continue to pray for our continued church planting.
A simple announcement covered [TPC’s] stance on the kingdom, the church, and the great commission!
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.