China and the Church in China, Part 2: Kings and the Gospel
Editor’s note: 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. This pastor is currently studying at a seminary in the States, but plans to return to China once his studies are complete. You can read the rest of this series here: Part 1, part 3, part 4.
I call the period from 1989 to 1997, “Kings.”
It started in 1989. Maybe you have heard of the movie 2012? [An apocalyptic film about the end of the world.] For me, 2012 happened in 1989, because I lived in a college.
Every day I saw sunshine: bright, energetic, enthusiastic, young people. They wanted to study, to change the world, to contribute their lives to their country. Every day as I walked home from primary school, I passed through the university. There were bulletins and posters everywhere. At that time, my elder brothers and sisters [this is a term of endearment that in Mandarin does not necessarily indicate blood relation]—college students—shared their dreams in those bulletins.
But it was 1989. Soon, I saw different, harsh, bloody photos on those bulletin boards. I was ten.
I asked my dad: “What happened?” He was of the generation that went through the Cultural Revolution. He told me, “Never ask that question.” I said, “It’s you who told me to ask, ‘Why?’ You even bought me a book about one hundred thousand whys. You keep telling me I should ask ‘why’ questions!” But this time, nobody would tell me why. I could tell something was wrong. But when I tried to ask, nobody would answer.
The year after, I saw things had totally changed in the university. At my father and grandfather’s school, all the freshmen spent their first year in military training.
The next year, in 1990, something else happened: the stock market opened. This created many millionaires in Shanghai. Everybody, everywhere, was talking about it. “Have you bought any stock?” they asked one another. People went crazy. They dived into making money and playing the stock market, and everybody forgot what happened the year before. It was crazy.
For an 11-year-old, 1989 was 2012. My world had collapsed.
Around this time, many people started their own small businesses. My dad taught auditing in the university. At night, I heard him arguing with my mom about whether he should go to work for a new start-up firm where he would earn, not just double, but twenty times the salary of a college professor. Everyone was crazy to find their new position in the world.
What was my dad’s struggle? He wanted to keep his identity as a professor. Many people struggled with these types of questions. “How can I label myself as a businessman? I was a professor,” they said, or, “How can I be a businessman? Formerly, I was a government officer.” A lot of the people who left their professions to start businesses became very rich.
My dad would tell me about his friends. “Uncle so-and-so, who invited me to join his company, just bought a new car. Now he is thinking of immigrating to Canada to invest money in a start-up there.” My dad was struggling—I could tell. But in the end he said, “No. I am a professor in the university. I teach and influence young people.”
In the 1990s, people began to fly all over the world. Some people went to the States to pursue the American dream, either in academics or in business. By God’s grace, some of those people heard the gospel and became Christians. They had a strong influence on people like me in China.
This was all happening in the decade after Tiananmen. Chinese rock music also started in the 90s. Can you imagine what the period of time was like when rock music got big? In those years, people were disoriented, struggling. They needed a moment to relax, to cry out, to shout. In that ten-year period, Chinese rock music became extremely popular.
Second Kings says, “And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile.” (2 Kings 25:11)
I think that describes those ten years well. People had lost their dream, and were captured by different things: the American dream, business, rock music, anything.
The next verse says, “the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen.” (2 Kings 25:12) There was still hope.
If you have read Chinese church history, you know there was a large band of rural churches in China. They grew quickly, experienced many miracles and signs, and brought people into the church. But in the urban settings, the cities where I lived, I just saw people wandering, with nowhere to go. Still, a seed was planted. Some of the Chinese diaspora had become Christians in the States, and Christians from the village churches came to find jobs and make their living in the cities.
From 1998 to 2008, I call this period, “The Gospel.” I became a Christian in 1998 at [a prestigious university in Shanghai].
I played baseball in college, and was one of the first generation of baseball players at my school. In 2016, the university celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the school’s Baseball Association. They hosted a friendship game between old alumni and new students. At this game, I was wearing a Chicago White Sox cap.
During the break, a woman on the younger team, a new international student, came to me and asked why I was wearing a White Sox cap. I told her I live in Chicago. She said, “Oh, I’m also from there.” She asked what I am doing there, and I told her I am getting a seminary degree and serving the church in Chicago. She responded that she was from a famous and old church in the city. I asked her: “Are you a missionary?” She said, “Yeah.”
I told her that, almost twenty years ago, someone just like her shared the gospel with me. Eighteen years ago, a missionary from a prestigious Chicago school was charged by her church to come to my university and share the gospel. Eighteen years later, I came back and encouraged their missionaries on the baseball field.
In those years I experienced a university revival. I confidently use the term revival. In Shanghai, most of the young people involved in our church network come from the universities. Could you imagine that a college campus fellowship would lead to more than ten full-time ministers, twenty years down the road? It is hard to imagine, unless it was worked by the Holy Spirit.
In those ten years, the Holy Spirit was moving. We knocked on dormitory doors and asked people, “Have you heard about the gospel? I want to share the gospel with you.” Once, I talked with a guy for an hour. I used an evangelistic pamphlet and at the end asked if he wanted to make a prayer of decision. He said no. But someone sleeping in the bunk bed behind him popped up and said, “I do!” I said, “What? I didn’t even know anyone was there!”
This guy prayed to receive Christ with me, and I took him through follow-up training materials. Maybe I would not use those materials now, but it worked. I took this new Christian with me to knock on dormitory doors, and we would say, “Do you have ten minutes? I want to share some good news with you.” People converted and became Christians. Ten or fifteen years later, they are full-time ministers for the gospel. It was amazing!
After we graduated, we kept sharing the gospel in the marketplace and in our offices. We wanted to share our testimony with others, and the group of Christians that started in the university kept growing. One person told another, one life influenced another life, and more and more people became Christians. One brother had twenty people coming to his home for Bible studies. At this point he had never attended a church, only small groups. We did not know what we should do, or what would be next.
I joined an existing church, which was very old-fashioned. God brought me into a church after I was in the wilderness for one year without any connection to or ability to find a church—this was before email and cell phones. In Shanghai at this time, the fellowship group leaders from the universities talked together and wondered what would be next.
“I have twenty-plus people in my house, my living room is not big enough,” they said. “I heard there are some assemblies called a church. People gather there on Sunday mornings, instead of Friday night.”
Our old-fashioned church had about twenty-five people. One of these fellowship groups came to our church and said, “You are a church, can we join you?” Our leaders laughed. “We have twenty-five people; you have thirty-five. Do you call that joining us?”
Desperate leaders were asking for help.
In 2003, we started a church-planting network in Shanghai. The churches would gather for theological training, with questions like: “What is the gospel? What is the church? What is baptism?” (We had practiced this independently of the church for a long time.) “What is communion? What are the signs of the church? Where do we go next?” Initially, we were not planting churches, just doing whatever we could to help.