China and the Church in China, Part 4: I Did Not Need to Run Anymore

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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 2, part 3.

Last, I want to share about the church experience. When Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus, Jesus told him, “It’s hard for you to kick against the goads.” Goads are rods with pointed iron tips, which shepherds used to guide sheep. Kicking them was very painful. Jesus did not tell Paul something Paul had never heard; Jesus told Paul something he already knew. This is what happened in Shanghai, in our church.

Everybody in Shanghai knows there is something wrong. They know they are worshipping some idol, either career or money or kids. They also know they have a dark side in their heart that shows up and explodes when they are busy in the pursuit of all these things. For instance, if someone is working a lot of overtime, going home every night at 2 a.m., their kids have a fatherless life. They know something is wrong. 

In this special moment, people’s hearts are very soft. The church does not need to tell people something new. We just need to tell them the things they ignore, or do not want to see. This is what Jesus said to Paul. Jesus did not speak to Paul in Aramaic or in Greek, he spoke Hebrew. “The people you are persecuting read the same scripture as you. They are your brothers.” I believe in urban cities, the pressures of life, or of pursuing the Chinese dream pushes people. They reach a point so that when you ask them if they feel there is something wrong in their life – “Is it hard for you to kick against the goads?’’ – they say yes.

That is what I saw. People ask, “Can we convert?” I started a small Sunday service in my living room with eleven people. As I became more reformed, I did not make an altar call, or push people to pray a prayer.

Several years ago, I attended a preaching forum. The pastor taught, “Do not preach about what to do. Preach about what Jesus has done for you. Preach to the heart. Tell them something they already know: ‘You are a sinner and you need to repent.’” I began to do this. After the service, people came to me and told me, “I want to be a follower of Christ.” I did not challenge people to make a decision. I told them there is something wrong, and they cannot cure themselves. They need somebody to help them. They need grace.

If you have an empty church in China and are preaching the gospel, within a month, the church will no longer be empty. For example, there is one church I know in Shanghai with a faithful pastor. If you go to this church on time, you will be standing up for the entire service. This is the reality. People are coming to convert.

In Ezekiel, God said, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ez. 36:26) God is using the environment of China, his Spirit, his own word, the government, and everything else, in order to remove hearts of stone and give people soft, flesh hearts.

We do a lot. Theological training, intentionally planting churches, helping start a reformed Baptist and also a Presbyterian denomination, and we of course have a lot of work and faith outreaches, because people are there. Those people, the ones who want to drink themselves high in order to not look at their own hearts: those are my people, that is the place I come from. I spent twelve years in the marketplace, and all of my friends from business school are the ones who do not want to look into their own hearts.

When I read Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists by Collin Hansen, I was excited to know this phenomenon is not happening only in China. In college, within a five-year period I saw many people born into faith and commit their life to the gospel. It was exciting. I was convinced this was the movement of the Holy Spirit. But later, the teaching of the church seemed disconnected with the world outside of the church. We did not know how to apply the gospel to daily life. I rediscovered the gospel because of extraordinary prayer. Through a soul Sabbath of prayer and revival, I discovered how the gospel can renew every part of life. For many reasons – persecution, the pietistic and conservative church tradition – the Chinese church prays a lot. I saw the same story repeated over and over across China. When I hear others share their stories, they have had identical experiences.

I believe this is an Acts 13 moment for China. Crosses have been torn down, a new regulation on religious affairs has come out, but on the other hand we have large conferences. There are things we can do, and it seems right now persecution is not becoming harsher.

In Acts 13, the church of Antioch laid hands on Paul and Barnabas and told them to go plant new churches. They started to plant churches intentionally. What happened next? Paul preached the gospel in the synagogues, he preached Christ from the Old Testament, he practiced apologetics. In Acts 17, Paul debated with Greek scholars about the reason for God. In order to strengthen the churches, Paul and Barnabas kept visiting churches. 

This is what we do. When someone leaves their family to come to China and visit us, it strengthens the churches. We keep planting new churches. We see persecution—we have pastors who are blocked at customs from leaving China, we have seen some of our very good friends who have gone to “tea time” [an euphemism for an official questioning by government officials] or were in prison for a couple of days. 

Maybe we should expect martyrs someday in China. We believe it is the seed of the church. I ask myself: “Am I ready?” I asked my wife if she was ready and she said, “Of course.” I thought, “Okay. I hope I can be, too.”

All the things that happened after Acts 13 are happening in China. We have preaching training, theological trainings, denominational growth, church planting incubators, discipleship, and lots of prayer. How can we keep the momentum going? This is the question I leave with you. 

A professor told me, “You always need to define yourself in God’s plan.” If I am convinced something is due to God’s plan and the moment of the Holy Spirit, I should look for my place in this plan.

I ran the Shanghai Marathon in 2014. If you look at pictures of the race, you can see the dust in the air. I ran my personal best. I bust into tears at the starting point. People were shocked. They said, “What are you doing? You haven’t finished, there are forty-two kilometers ahead.” 

I cried because in that moment I saw all the nations, all the races, all the languages – there were thirty thousand people – come together and run for a medal which will perish. That was the Isaiah time for me. I told God, praying and weeping, “God, the only thing I can do for the rest of my life is to help people run for something which will not perish: your crown of righteousness.”

That was the last marathon I ran. Because after that, I did not need to run anymore.