A Special Interview with Early Rain Covenant Church, Part 6: A Missional Community
Editor’s note: The following is Part 6 of an extended interview conducted by a Chinese writer with the leadership and various members of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. It was shared online in China over the last month; the Chinese original can be read here and the entire English translation here. To understand the people and places discussed in the article, please refer to China Partnership’s Early Rain Prayer Guide. We will be sharing additional sections of the interview in the coming weeks.
Interviewer: Both your church contingency plan and Pastor Wang Yi's previous interviews mention steps the church will take to respond to persecution. These include persisting in meeting together outdoors and then, as a last resort, possibly retreating to homes. What is the difference between persisting in meeting outdoors and just splitting up from the very beginning and meeting in homes? Some might ask why you would go through all of that hassle [of meeting outdoors] only to return to your homes. Why take this roundabout path?
Pastor Wang Yi: First of all, as I already said in the beginning, we want to try to raise the ceiling. We don’t want to act as if the situation were really bad before the situation actually gets that bad. Secondly, what are we seeking? We are not seeking external benefits for the church. We’re not even seeking external religious freedom. Shouwang Church has persisted in meeting outdoors because they have a very specific goal, namely to return to their church building. And they believe that it is right to return to their church building, that it will happen, and that God will bring them back to it. We are not making this claim. We are not claiming we can hold onto our church building or that we can hold onto the liberal arts college. From the very beginning, we have been prepared that the next time they come they may take away everything. If our money is confiscated, then we will consider it martyred. If our building is confiscated, then we will consider it martyred. We don’t need to worry about them. This is what we’ve decided to do. We haven’t made any requests like returning to a certain church building at a specific location, or retaining our K-12 school, church, liberal arts college, or seminary. Our goal is simply to go where God is leading us. We will persist in church-based public worship because public worship is right. It pleases God. If we are not arrested, we will not give up.We will keep doing what we should be doing.
Interviewer: This is an entirely different way of thinking. This is what an autonomous, public, and open church life should look like.
Pastor Wang Yi: I’ll give you another example. After the May 12 incident, a lawyer from the lawyer’s fellowship discussed with me what defense we should present if I am arrested. He gave many suggestions. What I shared with him greatly surprised him. I said, “If I am arrested, the objective of my defense should not be my release or minimizing my sentence. The primary objective of your defense must be – through the courts and legal proceedings – testifying to the gospel and testifying to the significance of this in the Kingdom of God.” He sighed and said, “I’ve been a lawyer for many years. The professional objective of us lawyers is always the maximum benefit of our clients. This is the first time a client has told me not to make his own benefit the goal of his defense.” If God wants this to happen then it will happen.
Elder Su Bingsen: This year the church is preaching through the book of Ephesians. In the book of Ephesians, we see the greatness of the church and its place in history. Pastor Wang Yi once gave the following analogy. He said the headlines of this world all have to do with celebrities and movie stars or great political events. But in heaven, the headlines are always about the church. God makes all things work together ultimately in order to display his manifold wisdom through the church. So all of the changes in this world, all of the various situations and political circumstances, happen in order to spur the church on toward maturity and continually increase the number of those who are saved. Even though the church is unremarkable in the world’s eyes, even marginalized, in the eyes of those who believe in God, the church is always the main subject of history.
Over the last dozen years, the number of Chinese house churches has grown to a certain extent. Why, then, did this number of churches have such a small influence on society? From the perspective of the church or even human ethics, the most important aspect of being human is our relationship with God and our worship of God. So when we gather together to worship God, we are manifesting a new society or a new humanity (these are the words of Pastor Wang Yi). So when we look at the church as God's new creation, what is actually illegal is saying that the church is illegal. We ought to worship God out in the open.
Looking at the growth of the church in Chinese society, traditional house churches were forced to put up high wallsduring the early years of persecution. Preserving the fundamentals of the faith in the face of extreme persecution was already difficult enough. Focusing on the public influence of the gospel on society was simply too much. Over these past ten or twenty years of urbanization, churches that were once able to withstand the “red” persecution of communism are now having trouble withstanding the “white” persecution of secularism. This is why so many village churches are dying.
As the church changes, it is facing a few great pressures. One concerns theology. As missionaries and various resources enter the church, we have no choice but to begin to build up our theology, otherwise bad theology will undoubtedly cause us to veer off into theological confusion. During the extreme persecution of the past, China was cut off from the universal church while modern theology was gaining influence. At that time, the Chinese house churches retained the most fundamental tenets of the faith and a belief in the Bible. It objectively became the most conservative church in the world. But now danger lurks on every side. Things like secular psychology, church growth strategy, and corporate management have all entered the church's root and branches. So the church must have a basic theological structure and church government. The church must deal with the various problems of urbanization more thoroughly and more carefully through shepherding. If it lacks this structure, the church will surely face a crisis never before seen and may walk down the same path of secularization that Europe and America had walked down.
First, the church must develop its internal structure. Second, it must actively welcome cultural challenges. I’ve realized that the liberal arts college is very much like a microcosm of the traditional house church. Many of the students we’ve recruited have come from traditional house churches. Most of them said that they could not handle the great influence of secularism. So, on the one hand, the church must thoroughly reform its theology and polity and pursue the tradition of the universal church. On the other hand, as the church confronts the great challenges of secularism (including political and social culture), it must develop a critical framework to meetthese challenges.
Looking at church history, a significant change within the Chinese church occurred when it was able to begin openly plant local churches inside cities. On the one hand, these churches were established in some sense as a result of loosening restrictions from the past. On the other hand, it was based on a certain ecclesiology. The last ten years we have seen a shift from small groups to local churches. So the Communist Party’s current suppression of the church is actually directed against our ecclesiology. From this perspective, we cannot only consider the importance of shepherding the church and our theology of worship. Even more importantly, we must consider how God has led the Chinese church over the past ten or so years.
One key point here is that we must be proactive in our interactions with the world. Suppose we wanted to plant an apple tree. Even if the world were going to end tomorrow, we would still plant it. Second, as we confront the evils of society and the growth of the church, we have a relatively realistic view. We do not believe that if the church gainsgreat influence over society, it will usher the world into a new Christendom. There are both active and passiveaspects in our eschatological views. “Active” and “realistic” go hand in hand. I consider it more important to have a correct attitude. For example, if the church does not actively shape the biblical worldviews of brothers and sisters in every realm, then they will be shaped by the values of the secular world. Neutrality is impossible. So, on the one hand, we emphasize the cultural mandate and actively engage with public life. On the other hand, we do not expect to achieve success in any general sense but to live out the gospel in every area of our lives. For the gospel’s transforming power is not limited only to our personal lives. You will display different aspects of the gospel to a greater or lesser degree in many different areas of culture.
Unlike this year, in the past our church did not often actively evangelize to the outside world. This is an age when the gospel is spreading quickly through public influence, especially through internet platforms. Early Rain may be the most prominent church in the public square. As a result, many people come here because we are famous. This has given the church access to many resources.The central problem at the moment is not increasing our numbers but rather building up a certain number of groups, helping them to live out the gospel authentically in every area—in their lives, through their visions, and even through the testimonies they give in their jobs.
In this stage, God has used an influential pastor like Wang Yi. We must meet in a large group. In the past, we tried splitting into campuses,but later we realized that even though the persecution at the moment is quite serious, when we look ahead ten or twenty years into the future, what will the house church look like? We act as a role model by standing our ground. Maintaining the structure of the church has great significance. In response to God’s leading, we are willing to do this. We may be suppressed because of our size, and we are willing. House churches do not need to actively confront the question of openness. It is passively being forced upon us. The church must actively consider its identity and place in the world, and it must actively understand its relationship with culture. How can it manifest the gospel in culture? So considering these aspects, I think our large size at the moment is quite significant.
Pastor Wang Yi: After May 12, our church’s gospel ministries focused on growing in two ways, one internal and one external. The first was street evangelism, and the second was the Nicodemus Bible Study. After the May 12 incident, the growth in the Nicodemus Bible Study was very obvious. It went through multiple breakthroughs in the past several weeks.Both the upstairs and downstairs were completely full with nearly 100 people. Now dozens of seekers attend each week. They are then brought into the small groups of the church. The Nicodemus Study is a Bible study especially geared toward seekers. It has continually grown from just a few dozen people. The Nicodemus Bible Study is our church's fastest-growing fellowship group in these past two or three years, and it has continued to grow since the May 12 and June 4 incidents. This is tied to the street gospel movement. We can see a number of phenomena throughout this process:
1. Young people's need of the gospel: our liberal arts college has many students right now. We have recognized a great need among young people. The students at our liberal arts college all meet here for worship. A large number of these young people are not yet 20 years old. Between our short-term missionsand June 4, pretty much all of them went to the police station. Some even went there two or three times. The large majority have been taking part in street evangelism. We have very clearly seen these young people’s growth. As far as spiritual development is concerned, their growth is very evident. The transformation of this group of young people has been very surprising and unexpected.
2. Church workers' transformation: we have also seen breakthroughs and growth in the lives of workers serving the church. May 28 was a very special day for me. Seven key co-workers and I went to the police station. The Lord greatly used that time to revive me spiritually. In the past, whenever I was taken there I was always alone and they were never rough with me. They were always polite. My spirit was calm. I would pray little by little. I wasn’t in a state of excitement. But that wasn’t the case on May 28. One reason for this was because this team of seven co-workers was taken in at the same time. The other reason was because we were treated harshly. Inside, the seven of us were beaten, choked, and so on. During that time, we prayed out loud and sang hymns. During the course of these events we experienced the filling of the Holy Spirit. Regardless of what beatings we received, we still prayed. Our spirits were greatly strengthened. And as far as they were concerned, if they wanted to suppress us any more, they would have had to use a greater degree of violence. They had already used all the methods at their disposal. If they increased their violence, they would have run into problems. They were afraid to risk it. We turned it into a prayer and worship meeting. During that time, we experienced a great revival. It really was very similar to Paul and Silas’s experience.
When conflict and persecution become white-hot in certain places, spiritual conflict suddenly becomes more real. There is an internal spiritual battle, and outwardly the police were yelling that President Xiis the savior. This is actually the idol of our age. This is the reality of the spirit of this age. But this is usually not visible to us. While the seven of us were in there, we realized that church revivals throughout history all happened through prayer. So we begged the Lord again for this kind of revival. Therefore on that day I experienced a great spiritual revival, and as I prayed, the questions I had previously been thinking about gradually started to become clear. What I very clearly and definitely saw was a gospel movement.
Some scholars say by the year 2030, China will have 240 million Christians and might become the largest Christian country in the world. This might happen. But it seems to me that from September of last year to May and June of this year, the number of Christians may have dropped, perhaps even dropped by 5 million. The growth of the Chinese house church over the past two or three years may already be at a standstill and may even be declining. That day when I was praying in there, I realized something: there are maybe 80 million Chinese Christians. Looking back, we see that the period from 1927 to 1937 all the way to the revival of the 1940s became the spiritual strength of the Chinese house church after 1949.The growth of the Chinese house church from 1980s until now is due tothe blood of the martyrs and a few revival preachers whom God greatly used. The new religious regulations are a turning point. The house church of today is no longer the church of the second half of the 1970s and 1980s, which grew out of suffering.
As a matter of fact, the main bulk of the house church is very weak, even very afraid. Like soldiers in a war, if the purpose of the war is avoiding sacrifice and sparing one’s own life, then the army will inevitably become very weak. This is a bit similar to the state of the Chinese house church in recent years. The churches in Henan or the churches where crosses have been torn down are completely different from those of the 80s and 90s. For churches during that time, the more they were oppressed, the more courageous they became. Wherever persecution came, the gospel spread. While I was praying in there, I said, “Lord, in the past, the growth of the church was a bit like guerrilla warfare.” China has 1.3 to 1.4 billion people. Its civil society has 10 to 20 million people. If it does not engage with mainstream culture, if it does not impact Chinese society, if it does not come in sharp conflict with emperor worship, it can grow to 80 million, but it cannot naturally grow anymore after that.
Under what circumstances did the Chinese house church grow to 80 million? It reached the peak of civil society throughprivate sectors (it cannot preach openly and is not legally recognized). We have been engaging in guerrilla warfare and tunnel warfare in the realms of society, politics, economics, and culture. We have not been fighting a positional warfare. Under these circumstances, I think 80 million is the peak. If we want to reach new heights (growing from 80 million to 150 million is an entirely different magnitude), then we need a new round of persecution today. Current growth may already be at a standstill. Persecution and the new religious regulations force the to church react.
Under these circumstances, we must come before God to pray for the church and for ourselves. I’ve prayed, “God, there are basically two possible scenarios in the next ten years. One is that I will be in prison for a relatively long period of time during the next ten years. If that is the case, I pray, ‘Lord, I will set aside all of my outside projects and devote myself to imprisonment, spreading the gospel in prison.’ The second scenario is that I may not be imprisoned for much time during the next ten years, or I may be imprisoned for a year and then be released. In the scope of ten years that is a short amount of time. I will be free for the great majority of that time. If that is the case, I ask you, Lord, to use me to turn the world upside down, to allow me to engage in even bolder ministry, to participate more fully in this gospel movement.” Because I’ve realized that in the next ten to twenty years, if a new gospel movement does not arise within China, it will be difficult for the church to reach a greater scale of magnitude in the future.
Looking at the experience of the church in Taiwan, after a period of growth in the 1970s it slowed down. Growing 1% every ten years, it cannot impact the entire society. So I’m asking the Lord to raise up a group of revival preachers in the next ten years and to raise up a gospel movement like the revival between 1927 and 1937. I’m asking the Lord that as he raises up laborers for himself, I might be included in that number. If he gives me another ten years, I will definitely retire before age 65. Regardless of whether or not I get to experience revival during these twenty years, twenty years is enough. After twenty years I will step down, and I may focus on writing. I’ve prayed to God, “I’m not asking for a long life but that you would give me 20 years. After I’m 65, if you want to continue using me, Lord, then that is your will.” I’m praying that God would use me in the next 10 to 20 years.
Another consideration concerns the mutual relationship between church polity and the gospel movement. My past thoughts about these were strung together. Chapter 4 of Ephesians says God has given us apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, and pastors. Prophets and apostles are the foundation of the entire New Testament church. Pastor and teacher are permanent roles within each church. But evangelist is not a specific role. Throughout church history they generally spoke of an evangelist as an “apostle to the Germanic people,” an “apostle to the Lisu people,” an “apostle to the Irish people,” or an “apostle to the Hmong people.” That is to say, when the gospel comes to a new people group and culture, in reality it is brought there by a group of apostle-like gospel ministers. After the Protestant Reformation, Catholicism quickly turned around and became one of the primary missional forces in the world. In addition to the control Catholicism had of the seas, another very important factor was the religious orders.
Catholicism has always had two systems. One is the local church system—the diocese. The other is the monastic system. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, revival movements and gospel movements have all come out of the monasteries. They have never come out of local churches. They have come out of the religious orders. For example, the Jesuits quickly became a very important order within the Catholic Church. It became a primary force in a gospel movement, a gospel movement that spread all over the world. At the time, the Protestant church was establishing a church polity in which all pastors were pastors of local churches. Religious orders did not exist. Then there was a breakthrough during the time of John Wesley. He stepped outside of the church and evangelized the common people and miners on the streets. Then missionary societies began to pop up. These were Protestant religious orders. In this way, a Protestant gospel movement began to burst forth and expand throughout the world.
So it seems to me that the church actually has two natures. One is its local church polity. The other is a gospel movement out of the everyday operations of the church, rooted in the local church, and with the goal of planting local churches. From this perspective, we can see that the same thing happened during the revival of the Chinese church between the 1920s and 1930s. A large number of mission societies wereborn out of the revival of the Chinese church—the Northwest Spiritual Organization, the Back to Jerusalem Evangelistic Organization, the Chinese Overseas Missions Union, and even missionary unions made up of church laity. I’ve also begun to reconsider Watchman Nee. He continually emphasized that he wasn’t a resident pastor but that he traveled everywhere, that he was an apostle. In reality he wanted to start a missionary society and promote a gospel movement. In fact, this brought about a flourishing of gathering places. These gathering places were not merely individual church plants. In reality they were a kind of national gospel movement, a kind of national missionary society that worked together to establish local churches.
Let us look again at the five main [Chinese house church networks] during the 80s and 90s. Throughout the development of ecclesiology in the Chinese church over the past dozen or so years, believers have all been in the same place.During this time, new local churches were formed, visible bodies of Christwere established, shepherding and teaching were emphasized, and residential pastors arose. This has been an important movement within the Chinese house church over the past ten years. It has led to a transition within the church to local churches and church planting. The recent religious regulations are attacking this kind of churches. They do not attack individual Christians. You can practice your religion freely, but you just can’t practice it with others. You can’t practice it openly. You can’t practice on the streets, and so on. What they attack is the visibility and expansion of the church, this covenantal body, throughout society. This is the target of their attacks.
Looking back, I think we lost sight of something these past ten years. (We react slowly.) The fire of the gospel movement has already been extinguished, or at least it is very weak, but we haven’t realized it. We think the Chinese church is growing rapidly. We’ve been vigorously planting churches. The traditional five main house church networks led a gospel movement that planted churches everywhere.But because they have not established a framework for pastoral care, they have had their own problems. Over the past ten years, the Chinese church has faced the problem of establishing a local church polity.Throughout this transformation, the distinct character of the gospel movement led by those missionary societies has begun to weaken. You could say that because the gospel movement lacked a support system for local church polity throughout the entire process, the movement’s growth has been stymied.
In the past, we tended to treat the formation of presbyteries and the formation of a gospel movement as one thing. We hoped that the presbytery can also become a gospel movement organization. But in these past two years we have clearly seen that there is a difference and a tension between presbyteries and gospel movement organizations. We must establish denominations,but the gospel movement and the creation of denominations, although related, are not the same. In reality, we must differentiate between the two. In church history, no movement has ever been started by church polity or the overtures of a general assembly. They have always come out of movements and cultures created by individual churches or people, who then influence more people and churches, eventually forming a gospel movement. This influence may be related to the polity of the church where you worship, but the two do not overlap. These are my thoughts on presbyteries. We need to think appropriately about the place of presbyteries. The churches where we reside should belong to a presbytery, but presbyteries are not the main driving force behind a gospel movement.
My hope is that Early Rain Covenant Church will be a missional church, that it would be a church that promotes a gospel movement. One aspect of this concerns church formation and pastoring, the other concerns the gospel movement.
After the June 4 incident, we decided to appoint more elders and deacons. We wanted the primary function of the deacons and some of the elders to be pastoring the church, to facilitate church fellowship— generosity, relationship, and care.So our church has recently formed a care group for those struggling with depression. But there is another group of church workers that we hope can be the main force behind the gospel movement. We are currently slowly looking at the different gifts and special traits of church workers. A few elders from the church have created an evangelism team. A group of brothers and sisters from the church who are willing to pray for the kingdom have created a prayer team to support the evangelism team. Our goal is to start a gospel movement through this evangelism team and prayer team. In the past, some places would invite me to go and evangelize by myself. But now we go as an evangelism team to serve. Of course, the evangelism team may become a para-church team in the future. This is the other aspect of my prayer to God, that church polity and the gospel movement may work together.
Interviewer: The church is in essence a missional community. There is tension between missions and community. How do you balance the two through pastoring?
Pastor Wang Yi: It takes time to reach a balance. We hope that the church’s pastoring and discipleship are oriented toward missions. Even though some people, throughout the course of being pastored, cannot follow the church’s mission and slowly leave this community (this is especially true when the mission becomes more and more clear, which leads to the danger of only a portion of church workers moving forward with it), this phenomenon is still unavoidable.
First of all, as long as any church wholeheartedly follows the Lord, there will surely be people who will leave it. This is unavoidable. If this church is urging you to yearn more for the Lord, to make more changes in your ultimate life goals, then this will cause stress. Missions is an important goal of pastoral care in the church. The goal of being pastored is to give yourself to God’s kingdom. You can attend prayer meetings. You can help babysit while others in the church are serving. You can volunteer for some ministries. Every believer can do these things. But we want the church to be a strong support for the army up front. We are fighting the same war. We have the same mission. Those on the front lines know they belong to a community. We want them to have firm personal relationshipswith other brothers and sisters through small groups. When one person goes out, many behind him are praying for him. For example, for our last “spiritual warrior camp,” we required each brother and sister participating to find six brothers and sisters to support and pray for them. Our hope is that if 50 people are participating in the gospel movement, they are in reality closely connected to 300 people. Those in the front will not think that they are disconnected with the church and that no one is thinking about them, and those in the back likewise will not think they have nothing to do with those up front. The mission of the kingdom is the goal of discipleship. It is an important standard by which we evaluate the effectiveness of discipleship.
As we are currently conceptualizing this, our pastoral team and team of deacons are both still quite weak. This is one of our main deficiencies. If the church grows too quickly throughout the struggles of the past few years, pastoral care will be lacking. I’ve also wondered if I haven’t been paying enough attention [to church members] if I haven’t been spending enough time eating with them. As far as our church is concerned, I haven’t spent enough time thinking about them. I haven’t had enough time to build relationships with everyone. There are still so many people I don’t know. As the size of the church continues to grow, the pastoral structure of the church must change with it. In the past, it was easy to talk with the pastor. Now, it is difficult. Now, if you want to invite the pastor to a meal, you may have to do it two months in advance. If our rate of growth slows down by half, then this won’t be a problem. But at the moment we are growing very quickly and haven’t had enough time to deal with it. There are also currently some brothers and sisters who, seeing that our church has several hundred people and a pastoral team, feel things are not the same as before anymore, and they are disappointed. The church is slowly trying to find a new pastoral care model, and the brothers and sisters there are slowly accepting this change.
In January of this year we began in our pastoring to emphasize grace-centeredness and spiritual friendship between brothers and sisters. Through the course of these teachings, brothers and sisters slowly began to realize the differences between a large church and a small church. Large churches have their own advantages. In a large church, faith is manifested in multiple levels. In a church of 30 to 50 people, you can have very close relationships. But in a large church you can still foster very deep fellowship and build spiritual friendships with others in your small groups. Moreover, you can still cross paths with other people in the church. The kingdom of God, the church, is presented to you on different levels, just like different levels of society. When you are walking on the street you don’t complain that you don’t know most of the people. You know that things happen on different levels. Some things happen on the level of two or three people; some things happen on the level of a dozen people; some things happen on the level of 180 people; and some things happen on greater, even unknown scales. You can experience rich unity with other lives on many levels within your spiritual relationships. You can experience life unity with othersin small groups, and you can experience spiritual unity in the church. Through multi-layered connections with other people, you can experience the richness of the community and the richness of grace. In this way, your spiritual experiences will be even richer.
Interviewer: Pastor [Tim] Keller once mentioned that a small group is like a family; four or five small groups are like a clan; and the church is like a city. I want to ask a clarifying question. What exactly is the mission of a missional community? The heart of a missional community is Christ-centered. It is living for Christ. From a certain perspective, if you define mission too specifically, you will actually lose the focus of the mission. There is some tension in this process. Do you think this will lead to some other problems?
Pastor Wang Yi: In January of this year, the church decided to express our mission with the phrase “Christ is Lord. Grace is King.” We then decided that the path to carry out this mission is “Bear the cross. Keep the faith.” For the past few years we have consistently discussed a vision of three “hua.” At the moment we have divided them into two aspects: one aspect is the nurturing and formation of God’s children by the local church. In this regard, we emphasize the same things as the traditional house church: the preaching of the Holy Word, the ministry of worship (the sacraments as the means of grace are very important), and the formation of fellowship. This is the word-centered church structure of the reformed tradition.
The other aspect is the gospel movement. The gospel movement is also split into two large parts. The first is preaching and church planting. Brothers and sisters here are clear that the church must establish churches that plant churches. (Our church is starting one or two at the moment. Since the church split two years ago until now, we have established two church plants. We now have seven total.) Brothers and sisters know that starting church plants is the direction this gospel movement needs to go. The second can be generally referred to as the cultural mandate. We have education, and through education we support apologetics and fight culture wars. This is tied to both education and also mercy ministries. Brothers and sisters here see that the church is committed to preaching, church planting, education, and mercy ministries. Brothers and sisters clearly see that the church has a great burden for preaching, for church planting, for education, and for culture.
In preaching and church planting, we also greatly emphasize creative ministries. Street evangelism was first started last year by a few young people in their twenties. They go out and sing gospel songs and pass out gospel tracts. They also write their own music. Recently, musicians from our church worked with musicians from Taiwan to put on a public gospel concert. Our theatrical troupe had a lot of influence last year. Since theater is not a very thriving industry in China, without the church it would be very difficult for a person to create a theatrical troupe. People in Chengdu are starting to learn about our theatrical group. They are realizing that there is Christian group putting on plays. Some creative ministries are currently in the works. In addition to the Spirit’s leading in the church, we are seeing his leading in arts and culture in this city.
Interviewer: Throughout this interview, I’ve seen an Early Rain Covenant Church that others don’t see, a more steady-paced and multifaceted church. What we’ve seen in the past one or two months is an aspect of the church that has become more visible through short-term goals and conflicts. But the rest of the church—a church that is rooted in pastoral care and that seeks personal growth out of which brothers and sisters take the initiative to start ministries—this part of the church is like the bottom part of an iceberg. It seems like everyone is only seeing the top of the iceberg. The largest part under the sea is the real Early Rain Covenant Church.
Pastor Wang Yi: Because of conflict with the government, Early Rain has suddenly entered into the public sphere and it is the church-state conflict side of things that has come to the forefront. In reality, if we did not complete the church split last year, or if we had split a year earlier, we would not have faced the May 12 and June 4 incidents with the strength we had this year because we would not have been sufficiently prepared for it. In these preparations, if our church was not fundamentally prepared pastorally and logistically, we would likely have not been able to face this persecution. After being raided, temporary revival may lead to trend of decline rather than a state of continual fervor.
Interviewer: When looking in from the outside, many things may grow to the point of becoming homogenized. But looking at your church from the inside, even though conflict with the outside is great, when you get inside the church what you really see and experience is the gospel itself.
Pastor Wang Yi: Yes. We’ve deeply felt that more and more people in Chinese society today are very hopeless. They long to find a way out through religion. This is when the church’s voice is most clear. The church’s voice is distinct. When it is attacked by social and political powers and does not retreat and is not afraid, this actually attracts all classes of people. They don’t come here because they want to do the same things we’re doing, but because they want to obtain whatever it is that is driving these people to do them, which is the gospel itself.
First, the pulpit must address the needs of this society. We must emphasize Christ-centered preaching in the pulpit. The church's teaching places more focus on man's fallenness (this establishes a connection point with people's sense of hopelessness about one’s own job, marriage, society, and country). When this general despair is vividly portrayed, your hopeless heart can then find satisfaction in the gospel.
Second, we emphasize ecclesiology. In our membership class, we ask everyone to share about their experiences in public life. Their general response is either that they have none—before coming to church they have never truly participated in public life, or that they have lost hope in it. As urbanization progresses in China, a large number of young people are living in another city. They are really attracted to church life. So we especially emphasize evangelism through the church. Brothers and sisters here have basically formed the opinion that the best evangelism method is by bringing people to church. One story that left a great impression on me concerns a sister who once brought her father to church. After church ended, a brother came up and hugged him. She said, “My father has not been hugged like this by anyone for many decades.” That kind of thing has a great impact.
Third, as we confront this general despair within society, we emphasize mercy ministries in the city. Even though very few people participate in these ministries, they really are necessary. Many people who feel hopeless about Chinese society are often encouraged and attracted by the church’s mercy ministries, and they are deeply moved. Our church greatly attracts some liberal intellectuals, young nationalists, human rights activists, and people from civic circles. When they see that the church is doing small, practical things, they are very moved. For example, one brother (who originally engaged in human rights activism everywhere) was baptized in May. His first time coming to our church was when he attended our June 4 prayer meeting last year. He was extremely shocked. He said he had never been to a place like this where so many people were openly commemorating June 4, singing hymns, and praying. He cried listening to the worship songs. Later, he moved to Chengdu to begin catechesis. He was just baptized this year and decided to serve the church full time. Many people who are hopeless about society come to know their Savior Jesus Christ through justice and mercy ministries in the church.
Interviewer: Regarding church justice and mercy ministries, how does the church remain focused on the core of the gospel and thereby keep people from straying from the gospel in their hearts and falling into the social gospel trend?
Pastor Wang Yi: First, we believe that [ministry] organizations function under the church. When this is the case, justice and mercy ministries are gospel ministries of the church itself. This is the anchor bywhich we strive to establish gospel-centered churches. Brothers and sisters and church workers who take part in this work are very aware of this. They basically all believe that if we are not spreading the gospel then this work is meaningless. One reason people tend to drift toward a social gospel is because of institutionalization. Institutionalization will produce an orientation toward ministries and result in a single goal, drifting away from the goal of the church. When we anchor ministries within the church, then ministries will not develop separate goals of their own. Moreover, the entire church exists within a gospel culture. Workers who are participating in ministries are being pastored within the church, so they have a comprehensive awareness [of the church’s mission].
For example, when we serve petitioners, we share the gospel with them. I remember when we first began the petitioner gospel fellowshiparound 15 years ago, all of the petitioners who attended our meeting thought the church would help them present their petitions and find lawyers. The first time we met, just as I was halfway through sharing, one person stood up and walked out because he felt that the church wasn’t there to help him. It was when we mentioned forgiveness that he stood up and left. During small group discussions, a number of those who didn’t leave said that they absolutely would not forgive the Communist Party. So those who wanted to receive concrete help from the church didn’t come anymore. Those who stayed very clearly knew the goal of the church and did not hold onto these false hopes.
Interviewer: There are many critics of the jointly-signed pastors’ statement issued by Early Rain Covenant Church. The question we’re concerned about is, "Why did the church start a signature campaign like this? What is the church’s position and to whom is it speaking?"
Pastor Wang Yi: That’s a good a question. The church is not simply speaking in order to defend itself. It is not as though we must speak up for ourselves because we are going to be beaten. God has given the church the role of a watchman. Therefore, the church has a mission to let the world know who the church is. Through the existence of the church and through the gospel it preaches, the world also must come to understand who the world itself is. So this is actually related to apologetics and missions.
Looking at the example and experience of the church throughout history, we see that as the early church faced more than 100 years of continual persecution by the Roman Empire, there arose a large number of martyrs and apologists. In addition to martyrs there were also many apologists who defended the faith, telling the world that was persecuting the church, including the emperors, what we believe, why we believe it, why we do what we do, and why we hold to these positions. There has always been an apologetic tradition throughout church history. This was also the case during the Reformation. Luther and Calvin both wrote these kinds of apologetic documents defending the church’s faith. In Chinese history, Wang Mingdao wrote We, For the Sake of the Faith in 1955, which is also an apologetic work. We, For the Sake of the Faith is more of a personal essay rather than a jointly-signed document or declaration.
When the government persecutes the church, we don’t think it is only harmful to the church. In reality, it is also harmful to the government. Even unbelievers are harmed because their opportunity to hear the gospel is diminished. To the church, it is not just us who are being suppressed. The whole world, the whole country, all people are harmed. The blessing of God might be removed, and he may discipline and judge them because this is something God is displeased with. So the church has the responsibility to proclaim these things to society and to the authorities.
From this perspective, we are not fighting against the persecution of the church within the public square using the language of the public square. This isn’t “fighting for rights.” The church explicitly refuses to appeal to worldly authority. We do not bring up the constitution, and we do not bring up laws. We do not say that it is wrong for the government to do this because it violates the constitution, and we do not say that it is wrong for the government to do this because it violates its own laws. We don’t mention these things. We only mention our faith. The reason it is wrong for the government to act in this way is because the Bible says it’s wrong. We believe the Bible, we believe God, and therefore we believe this action is wrong. We are not the only ones who will suffer loss. You will also suffer loss. The whole country will suffer loss. So we have the responsibility to proclaim this to society.
If we do not speak, then we have not fulfilled our responsibility as watchmen. This sin will then come upon us. But if we tell the world, and the world still keeps doing what it wants, then this sin has nothing to do with us. This is the responsibility of a watchman. So we only appeal to biblical faith. We do not appeal to any sources of secular authority. In essence, this is a gospel act. It is an apologetic and missional act. It is not a human rights movement. It is not an attempt to defend or fight for our rights in the public square.
Some say that the new regulations violate the constitution and that we should call for their abolishment or for a review of their constitutionality. This is not a religious appeal that a church or a group of pastors should make. I think it is great if Christian lawyers and intellectuals make this appeal on these grounds. But when pastors represent the church, our position is presented purely on religious grounds.
This declaration does not present any specific demands, and it is not written to the National People’s Congress or to the president. It is simply a declaration of pastors. Of course, we hope that everyone will see this declaration. We hope that the authorities, the leaders of this country, and the people will see it. We hope that Christians and non-Christians will see it. Because we have presented this joint declaration to this society, to this world into which the church is sent with a gospel mission.
Moreover, why do we insist that it be pastors who speak out? Because the focus of this persecution is directed against an ecclesiology. The goal is not actually to make every person renounce their faith but to prevent believers from gathering in one place. Why is the government tearing down crosses? Because you have publicly influenced this society. So how should the church respond? We respond to the government’s suppression of ecclesiology precisely by continuing to uphold our ecclesiology. Therefore, we are asking pastors to stand up and reveal their identity as pastors. I am not bringing this up in my role as a Chinese citizen (if this were the case, it would turn into a human rights movement). I am a pastor, an elder, a preacher. I stand before the flock, I represent the flock, and I act as a role model for the flock.
The Chinese church at the moment has not yet become an open church. There is not a strong consensus within church circles.Under these circumstances, if pastors don’t speak out then the church will not know what to do, and many believers will not know which course to follow. So at this point pastors are not only responsible for the churches and congregations where they reside, they also have a shared responsibility for the Lord’s flock. China has so many churches. Churches in many places are small and weak. Some places may not even have pastors. They need to be comforted. Through the clear voice of churches, we can encourage them and help them affirm and hold onto their faith. We can let them know what the basic attitude of Christians should be as they face these situations. So in this sense, the joint statement instructs and pastors the Lord’s church in China, the Lord’s flock.
Pastors who sign the joint statement may face increased danger. The decision of whether or not to sign the joint statement is not made based on consideration of how it will benefit one's church, but rather consideration of how it will influence the kingdom. From another perspective, this burden is a shared burden. As more pastors sign the joint statement, they divide up the pressure among themselves. From a nationwide perspective, this is actually a kind of burden-sharing. This allows churches that are under a lot of pressure to reduce that pressure, and churches that aren’t under pressure can take upon themselves some of that pressure. This is the how the body works together.
In my article “In the Face of Persecution, What Will I Do?” there are more personal considerations. It contains some suggestions that pastors and churches can refer to for help in their kingdom work. But the purpose of this article is different from that of the joint statement. I’ve shared with church colleagues and brothers and sisters that if someone wants to discuss something with you, the simplest method is to first show your cards. If you do this, you will be at ease. After you have thought clearly about what you want to undertake and what you’re willing to undertake through the grace of God, you can place that thing to the side. You don’t need to think about it anymore. This has also helped me to make my own resolutions. After I communicate this resolution, in reality I also hope that relevant government departments will see it. This reduces the cost of communication. Some things become easier if you already know what I’m going to do. This is also a kind of psychological preparation for me, for my family, and for the church. Because when you aren’t quite sure what cards you’ve got, you are continually thinking about them. But when you’ve decided for sure, there is nothing more to think about. You are free.
English translation provided by Moses, Ryan, and Brent of the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.