A Special Interview with Early Rain Covenant Church, Part 2: The Growth and Shepherding of the Church
Editor’s note: The following is Part 2 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: From May 12 until now, what is the pastoral staff's assessment regarding the state of the entire church and the lives of the brothers and sisters? How does the church continue to support and build up the lives of these brothers and sisters through pastoral practice? In this process, how should a church shepherd and strengthen those who are weak or even those who contemplate leaving?
Pastor Wang Yi: There are some who were weak in this process. Up until this point (October), there are about 5-6 people who have left, or transferred, or stopped coming to church because of pressures from their families. It is about 1% of a 600 member church. For example, there were several weddings in June, and one of them is a corporate renewal of wedding vows, but one husband decided to pull out last minute. He had some disagreements with the church. He felt that the actions of the church from May 12 to June 4 were too political. We reached out to them twice and after some conversation, he changed his mind and came to the renewal ceremony.
Through this process, the church has to strengthen the brothers and sisters by returning to the gospel over and over again. After May 12, there were brothers and sisters who shared their testimonies. The majority of their sharing is not about how brave they were, but they shared about their repentance. A brother shared that when he was forced to sign a pledge [to not attend the church] by the police, they rallied several leaders from his work [to pressure him]. (He works in the national government.) He is not a contentious person by nature, and he feared that if he does not sign the pledge they would dismiss him, so he signed it. When he signed it, he thought he would not be able to attend church tomorrow, so he wrote “I pledge that I would not attend any church activities in the next 7 days.” The next morning, when he realized that many brothers and sisters went to the gathering, the couple felt conflicted: did they not just sign that they would not go to church? Eventually they did come. And he shared about his struggle in the testimony. The majority of the testimonies are about the struggles, failures, repentance, and then the re-strengthening that comes through the gospel. There was basically no testimony that depicted anyone as firm, bold, and excited throughout the entire process. These sorts of honest and genuine testimonies became great encouragement and comfort to the brothers and sisters, because many shared similar experiences.
Preacher Zhang Xudong: I am in charge of membership, and I would visit and talk with those who wanted to transfer membership. First of all, I will empathize with their weakness. After May 12, we realize that not all of us are strong; some are truly weak. I encouraged everyone to be sympathetic. Because we shepherd in small groups, the group leaders will seek out the weak, and we are sympathetic toward them. For example, our small group has a sister who could not do anything, not even pray, but she only cried when I was taken away. I thanked her for crying for me, because if she cries for me it means that she is my sister and we are a family. When we encouraged her this way, she was strengthened.
Some were really agitated [by the events], and they felt that this is too public. Their conscience can not take it, and for these we comfort them. For example, there is a couple who were serving actively in the church. But because they have government jobs, the police harass them endlessly at their home. After some visitation and counseling, they decided to transfer their membership. I am still willing to care for them, and they are still our brothers and sisters. At the memorial service of our 15-year-old brother, they came, and we hugged. This is because we do not measure our actions but our faithfulness toward our Lord. Some who appear to be strong may not be truly strong. Some responses are unyielding perhaps because they like the excitement; it may not be true strength. But on the whole, when we complement each other we will be stronger, and you have to accept that everyone has different circumstances.
Elder Su Bingsen: After May 12, the responses we have represent a variety of psychological states. Some were brave, and some were weak. All have to be healed by the gospel. One thing that stood out in my mind was a student who did not come on that day, but he felt guilty afterwards. Everyone was sharing about this event and their experiences at the local police station, so he felt a little disheartened. On the next day, some [policemen] came while he was serving in the classroom, and he boldly went to greet them. This experience seemed to have soothed his guilt and discouragement. But when he shared his testimony in the church, he was very honest about his motivation and his weakness. In the shepherding process, we invited brothers and sisters to share their feelings in small groups, and we also invited them to share with the church. The key here is honesty. We have to face ourselves honestly because we do not depend on ourselves; we depend on the righteousness of Christ to build our relationship with God. So, we encouraged him to be reconciled to God in this aspect and to remove his guilt.
Those who were brave also need the healing of the gospel. On the night of May 11, Pastor [Wang Yi] was detained (because the prayer event was happening on the next day, May 12). Several of us co-workers were waiting for him outside, expecting to return home around 2am to 3am. But because we still had the prayer event early the next day and we knew that the police were targeting this event specifically, we saw police cars coming in when we went to our neighborhoods. Eventually we decided to just sleep at church and not go home. On the next day, police cars came for the raid and we had a birds-eye view from the top when we captured everything from the windows. Several of us were praying ceaselessly in the church because the church was blocked from the outside; we could not go out and others could not enter. At that point, we were quite nervous. But when we heard that there were many brothers and sisters singing hymns downstairs in their cars, their melodies moved me and encouraged us. Some of the brothers and sisters were very brave. I saw later in the video that some of them were willing to be taken away, including some sisters with children. In the process, some acts of bravery were too hot-blooded, and this is why I said that the brave also need healing. Some of them shared that they had some small regrets after they came out from the police station. For example, they should not have talked to the police so much because they were tricked into providing oral evidence. Some regretted that they should not have been so unyielding. Perhaps their nervousness caused them to be more hot-blooded. This valor of the flesh needs to be healed in the gospel.
Preacher Li Yingqiang: Our church, the pastoral team, and the brothers and sisters have experienced great grace in the last half of the year. Maybe a lot of other churches do not understand it from the outside, but internally, it is crystal clear. This year, many brothers and sisters were rejuvenated by God, and they began to offer themselves more. They saw the grace of God and the upside-down nature of the gospel. This does not just happen on a theoretical level, but it is happening in their real lives. When their lives are turned upside-down by the gospel, they see things from a kingdom-perspective, and they see opportunities everywhere to work for the Lord and gain his reward. It is like the shrewd children of this age; they look at the market and see opportunities everywhere. The children of light and the children of eternal life find opportunities everywhere for the work of eternal life. These are opportunities to accumulate treasures in heaven. This is being turned upside-down.
Two days ago, a sister who was a new believer asked me, “When we actively welcome persecution and prepare ourselves to endure it so that we may accumulate treasures in heaven – isn't this a form of utilitarianism?” I told her that if you understand this as utilitarianism, it is the best kind of utilitarianism there is. Christians should have this “utilitarianism” which is completely anti-utilitarian. This view means that a Christian has entirely abandoned the bondage of this world. If a person desires the heavenly crown and heavenly treasures so much that he denies himself and labors tirelessly for the Lord in every area of his life and in every situation that the Lord places him in, if he strives to live by the Lord's strength in order to gain the Lord's reward – isn't this a wonderful thing?
I shared similar beliefs when I was a new believer. I did not want to talk about heavenly things because I thought it sounded like utilitarianism. I was very indifferent to these things. Even if the Lord does not reward me with good things, I will still follow him because I love him. But actually this mentality is very hypocritical. It is very deceptive and extremely prideful. If you follow the Lord for nothing at all, who do you think he is? Who do you think you are? The heavenly kingdom is extremely attractive. Our hope and motivation to live for the kingdom is not of this earth, but with our Lord. If it is with the Lord it does not mean that we can only obtain it in the future. The Lord will bestow on us joy in accordance to our faith, and we can obtain it from now until eternity. It is not something reserved for the future, but now you can taste the final glory and victory, albeit imperfectly. Today you can obtain it, and today you can taste the sweetness of grace.
This is something that the world does not understand. If Christians do not suffer, it will be our end. If we escape this suffering by being wise like a serpent, then it will be impossible to bless the people of this land who are opposing the gospel. They have been enslaved by moralism and legalism for thousands of years. They want to be good; they want to find their worth in life by pursuing righteous deeds, virtues, and speeches. They have been enslaved by this for thousands of years. The gospel that we preach is an incarnate gospel, and today through his body on earth – the church, we serve the people of this earth and let others see how much the Lord loves them. We show them how a longsuffering and gentle love can be manifested in the midst of shame, persecution, and suffering. This [love] is from the Lord and from us. If we abide in him, the Lord will give his love to us.
Preacher Zhang Xudong: Since May 12, our church has been enduring pressures from every direction, yet our membership continues to grow. Our sanctuary on the 23rdFloor and 19thfloor were so packed that we have to rent the 6thfloor as well. If the Lord permits we will continue to move forward; and if he wants us to stop, that is according to his will. If they were to persecute us and apprehend us, we are already prepared. We even prepared toothbrushes and toothpaste. And for lazy people like me, I did not even bother with these toiletries since I will be in prison anyway.
Currently, we have 70 people in this discipleship class. Over 20 of them will be baptized, another 20 of them are transferring in from other churches, and another 10 of them are from the liberal arts college. For those who are transferring, I will assess their motivations and reasons by conversing with them. Many of them came to Chengdu for work or other reasons. For local Christians, we generally advise them to remain in their respective churches, so that they can be pastored there.
In the discipleship class, I frequently tell them: you must know why you come to the church. If you come here for democracy, then you’d better stop because the church is not a democracy, it is a theocracy and you have to submit yourselves. If you come merely to love one another, then you’d better stop because people have no love to give. Only the Lord can give us love. If you are only pursuing other people's love, one day you will despair because they will grow weak. If you confess that you truly need God's salvation and you have experienced the salvation of Jesus Christ, and you have come and worship him with a grateful heart, then come to church. Before transferring their membership or being baptized, they will receive clear teaching on the Confession of Faith and the Book of Church Order. The first half of the curriculum is a prerequisite for membership transfers.
Pastor Wang Yi: We made an important and major adjustment at the end of last year. In the past, I led a Bible study class on the Shorter Catechism. The class would normally have 70-80 people but is weak in fellowship. From the end of last year, I’ve stopped leading this class, and started leading training for small group leaders (the church has over twenty small groups). The small groups are divided by geographical location – two or three small groups will form a district, and we have five districts. If something major happened in a small group, for example someone is admitted to the hospital, surgeries, accidents, marital problems, or even matters requiring church discipline, the small group leaders will report to the district leader. In this training, we spent half of the time doing Bible study and the other half on application. Sometimes it is a case study, thus guiding the leaders to encourage, ask and discuss the problems of the small groups by studying the Bible. The leaders would then go back and lead the small groups. Throughout this process I will encourage the leaders to focus on those who are straying or confused. We will also share testimonies and reflect in small groups.
Besides this, we have already prepared an emergency contingency plan. [The events of] May 12 and June 4 are basically exercises for the plan. Even though things did not happen as expected – we were expecting to be detained one by one – the reality is that the leaders will lose their freedom. In this process, there are about 1-3 hours of confusion, but the co-workers quickly made ministry arrangements, and the brothers and sisters followed through. Even though it is not perfect, I think God gave us a great encouragement and faith.
Preacher Zhang Xudong: You know that our church experienced a huge disagreement in 2016, and those with differing opinions split. Looking back, that split is truly God’s grace and blessing. Everyone was more united after that event, and they were able to build each other up through shepherding. Going back to the sister I’ve mentioned earlier, she feels weak in herself. But when she experiences love, she understands that this is not just a church that rushes headlong haphazardly, but there is the love of God teeming within. Her life will be transformed. When she saw that our Bibles were confiscated, she gave actively. So, we have to see the transformation of her whole life and not just outward appearances. During the shepherding process, the key is the nature of a person's life in the gospel!
Jiang Rong: When the church experiences these events together, the pulpit ministers to me in a very meaningful way. An important focuses is the church’s annual Bible reading plan. Every day, a pastor or a preacher will share his devotional notes. When the brothers and sisters study God’s word together and experience these things together, the application can be especially encouraging for me.
Another important thing is to face and experience the gospel in a church community. Not long ago, a young brother passed away. When we went through this tragedy together, we deeply felt that even death would not separate us from the love of Christ. Death cannot rule over us. In the midst of painful suffering, we face and experience it together as a church: the church fasted together, the brothers and sisters accompanied them in shifts, and the pastoral team provided special comfort and counseling. After facing this death together, we have greater confidence in facing persecution and suffering.
As the wife of Wang Yi, I have been worried about his physical suffering for many years. Recently he mentioned in his article: “Until my health and sanity has been brought to ruin.” This used to be my greatest worry. Even though when he wrote this article, I was still fearful and concerned, feeling that persecution is growing deeper and deeper. The passing of this dear little brother has shown us that death has no hold on us. The worse-case scenario is that we leave this suffering and are united with the Lord. This drove away a lot of my fear.
Brother A: Every sermon and Bible study that I attended is faithful to the Bible. Men are indeed weak. For various reasons, we stumble and grow weak when we face suffering and setbacks. But I believe that God has proclaimed the gospel and revealed his truth. What we believe is true and ought to be held firm.
Brother B: I think that firstly, there is the preaching of God’s Word. When we hear God’s word, it builds up our lives and constructs a right theological value system and a right worldview. Secondly, there are the lives of the church leaders. Their lives show us that we can indeed follow them, and we are very much encouraged and protected by them. The church leaders are very open, and they do not hide their thoughts or emotions from their congregants. They will share their weakness. Interactions with the pastor are very comfortable. It is a true interpersonal relationship.
Elder Su Bingsen: The more important thing is the proclamation of the word. On the one hand, this is a Reformed tradition, and there are various aversions toward implementing the Reformed tradition in the Chinese churches. On the other hand, we also emphasize the continuity of the Chinese house church traditions. For example, our hymn book contains both classical hymns and traditional house churches songs, because we hope to combine both faith and emotions. Pastor Wang will also teach on the history of the Chinese house churches. There are a lot of deep reflections on boldness, weakness, suffering, glory, and especially sin from the pulpit. Pastor Wang will often say, “You look at me and think that I am very brave, but I am actually quite weak sometimes.” He mentioned that he is often very anxious when he is up on the pulpit because you never know when the police might storm in.
We see that we cannot control some of our involuntary reactions, but how you depend on God's word in this process and build up your life, so that you foster a different kind of strength. So May 12 is a kind of test that revealed the reality of our faith. Some were afraid, some even contemplated transferring churches or stopped coming – we will go to comfort these members and build them up.
Throughout these events, there are also various voices externally and internally. This is especially true when we reflect on the church-and-state relationship, which in turn affects the brothers and sisters. We therefore proclaim our position on church-and-state relationship from the pulpit, and Pastor Wang is very clear in this proclamation. First, we as Christians do not appeal to any political system. Second, we hope to be able to preach the gospel freely under any political system. Our appeal is the appeal of the gospel. For example, in a small group for petitioners: how can we transform certain situations which seemed very political into something that is gospel related? Brother Zhang Guoqing mentioned that these visitors actually have a lot of bitterness and hatred in their hearts. When they first came to the church, they could not listen to the preaching of the word. Some were even doubtful whether the church is helping the government. Some called to berate the church. But if you truly and patiently care for them in the gospel, these visitors will be transformed and some even become Christians. The Petition Center in Chengdu called us once and asked if brother Zhang could come meet them because there was a very difficult individual. Even the government workers recognized the power of the gospel.
Besides this, a meeting at a brother’s house before May 12 left me with a strong impression. His house was located in the disaster area of the earthquake, and he took a huge risk to host us. Eventually the officers from the Religious Bureau and policemen came. Some criticized us that wherever Early Rain goes, people are exposed. Initially, [the officers’] reactions were very intense, but Pastor Wang talked to them. They left some officers to talk religion with us peacefully, and they asked us for Bibles on their own. The brother who hosted us was shocked to see this because if this event had not happened, he would never imagine that officers from the Religious Bureau would come in contact with the Bible. Regardless whether they eventually believed, at least they asked for the Bibles. And because they have limited resources, we mailed them the Bibles. The brother who hosted us was also strengthened.
At a time when people think that there is a gap in our approach, for example, in the case concerning the extreme petitioners or the persecution of the government – if we are trained in the gospel, or if we have more experience, God will allow us to transform these situations into opportunities for the gospel. This is just like how Paul's appeal before the magistrates. The success of the appeal is not the most important, but the appeal transforms the situation into an opportunity for the gospel.
Pastor Wang Yi: Our main pastoral approach is to reach the lives of the brothers and sisters through the small groups. There are two types of small groups: general and functional. In our pastoral practices, the functional small groups meet once every month. We don't let them turn weekly. The weekly small groups are general small groups. For example, the couples small groups focus on the relationships between husbands and wives; it is a monthly functional group. The members of this small group are mixed – that is to say there are 7-8 couples in this group who come from different general small groups. Brothers and sisters must first commit to general small groups. Based on their steady commitment to the general groups, they can then join these functional groups and serve the church's gospel ministry in a broader way. The basic purpose is to ensure every member has a steady commitment to the general small groups because this is where they live their lives.
Bible studies in small groups are connected to the sermon from the pulpit. The church will have a main theme and a specific book (sometimes there may be additional books but there is always one main book) every year, and this book then becomes the content for Bible studies in small groups and also expository preaching from the pulpit. Small groups will first study a section of scripture, and then the pulpit will preach on it. Even though this is a huge challenge for the pulpit, it is very beneficial to the brothers and sisters.
In 2017, we started a training class for small group leaders: preliminary study, preaching, then the leaders will lead mid-week Bible studies. This reduced the stress of small group leaders in their preparation for leading Bible studies. This year we have boldly added a few more group leaders. On the one hand, we take into account the size of the church and our effective pastoral volume. On the other hand, we do this to prepare for persecution. We hope that there are more small groups being formed and stabilized. Our training class meets for 3 hours (7-10pm), and we will have dinner together once a month. The leaders will meet together on Friday evenings. The Bible study takes about an hour, and then we will discuss matters of the church. I will challenge the group leaders to apply the word to their groups: how to respond to specific situations in their groups or to challenge the lives of their members with the Bible. Sometimes the group leaders will bring up some case studies, and we will discuss and propose solutions. Therefore, it is not just a Bible study, but training and shepherding ground for small group leaders.
Preacher Zhang Xudong: The growth of the church is closely tied to the shepherding process. From May 12 to June, because of these raids on the church, the growth has naturally been affected. In September, there will be fewer baptisms. Those who were baptized in June actually came in April, and those who have committed themselves and were pastored in April will be fine after they have experienced May 12. But those who are going to be baptized in September were still in the gospel class from April through June, and their faith has not been firmly grounded yet, but those who come after June may be better.
The church will continue to grow and bear fruit under the shepherding process. We grow exponentially every time we are raided. For example, we had around 10-20 baptisms each quarter last year. This is a blessing, and God will continue to encourage you to do this.
Brother Xiao: “Grace is King. Bear the Cross.” These few words deeply affected me. I committed myself to this church, and I bear witness to my faith in a biblical way. I walk the way of the cross to share the good news of the cross with the world, with this country, and with a lot of people in this city who do not yet know this news. When my life is continually built on the gospel – willing to deny myself to follow the Lord, willing to bear [the cross] – I realize what the cross means to a Christian. “The cross is my glory” is not simply a phrase, but a lifelong testimony.
When I came out of school, I was still serving in 6-7 student groups that I could influence their lives with mine. Another [part] is the establishment of a gospel community. I came to the gospel through individualism and liberalism, and I had some misunderstanding regarding communal or corporate identity. After transferring my membership to this church, I have grown deeper in my understanding about the corporate nature of the kingdom of heaven, and I see the value of a corporate nature in the gospel. I understand how a person is shaped in the community and what they will become in the future. All in all, I am full of hope in such a corporate body.
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.