A Special Interview with Early Rain Covenant Church, Part 3: The Structure of the Shepherding Team
Editor’s note: The following is Part 3 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: Thanks be to God, that he continues to add believers to ERCC. In this process, how does the church face the challenges of shepherding the flock?
Pastor Wang Yi: Before roughly 2015, the church started to increase in scale. As a pastor, I knew every congregant when the church was around 100-200 people, and I was familiar with all of their situations. But when the congregation grew to over 300, I realized that I don’t really know some of the members. In the years where the church grew rapidly, we added over 100 people every year. The church was doubled after 2-3 years. The original colleagues and brothers and sisters felt out of place. There was a kind of disappointment: some complained that they didn’t see the pastor as much anymore; it was more difficult to grab a meal together than it used to be; their relationship with the pastor was weaker. They felt that the church was better when the size was smaller because the relationships felt more intimate. The co-workers and the congregation were getting used to this process, including me.
The idea of a Christian community began to be formed in the church. The church is a community – it is a multi-layered intersection of lives. When a church has 40 members, you know everyone. When the church is 500-600 strong, and if you are part of a small group, the small group becomes your home where you foster deeper relationships. If your group has 20 people and you meet every week, you will have deep friendships and prayerful relationships among you. If you do not participate in other ministries in the church, you may only know these 20 people. In public worship on Sunday, you do not know most of the people. This is another perspective on fellowship that is manifested by the Christian church, and it is a picture of the kingdom. If you participate in other ministries of the church – you may be part of the welcoming team or the choir, or you may also join some other functional groups, then such a believer will have a multi-layered church life. When a church is several hundred strong, it is an abundant community. If you commit yourself properly to a church, you will experience this multi-layered and abundant church life.
I then started to issue a challenge and a reminder: if you do not commit yourself to a small group in a church of several hundred members, you will definitely feel isolated. You will come to the church to sit in a corner and you will inevitably feel marginalized. You will not want to have deep relationships with others because it will be too costly for you to invest more in the church. I will then remind everyone of this danger, and I will challenge them. Ever since we split last year, we started to aim for 100% small group commitment (in past years, the percentage of brothers and sisters in small group was not very high, around 60-70%). Every brother and sister ought to commit themselves to a small group. Even if they do not attend every week, we want to put you into a small group, and you become part of that small group.
Preacher Zhang Xudong: We have a holistic shepherding structure. The membership department I am in charge of has a connective function: there are 20-odd small groups, and above the small groups are district and district leaders. First of all, the small group leaders will shepherd the small group members; and if they are maxed out, the district leader will step in. If the district leaders are maxed out, the preachers and elders will step in. All the small group leaders and district leaders are shepherded by the pastor. Every week, we have small group leaders’ training in the pastor’s house, and this is holistic shepherding. Currently, we have a good shepherding team made up of small group leaders. The relationships among the 20-30 members within the small group are very deep. If the church continues to grow, we will add more small groups. For me personally, even if I’m not preaching on Sunday, I will be welcoming people at the entrance and getting to know the people. When I welcome them, you can identify those brothers and sisters who are weak and care for them.
After the morning meeting of the October 1 retreat, we organized workshops which focused on different target groups. The members shared sincerely, and their testimonies touched a lot of people. You will see that the life experience of others is very inspiring. Many brothers and sisters shared that the workshops left a deep impression with them, and that kind of life sharing is very contagious. This is not empty preaching, but examples of people living out the gospel.
After the sermon on Sundays, there are two other important ministries: the first is the Shorter Catechism that strengthens our faith; the second is the Sunday School that equips our lives. The Sunday school covers rich content, including OT and NT introductions. Recently, brother Ran Yunfei is sharing on the topic of culture. Other than basic, holistic shepherding, there are different layers of shepherding (Sunday school, young adult group, singles group, couples group, elderly group, and other monthly functional groups like these), so that the lives of the brothers and sisters may be pastored holistically. This is to equip them to live out God’s word in their lives and to glorify him. Most importantly, this is being incarnational, so that the word becomes your life and the life of Christ is lived out.
Another [aspect] is submission to God for spiritual formation. Now we have morning prayer every day. After the split in 2017, we experienced great blessings and we began to humble ourselves before God more deeply. We switched from having Saturday morning prayer to daily morning prayer. There is a difference between praying on your knees and praying while sitting up. Kneeling down will induce a posture of submission before God so that we do not haphazardly mumble an ‘Amen,’ but we do sincerely pray before God. When a little boy in our church was injured, we started praying at noon and some were kneeling for three hours straight. In prayer we truly humble ourselves and pour ourselves out so that the grace of God is poured upon us.
When we split, we also saw areas of the church that needed to be changed. For example, the pastor is very strong in his preaching but there was a lack of prayer, so we increased our prayer. We did not provide enough care for our members, so we established the membership department after the split. In the past we have the membership tags but there were about 100 members out of 600 who did not collect their tags; that is to say, nobody knew that people were leaving. After we established the membership department, we paid attention to every member and we seek to know the sheep. We want to know their names, and then protect and shepherd them. In the new sanctuary we also set up feedback boxes to collect feedback from members. In reality, not many will give much feedback because if they are cared and pastored in small groups, they seek out small group leaders if they have an opinion. The small group leaders then seek out the pastor or elders. In order to shepherd every member in the church, commitment to a small group is the basic requirement for baptism and transferring of membership. If a person only commits to come to Sunday services, it will generate a lot of problems in pastoral practice.
Elder Su Bingsen: One of the greatest challenges in pastoral practices is understanding the Presbyterian polity. When we split, there were many areas of growth. On the one hand, there is the area of structural governance of the church; on the other hand, there is growth in theology and understanding the challenges of the modern anti-authority culture that we inhabit. How to handle a one-man, one-vote system and manage the practical influences of different gifts, thoughts, and insights when discussing our daily official business? Yet at the same time, we especially need to respect the spiritual acuity of the pastor. Thus, it is important to learn through the Presbyterian polity how to protect, limit, and reasonably supervise the pastor while allowing him to fully utilize his gifts – to encourage him but not micro-manage him. So in one sense, the splitting of our church has actually encouraged greater unity. There is a deeper openness between each other, and the members became more passionate. Building on this foundation, we experienced these persecutions, including the recent funeral, so that the brothers and sisters are bonded strongly together. This bond is built on the theology of the gospel – how the eternal hope is truly experienced in the mutual encouragement and care of the brothers and sisters. For example, after one car accident we made a small booklet consisting mainly of the prayers of brothers and sisters, and we encouraged them: it is not only for spiritual leaders to attend to spiritual things, but brothers and sisters can also practice prayers, visitations, and evangelism. We hope that every family will serve! Everybody will serve!
Secondly, the preaching on Sundays is the most important pastoral practice. The pulpit is an important ministry to shape the worldview of the congregants. It is an important foundation for small groups and mutual shepherding. For example, there are usually some initial problems when a church starts a school – like the problem of integration and the future of the children. In our church, because our pastor teaches abundantly on the spheres of worldview, these initial problems were unknowingly resolved from the pulpit, and it allowed us to be more relaxed in running the school. Overall no parents came to ask these initial questions, and the parents were very firm in their decision: even if this school is closed, we will not send our children to public schools. Even if others come from out of town to attend our school, we will tell them that this school may be closed at any time. The key is to know that if you have chosen an education for your children in the Lord, and yet for various reasons you eventually transfer them to public schools, then you have wasted your time and your training as a parent. Therefore, the preaching from the pulpit is an important means of shepherding.
Thirdly, while facing challenges in theology, on the one hand, we ought to clearly state the confession of faith in our church’s constitution; on the other hand, the pastor is very helpful in communicating the cold, hard truth of Reformed theology in a practical and vivid way to engage the hearts of the congregants. For those congregants who will be baptized or transferred to our church, there is a strong membership class so that they understand clearly what they believe. Besides, the congregant has to commit himself to Sunday services and to weekly small groups, so that he can be built up in the life of the church.
How do the co-workers grow deeper in the word then? On the one hand, the church will hold periodic seminars; on the other hand, the church established a discipleship school that offers some basic theology courses. We will offer some basic theology courses according to the practical needs of the church, so that there is growth in theological knowledge. Even though we have a clear theological position and expression, we are gentle and winsome towards other denominations. We will also have theological forums to encourage churches to return to the gospel.
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.