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Renewing Grace: Thoughts on the Direction of Church Planting Ministry in Beijing

A brief history of church planting in Beijing, China, and how it is being influenced by the church planting efforts and theological reflections going on in the U.S.A.

By Zhen Gao

Originally published in Church China, November, 2010; used with permission.

Shizhao | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.5
Shizhao | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.5

A Recent History of Revival of the Church in Beijing

I have observed growth in the Beijing urban church in the last three decades. Of course, Beijing church is part of the church in China and all the urban and rural churches represent the Chinese church in some way or another. Before we can focus on the growth and development of the Beijing churches, we need to look across the whole nation.

The Chinese church has been growing rapidly since the early 1980’s. Many political and economic incidences have taken place since The Reform and the opening up of China to the rest of the world, such as the development of the Chinese economy, massive foreign-directed investment, and Deng Xiao Ping’s tour of the South that brought about big changes to the structure of Chinese society. Many foreign businesspeople came to China; Taiwanese people started to visit the mainland; mainland students studied abroad and emigrated; people’s mobility increased, and so on.

In addition, the gospel was widely shared and many churches started developing. Before that, the Chinese church had been in a deeply suppressed state, meaning that even though there were a number of churches, they had no influence. But God raised up the rural churches, uniting the believers by His power despite their physical poverty and lack of spiritual resources. As a result, many were drawn to Christ. During this time churches were passionate about sharing the gospel; they were revived; and they were united spiritually. All the churches had a common vision–to share the gospel everywhere they could. During this decade numerous churches were raised up and developed at this time–such as Living Water Fellowship, Chinese Gospel Fellowship, Yingshang Church and Fangcheng Church, among others.

In the 1990’s churches began to solidify their spiritual foundation. Lots of workers were called by God into ministry and churches paid more attention to the work of pastors. But the church still lacked deeper discipleship. The believers needed equipping; they needed to study; they needed to mature and grow up spiritually and know God better. They needed to think more about the relationship between church and politics as well as the relationship between society and church. So seminaries were built and many workers were called and equipped. There were constant short term and long term courses offered as well as various trainings. Some foreign pastors came over to help in the teaching.

In Beijing, the church has been growing since the late 90’s. During this time, many intellectuals started to flock to the churches. God built His church in Beijing by raising up some intellectual Christians who then formed the leadership of a house church planting movement. Then, churches in Beijing began to grow towards maturity. The characteristics of church development were:

1. A development of a more systematic leadership over churches: There arose a more well-organized Christian governance, theological structures and educational system.
2. Gospel for intellectuals: This trait could be seen especially in the rise of campus ministries that sought to reach college students and teachers with the gospel.
3. Full-time preachers: Full-time preachers became more and more commonplace. Many of them were ordained as pastors and began to be supported through church offerings. When you see the word “full-time,” please don’t think of something negative. This is a phase of church development.

These urban churches may be cataloged according to membership and according to forms of gathering:

1. According to membership

a. Local churches: started by locals and most of them gathering in their flats;
b. New immigrant churches: made up mostly of migrant workers in Beijing;
c. Intellectuals and specialist churches

2. According to forms of gathering

a. Churches meeting in public halls: these churches tend to be medium to large in size, for example, Watchful Church and New Zion Church;
b. Planted churches: these churches gather in different corners of the city, for example, Gospel Church and Wheat Church;
c. Fellowship churches: these churches are the most numerous in Beijing and have small sized gatherings. The preachers usually lack training as well as a vision for a more systematic leadership.

All the different types of churches that I have mentioned above are together called “Beijing house churches.”

The Current Characteristics of the Planted Churches

Beijing Gospel Church that I am pastoring is a planted church. This article will engage the main subject through the perspective of this form of church. This form of church encountered some problems as they started and developed:

1. There was a passiveness with regard to church planting and new developments.
2. Preachers often had no experience in church planting.
3. Co-workers, likewise, had no training related to church planting.

However, there were two drives that resulted in the development and planting of this kind of church and they were both external. One was “pressure from the policies,” in other words, pressure from the government to limit the number of congregants. As a result, we had to plant more churches. The other was “space limitations,”in other words, as the church grew in size rapidly, the size and layout of apartments (where many churches met) limited the scale of the gatherings, so we had to plant more churches.

We can use the history of Beijing Gospel Church as an example. Gospel Church got its start in 1999 and she went through the following development periods:

Year Period Number of Congregations Description of Planted Churches
1999 – 2001 Embryonic period 1 The church was being planted and the gospel was shared diligently.
2002 – 2003 Incubation period, pre-Explosion period 1+3=4 During the SARS period, seekers rushed into the church and so 3 more congregations were planted.
2004 – 2005 Explosion period 4+8=12 With the introduction of “new religious policies,” the church experienced persecution for the first time. As a result, 8 more congregations were sent out from the original 4.
2006 – 2007 Equipping period 12 The churches gained stability and more workers rose up. There was no planting during this time.
2008 Small Growth period 12+4=16 In the year of Beijing Olympics, the church faced another round of persecution. 6 churches were forced to move from their meeting locations. Churches were forced to split up, resulting in 16 home churches from the original 12.

Our church planting and development was carried out without any preparation or training on our part. Surely, we believe that the sovereignty of God is at work and that He was using the environment and external difficulties to bless the churches.

To sum up, for the past ten years, the stance of the Gospel Church towards development has been one of passivity. Our church planting and development was carried out without any preparation or training on our part. Surely, we believe that the sovereignty of God is at work and that He was using the environment and external difficulties to bless the churches. As Paul said in Romans 11:33-36 (ESV):

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Thoughts on Training for Church Planting

In the summer of 2009 I received training at Redeemer Church Planting Center (RCPC) in New York City. New York is similar to the city of Beijing in many ways. Both are international and cosmopolitan; everyone is very busy; the traffic is heavy; people are indifferent; materialism and secularism dominate. Redeemer lives in this kind of environment and it is still constantly planting more churches and developing and leading a global urban church planting ministry whose purpose is to help churches in other places plant more churches. Their approach is to favor teamwork rather than rely only on one or two leaders’ abilities. Redeemer’s ministry is very impressive and significant in the U.S. What I have learned from them has renewed and refreshed me.

Focus on the Gospel Theology of “Renewing Grace”

The core of the church planting ministry at Redeemer is to focus on the gospel theology of “renewing grace.” The core content of this gospel of grace is something churches in China are familiar with, namely the birth, the suffering, the death, the resurrection and the ascension of Christ. In fact, the churches in China have been proclaiming all of these in the past 30 years of her development. Redeemer is proclaiming the same, but the key difference is that they make the gospel alive to the people! They not only proclaim the gospel clearly but also seek to integrate and live out the gospel in their church life, spiritual life, and in building personal character.

The cosmopolitan world influenced by postmodernism is full of secularism. People love materialism and they are living a self-centered life. How can we bring the gospel to them? The difference between us and Redeemer is the message they are preaching. They do not preach legalism or mere morality and ethics but the gospel. It is so easy for us to stay within the formalities of a religion, but there is a huge difference between the gospel that Jesus accomplished for us and our external religious practice. I believe that this is what the modern Chinese church has yet to grasp. At least in my case, at Beijing Gospel Church we made this mistake. There was no living relationship between the gospel and the church, so that believers were not able to live out of the gospel, but simply to live out of the form of religion.

Our problem is that we have not truly preached the gospel. One manifestation of this is the ethical sermons in which we primarily preach morality. When believers are listening to our sermons, they want to hear what they should do and what they should not do. Thus, we short-cut the gospel and we enter into liberalism. This kind of sermon does not change believers’ lives; rather it seeks to control them through guilt. Believers have been living under a great pressure because they have a certain picture of a Christian life in their mind. They judge or discern whether someone is godly or not based on their own moralistic standards. Believers are trapped in a kind of formalism, living without freedom. Their beliefs are then separated from their real life. If this is the case, what then can we offer to our society? What alternative can we bring to others? This is why we need to focus on the complete gospel.

The Difference between “Ethical Sermons” and “Gospel Sermons”

We are neither anti-nomians nor legalists. Legalism says, “God doesn’t need to do anything; it is up to us,” and anti-nomianism says, “Even though we sin, God will forgive us anyway.” The former relies on self-righteousness and the latter on excuses when we sin before God. We need the gospel to balance the two. The gospel does not say we do not need the law but that Jesus completed the law. Paul the evangelist used to be a Pharisee but later he met Jesus and became His disciple. When Paul came to the point of truly grasping the gospel, he was freed from the law. However, he did not deny the law but relied on Jesus who had accomplished the demands of the law for him. Before the Reformation, Martin Luther was Catholic. And the Catholic church clearly taught that justification came by works. Luther was deeply troubled by his moral failings, and was heavily burdened with guilt. In his attempts to find peace, he performed ever harder penance, but this did not work at all. Later he had his Tower Experience, when he discovered the gospel. From there came the Reformation.

We are the children of the Reformation. The spirit of Reformation is to return to the Bible and proclaim God’s gospel from the Bible rather than opinions formed from our subjective imaginations. Paul converted from Pharisaism to the gospel and Luther rediscovered the gospel in the Catholic church. But sadly, many times we have turned the gospel into a bunch of laws. Some churches have even made a list of “new ten commandments.” When they preach they constantly emphasize what you should do and what you should not do, and they preach that if you do not do certain things, God will punish and even curse you. Many believers do not have freedom and their faith is based on an unbiblical, horrific image of God rather that a heart-felt fear of Him.

Ethical sermons tell you what you should do and what you should not do, but the internal logic of a gospel sermon is this: You cannot live up to what you should, but Jesus has done it for you, so now you should live for God out of grace.

Ethical sermons tell you what you should do and what you should not do, but the internal logic of a gospel sermon is this: You cannot live up to what you should, but Jesus has done it for you, so now you should live for God out of grace.

According to God’s holy law, one should live by it because that is how God created us but humankind fell and we could no longer do so. Humans have a free will but that free will is only used to disobey God as emphasized by Saint Augustine and Martin Luther. Only Jesus could fulfill the law for us. This is the message of the gospel. We Christians should live grateful, joyful and hopeful lives, committed to the gospel, committed to sharing it and committed to giving our lives to God (Rom 12:1-2). Gospel sermons focus on Jesus every time and look up to the cross. Abraham B. Kuyper said, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’” Every verse of the Bible points to Jesus. If you do not see Jesus from the Bible but only see laws then you are missing the point. John Calvin explained, “The law is like a mirror” and what we see is our uncleanness. The law tells us that we cannot live it out, and that we need Jesus.

This seems to be a truth that we all know, yet in our daily life, in our pastoral and church ministry, we often fail to proclaim it and carry it out that we may grow in our Christian lives and that our lives may be renewed.

Church Planting is Mission

“Gospel proclamation” is the foundation of a church planting ministry. If we plant churches with this goal in mind, the complete gospel will be proclaimed. The model of mission that we used to know in China is that of a couple of missionaries pioneering in remote places. But now we should take note of the following.

1. Mission is a whole ministry that includes the whole church, and church planting should be the ultimate purpose of mission.
2. Mission is also a local ministry that carries on cross-cultural ministry in the city. The U.S. is a nation with multiple languages and races, and Redeemer has been active in encouraging and helping different races and nations. In Beijing, we are relatively more homogeneous but there are still some minority groups among us so we need to see their different needs.

Therefore, mission is church planting and church planting is mission.

The Future of Church Planting Ministry in China

In terms of the future, Chinese churches will soon experience a “theological explosion,” including the great challenges of the prosperity gospel, new age and post-modernism.

I teach a theology class at a seminary while pastoring my church, so I have had many thoughts on the current situation of Chinese churches. In terms of the future, Chinese churches will soon experience a “theological explosion,” including the great challenges of the prosperity gospel, new age and post-modernism. Therefore, it is crucial to the development of healthy Chinese churches that they properly understand their theological foundation and doctrinal basis. As for the task of church growth, the key is to not continue in our passive approach to church planting and development, but to proactively start the work of planting churches that will intentionally preach the gospel.

1. Churches should have a church planting center that can help to prepare for this ministry through training, planning and sending out workers.
2. Church workers should undergo church planting training, an essential part in equipping co-workers.
3. Churches in the same city should cooperate in training church planters in the same way that we cooperate in the mission field.
4. Bigger churches should have a kingdom perspective. While they are building up themselves, they should also help smaller churches to grow.

Chinese churches, specifically churches in Beijing, should have a vision of church planting, especially focusing on the unchurched and rougher parts of the city. We need to keep our passion for sharing the gospel. The ministry of evangelism seems quite daunting (children born in the 1980’s are more self-centered than previous generations). Moreover, we should not expect the explosive growth of the past to continue. We should realize that the ministry of church planting will be harder and it will need more commitment and more workers who are like the Apostle Paul.

Conclusion

I pray and hope that there will be more effective Gospel-preaching churches planted and growing in Beijing. I hope that this development will awaken the churches that are asleep.

May God’s will for His churches be fulfilled soon!

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