As Western civilization crumbles before crushing debt and corrosive public degradation, and Chinese society reels from rampant materialism and endemic corruption, only vibrant, vital, and solid Christian churches will offer any refuge from personal despair, relief from the disintegration of meaningful personal relationships, and renewing power for individuals and communities.
By and large, however, today’s churches in the West lack the light, life, and love that would make them centers of hope and transforming energy, while many Chinese churches, though filled with people, are in danger of losing the momentum that has propelled their explosive growth in recent decades.
That is not to say that there is nothing good in our churches, or that there are no zealous believers exerting massive effort to make God’s name glorious in our day. We can applaud many initiatives and dramatic successes, with thanks to God.
On the other hand, when we compare our congregations to the New Testament model for church life, we cannot help noticing the vast gulf that separates us from what was meant to be.
A recent book about one of the largest Chinese house church networks has reminded me that what has been could again become what is, if we are willing to listen and to change, in humble repentance and reliance upon God.
Inside China’s House Church Network, by Yalin Xin, describes a remarkable movement of believers who were willing to sell all for the pearl of great price, and to sacrifice everything for the Kingdom of God. Guided by the Word of God and empowered by his Spirit, they built a movement that brought millions to saving faith and new life.
Even a brief glance at the basic principles and practices of the Word of Life Movement (WOL) will be enough to challenge our traditional notions about “church” and the Christian life. (For a review of Inside China’s House Churches, go to www.globalchina.org).
To begin with, in their evangelism they emphasized the gospel of salvation by faith in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. They called for repentance from sin, full reliance on the blood of Jesus, and complete surrender to the grace of God. Though miracles were worked, they were not the center of the message; that place was reserved for Christ alone. This was no “health and wealth” “prosperity” message; no “believe in Jesus and things will go well with you.” Nor was it a call to political reform or even social transformation (though changed lives brought great blessing to whole communities).
In short, it was not the “therapeutic” Christianity that so disfigures much American mega-church and televangelist teaching, nor the offer of earthly benefits so characteristic of Chinese folk religion and much “Christian” preaching among Chinese today.
Second, they expected believers to follow the footsteps of Jesus all the way to the Cross. The “way of the Cross” meant for them radical warfare against sin in their lives, as well as renunciation of life itself, should that need arise. “Easy believism,” exemplified by “pray to receive Christ and you are considered a Christian,” have robbed seekers of real assurance and filled churches in the West and in China with people who think they are saved but may not be. The Word of Life preachers knew that the faith that alone saves does not remain alone, but is followed – and authenticated – by a constant struggle against sin. They called earnest seekers after God to forsake the world and follow Jesus, no matter what the cost, and their leaders led the way.
When people believed and were baptized, they were gathered into small congregations that met in homes, like all New Testament churches. In that setting, they knew everyone around them; participated in meetings; shared their burdens; prayed for each other; and experienced the presence of the living Lord in their midst. Everyone was given opportunities to exercise the gift(s) of the Spirit given to them. With no expensive buildings to support, they had the means to send out evangelists and teachers to expand the circle of the saved.
Relying on prayer and the Spirit, these intrepid messengers went forth, two by two, to proclaim the gospel of salvation through Christ. Living simply, they traveled widely, suffered greatly, and introduced millions to God through trust in Christ. The value of a single soul drove them on into the night and through the day; they could not bear to think of anyone going to hell without having heard the Good News.
The Scriptures were central to their faith and life, so they studied, memorized, and shared the Word of God with each other and with their neighbors. As believers grew, they were given more and more training in the Bible and in the Christian life. Each person was considered a messenger of the gospel, while those with special gifting received rigorous training, both in the classroom and through active ministry. Prospective preachers were not sent off to an academic institution for three years, to emerge laden with debt and filled with much knowledge but little power. No, training took place in phases, and with constant practice, using both classroom instruction and the master-disciple relationship.
As house churches multiplied, they formed close links with others, creating local, regional, and larger networks that were united by a common set of beliefs and a shared desire to see the gospel brought to the entire nation and now – through the Back to Jerusalem Movement – to the world.
Did they make mistakes? Yes! In my opinion, they should have kept their networks small, rather than building a huge mega-denomination under the leadership of a few people at the top. If they had followed the pattern of Jesus and the Apostles, they would have sent out men, in pairs or small teams, rather than young women, as evangelists; the resulting churches would then have had a more balanced gender composition, rather than being filled with women and few men for them to marry.
Sometimes, especially at first, they seem to have emphasized visible expression of emotion as a sign of true repentance more than perhaps they should have. Families were neglected by over-ardent preachers, to the detriment of wives, children, and their witness to the world. They know now that should have taught more about the sanctity of honorable work and the social responsibility of Christians.
But their hearts were right, their minds were saturated with the Word of God, their bodies totally consecrated to his will. Who are we to criticize their errors too harshly? Many times, as I was reading this book, I was stricken with shame over my own luke-warm heart, and I wondered, What do American Christians have to teach these people?
How their unprecedented spiritual success, their simplicity, their suffering, and their zeal highlight our lacks! How can our big, costly buildings match the warmth, truth, and transforming power of their home meetings? How can our degree-heavy seminaries nurture workers who can go through fire and water, laying down their very lives to bring a cup of cold Gospel water to thirsty souls? Will our comfortable houses, which we cannot afford; our wide-screen high-def entertainment systems, which provide hours of mindless amusement; our pre-occupation with worldly success – produce disciples who even faintly resemble their Master, or churches that heal the wounded heart, enlighten the confused mind, or awaken the sluggish, overfed body to invest everything in the Great Commands and the Great Commission, to the glory of our great God?
Those who love China and long to see millions more brought into the Kingdom should stop, look, and listen to the record of the early days of the house church movement, especially the one described in this book. Yes, we can seek to avoid their mistakes, which were the result more of zeal and ignorance than of unbelief or self-seeking. But should we not focus our prayers, as well as our own meager personal knowledge and abilities, into ministries which aim, not to emulate the “Big Religion” which has so marred the landscape of Christian history but the humble home meetings and “seminaries of the field” which were used by God to do a work so grand as to be almost fabulous?
When one looks at the ways in which some large “house” churches in China have both followed their own cultural impulses (everything in China today is expected to be the “biggest”) and – perhaps even more – sought to imitate what they have seen in the West, one cannot avoid comparison with the lowly beginnings of perhaps the greatest movement of the Spirit in world history.
Bigger buildings and budgets, bigger congregations led by big (albeit beneficent) bosses – will these lead to anything other than the empty shells which litter Europe today?
Maybe it’s time to get back to basics.
G. Wright Doyle