It is an obvious fact that various ministries have been flourishing especially in the number of newly built churches and baptized believers since the church in China reopened after the "Cultural Revolution". According to the data acknowledged by both Chinese and foreign academic circles, the number of Christians in China reached between 23 million and 40 million in 2014, accounting for 1.7% - 2.9% of the total population of China.
As far as churches in Suzhou are concerned, the proportion of 200,000 believers to its 13 million permanent residents is only slightly higher than 1.5%, even lower than the national average, but the absolute number is not small. It is believed that the number of Christians in Suzhou has reached a certain benchmark. If a church does not have the foresight to plan ahead, the quality of that church may be diluted by the huge quantity of believers, eventually losing the nature and identity of the church.
On Christmas Eve, 1989, Bishop K.H.Ting replied to questions from students in Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, holding that when a person turned to Christ, he should naturally preach the gospel to be the witness of the Lord. No one can deny that the Chinese church is a church of evangelism, otherwise, how could there be so many new believers? However, he reminded that the church had other duties, and it was very important to help believers cultivate spiritual life through worship, sermons, Bible study, and counseling.
In November 1995, at the 45th-anniversary celebration of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, Bishop Ting once again urged the national churches to shift from "Three-Self" to "Three Good" in his speech. That was to say, the Chinese church should strengthen the connotation construction, not only stand up but also be strong and strict.
At present, the Chinese church is in a new historical period of deep development, and the change of the focus of church ministry from emphasizing the growth of quantity to stressing on the improvement of quality not only conforms to the trend of historical development but also fits with Bishop Ting's call of "preaching well". It is also the proper meaning of "spreading well" and the essential requirement of the Sinicization of Christianity.
1. Be established - to construct the theological "self"
The most important issue faced by church ministries when they turn their focus to the goal of improving their quality is the core problem of what kind of church we should build and what kind of believers we should cultivate. In short, what kind of "quality" should we always follow and maintain? What basic kernels and reasonable kernels does this "quality" contain? That is, what is the "self" that the Chinese church wants to show to the outside world?
Needless to say, although Chinese churches in the post-sectarian period often make overseas churches envy, we have not had the mature conditions to develop and form the theological theoretical basis of the post-sectarian identity of Chinese churches since the church practiced joint worship in 1958, which could be vividly referred to as "the blacksmith has no model while striking", resulting in a situation of confusion. From the perspective of theological construction, Chinese churches still lack clear expression on the self-positioning of ecclesiastical theory, and various theological positions and expressions are mixed, especially the expression of ecclesiastical theory such as the essence of the church and the theology of unity, which have not been formed or are still in the initial stage of construction.
Today, there are some strange and chaotic phenomena in Chinese churches, and heresy or wrong principles invade the churches from time to time. We urgently need to equip our believers with God's Word, and always be vigilant to review the faith of the church.
Therefore, the urgent task of Chinese churches is to clearly understand the beliefs and traditions of the Archduke Church, as well as their own small traditions and the character of Chinese churches. We should also understand the differences and similarities between us and churches abroad, and be able to carefully identify the unique and noteworthy advantages and disadvantages of all parties with respect and understanding. While maintaining the orthodox faith of the church, we ought to refine, summarize and develop the theological "self" of the Chinese church.
It is believed that the key to constructing the theological "self" of the Chinese church lies in formulating the "confession of Chinese church belief" or the "declaration of Chinese church belief recognition", and compiling a "Q&A of Chinese church doctrine" on this basis and spreading it among the majority of believers. Because the confession of faith is the core and soul of the church. The reason why the church is a church is based on the confession of correct faith in Christ.
In other words, the reason why the church is a church is precise that the confession of faith defines and regulates our faith. Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). Jesus said, "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it" (Matt. 16:18). "This", as in "this rock", is "Peter's confession of faith" - Jesus is Christ and the son of the living God. "This" is also the core essence and cornerstone of faith that later churches must adhere to.
Only by clearly understanding the essence and connotation of "confession of Chinese church faith" and consciously and voluntarily recognizing it from the heart, can we help believers have a certain strength in faith, avoid the disadvantages of being too narrow or too tolerant, and resolve the crisis of confusion, differentiation, and deviation from the truth. Only with the guidance of a clear confession of Chinese church faith, can we not lose our way and drift with the tide in the process of changing church ministry from weight to weight.
Only the understanding and speculation of orthodox theology solidly based on the Bible can guide and shape the spiritual life of believers, and the church can stand on the rock without shaking. Only when believers follow Christ's orders, strengthen their inner life, and live a good moral life through spiritual practice, can they play the role of Christian light and salt.
In addition, it should be noted that for some controversial topics of faith and church tradition, besides referring to the speeches of church ancestors, spiritual leaders, and biblical scholars in past dynasties, we must also conduct in-depth and comprehensive research on related issues, teach and encourage them with gentle patience, and seek to shape a common belief in accordance with biblical lessons in our churches.
2. Be strong - to establish a nurturing system that cultivates "self"
Q: Are you satisfied with theological education?
A: I can't say I'm very satisfied. As to the teaching of theological teachers and students, the preaching of preachers, and the writing of authors, I hope that we will not be careless because we don't worry about fewer believers today. I hope that while "satisfying the believers", we will not forget to improve the believers, as Paul prayed for Philippians, "and this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ" (Phil. 1:9-10).
This was the ardent expectation of Bishop K.H.Ting in an interview by Tianfeng, or Heavenly Wind, the magazine of TSPM church in China, in January 1997. He hoped that the "three teams" of Chinese churches (teachers in theological colleges, pastors and preachers in churches, and serving staff engaged in the work of Christian writing) "should not be satisfied with simply 'satisfying believers', but also 'improving believers'". From "satisfying believers" to "improving believers", we should pay attention to the improvement of believers' belief quality and the shaping of spiritual life.
Then, how can this goal be achieved? This involves the problem of the church pastoral system: how the church implements the confession of faith, what kind of training is given to the believers who have already believed in it, how to bring up the long-time believers as serving staff, how to build their confidence, ethics, and character with biblical discourse, and how to develop their gifts and encourage them to commit themselves to the church, etc. The systematization and standardization of these related issues are the processes of establishing a good pastoral system.
The reason why a church becomes a church lies not only in the specification and definition of the confession of faith but also in the concrete implementation of the confession of faith in the pastoral system and process of the church. The necessity of this logic requires us to establish and cultivate a pastoral system that can realize the confession of faith.
In the process of establishing the pastoral system, it is thought that the following aspects are particularly crucial: First, the church should shape the character of believers in the group environment, take the confession of faith as the red line throughout the pastoral process, and take the fundamental goal of building a belief community that highly recognizes the distant image of the church, commits itself to the church group, and believes in giving gifts to serve each other, so as to solidly popularize the education and re-education of the "confession of faith".
Secondly, the church builds and cultivates the self-consciousness of the "confession of faith", which makes all believers consciously realize that we are a faith community with "one master, one faith, one baptism", loyal to Christ, sincere in orthodoxy, and witnesses to the gospel.
Once again, the faith and adherence to the confession of faith are not only reflected in oral confession, but also in the actual teaching, prayer, witnessing, communication, and training of the church, as well as in the daily operation and administration of the church. It takes place in all the words and actions of the church, especially in all the clear and systematic teaching and caring systems of the church, that is, in all aspects and every link of the pastoral system, forming a community of beliefs that are closely related to each other.
Specifically, because church life is mainly embodied in the form of group worship, the essential contents and measures in the construction of pastoral system should include: paying close attention to Sunday worship and other types of worship, updating and upgrading the worship spirit; deepening the refinement of group care and helping believers lay a solid foundation; emphasizing commitment and serving each other with grace; being the light and the salt, benefiting society, testifying Christ, etc.
3. Be strict - to improve the administration system and enhance the development of "self"
The church is a religious group and a living group. All believers are brothers and sisters in the church. They should be loyal, friendly, and willing to live together and help each other in the same boat. However, only measures can determine the outcome, which requires a set of a well-founded and effective management system.
Since Martin Luther's conversion, Protestant churches have upheld the tradition and spirit of reformers. Generally, it is recognized that the marks of judging true and false churches are whether the holy teaching, holy sacrament, and church discipline are correctly preached and implemented. Because only authoritative church discipline can guarantee the correct preaching of the holy way and the correct implementation of the sacraments. In the same way, whether the focus of an evangelism ministry can be changed from increasing quantity to improving quality, whether the confession of faith can be carried out through pastoral teaching, and whether the pastoral system and model can be carried out smoothly; these all depend on the standardization, appropriateness, and effectiveness of the implementation of church discipline.
The so-called church discipline should include both positive and negative contents and purposes: first, positive teaching - the reminding and prevention - the church teaches believers to have a correct understanding of biblical truth and ethical code, and to practice it appropriately in life; second, the negative - punishment, correction, and treatment - after the believers commit sins, the church gives them the corresponding disciplinary sanctions, which is not only a remedial education for the parties but also an example to prevent others from being affected and ruining the whole faith.
The implementation of the confession of faith depends on the implementation and operation of the pastoral system and the effort of the church's external management system. In this regard, the urgent task of the Chinese church is to establish rules and regulations, speed up the revision and improvement of existing church regulations, and build a church administrative system, especially including therapeutic disciplinary principles and specific measures.
To sum up, in the process of shifting the focus of evangelical ministry, the confession of faith is the core, the pastoral system is the starting point, and the administrative system is the guarantee. The three are the unity of caring for each other, interlocking, interrelated and inseparable. As long as a clear and authoritative confession of faith, a correct and effective pastoral care system, and a proper and reasonable administrative system can be established, the goal of changing from quantity to quality will certainly be realized.
If a church has no vision, it has no direction. History tells us that if we leave many issues blank for a long time, believers will generally lack enough cognitive foundation, knowledge reserve, and space to discuss, think and reflect on them. Once pushed to the cusp of the times and suddenly placed in a strange generation, we will find that our faith simply cannot bear the weight of the struggles we face, and we will feel that the teachings of the Bible have suddenly become empty and weak. Even after confusion and hesitation, it may be better to fight and "make up".
At present, the Chinese church is in a period of historical opportunity to change its development mode, so we should cherish this excellent strategic opportunity to develop "self". Chinese churches need to pay more attention to their believers' faith quality and spiritual life in the hard work of internal strength and physical fitness. This depends not only on our cognitive level and consciousness level, but also on how to find and adopt suitable and specific grasping and practice modes, and more importantly, a spirit of perseverance. This is a kind of quiet work, and even dull and depressing work. However, if the spiritual life of most believers is shaped, the belief quality is improved, and the ability is cultivated and promoted, then we, the church, and the nation become fortunate.
(This article was originally published in a Christian magazine named "Faith and Learning". CCD translated with permission.)
- Translated by Charlie Li