A few days ago, I contacted a pastor friend in the US about visiting a church he has close tie within Shenzhen. The thought came to me during our family visit to the Railway Museum in Hong Kong, when I realized how close (just a few train stops) we were to China.
The next day, I got in touch with Brother Z who is one of the leaders of the church in Shenzhen. This (house) church started about 1.5 years ago and has 4 meeting points, each averaging about 100 people. Over the phone, Brother Z asked if I would like to share (i.e. preach), and I quickly declined, stating that this would be my first time in a house church and I would like to soak in the full experience.
Sunday morning, I got up before 5:00am (due a bit to over-excitement) in preparation for my journey to Shenzhen. I got on the first train off the MTR (subway) station at 6:00am, and got to border safely at around 7:15am. Wow, my first step in China in a long long time…The Lord is good. I quickly met up with Brother Z, and he drove me to the church which is not too far from the train station. Shenzhen has developed into an amazing modern city with over 10 million population, and according to Brother Z is on her way to become #3 city in China behind Beijing and Shanghai. There in this great city, I had my first taste of the church in China. Here are some of my thoughts (with a twist in the end).
… THE GOOD…
* Brother Z was a successful businessman who became a Christian (only) about 9 years ago, interestingly through the Three-Self church. He later left to join the house church as he thirsted and hungered for God’s Word. And this businessman eventually gave up running his business that he might be equipped and that he might devote himself to full-time ministry. The meeting place we went to was formerly his office. It is located in an industrial building which is being converted into commercial / office use. It was wonderful to hear the story and to see chairs lined up for worship in this office building. While the neighboring offices were busy readying themselves for business (on Sundays), we too were gearing up for “the business of heaven”on this Lord’s Day.
* We got to the church at around 8:00am, just in time for the morning prayer time. Unlike what we usually do in the US, they all knelt on the ground for the next 45 minutes or so. After an opening prayer, I was asked to share a passage from the Bible and I happily did so (on my knees), trying hard to emphasize the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the power source of the Christian life. That 15-minute sharing was followed by more prayers. There were about 10 of us in the beginning and the group grew to about 20 in the end. Most of the participants are young, maybe in their 20s. It was a vibrant beginning to the Lord’s Day.
* The worship was well-organized, with LCD projectors (yeah) set up in two adjacent rooms. [Wow, I can totally see myself preach in such a setting… with a double-projector set-up.] We began promptly at 9:00am as the crowd filled up the room. The singing was a bit unfamiliar but enjoyable nevertheless, perhaps even better than the worship time we had at the English speaking church the week before. Then Brother Z came and expounded on one of the Westminster shorter catechism questions before moving on to read the Scripture text of the day… on the Noah’s story in Genesis 9.
* The crowd was young (singles and young couples with a few kids and pregnant ladies) and attentive. They seemed eager to hear God’s Word, and Brother Z proceeded to give a solid sermon which lasted for about one hour. The exposition of Genesis 9 was at some points “curious” but there were also “flashes” of the Christ / Gospel. [I wondered where he learned all that.] Given that Brother Z was still being equipped, this is indeed not a bad sermon, though personally I long for more Christ / Gospel and less moralizing.
* The sermon was followed by the Lord’s Supper, which was “strictly” administered in the sense that only those who had been “interviewed and received into the church” were allowed to take the elements. That reminded me of The Pilgrim’s Progress and John Bunyan’s time in England. But it also made me worry about legalism… about how grace would only be offered to those who get it right (in the full Reformed doctrinal way) as the church defines it. I could not help but think about the Marrow Controversy in the Scottish church. [Don’t worry if you don’t know what I am talking about.] In any case, I was grateful that they made an exception for me… since I came recommended by my pastor friend in the US, and I am deemed “orthodox” by them. Whew, I would not want to miss out on the Gospel meal!
* After worship, we got a 10-minute break before regathering for Sunday School. I got a chance to browse over their little bookstore, where I found many cheap Bibles and good Christian books (translated into Chinese from English). I ended up buying as many as I could, and it cost only a fraction of what it would in the US. Of all my purchases, my favorite was a very nice bilingual Chinese-ESV in leather-bound costing about US$8, interestingly and ironically published by the Three-Self Church! There was a time when people would smuggle Bibles into China. Now the direction is reversed. We are better off “exporting” Bibles from the mainland where the printing cost a lot less! Amazing!
* I am going to skip the Sunday School part as it belongs to the “bad” section. But there were some good conversations coming out of it and I spoke at length with a brother over lunch which was a home-cooked meal by some hard-working sisters. It really gave the church a family feel. Even after lunch, many people, maybe about 40-50, lingered around for books, chats, and naps! Seriously, they would each lean on chairs and nap! Brother Z told me that some of the brothers and sisters had a “book club” going on, and so they would gather in small groups in the afternoon for discussion. Guess what they have been reading? “Overcoming Temptation” by John Owen — the theologian of the Puritans! Wow… that’s impressive!
* At around 2:30am, Brother Z was ready to take me home for some tea. I got to meet his two children, one boy and one girl, about 6-7 years old. They were lovely and well-behaved, not unlike our children. When we were in the car, the girl asked her dad to turn on the “Bible reading”… It was an audio reading from the Gospel of John. What an interesting “entertainment” choice for a 6 / 7-year-old child?!
* That was when I began to ask Brother Z about the kids’ education. I asked if the kids went to the local public school. His answer was a definite no. He said public school would take them “nowhere,” and it was thoroughly against God and the Bible. So I asked what they did. He said they taught them at home. I asked if the government would allow it. He replied, “We have the church without government’s permission, so we will home-school without permission also. If they come and bother us, let it be. God remains sovereign.”
* Brother Z told me later that they had begun to organize a “home-school group” for children in the church. Parents and children will come together, and they have hired some teachers from the church to start their own little school. It may feel like they are against all odds, but they are certainly not backing down from the system. To be honestly, I love this stubborn defiance of Christians under oppression. I wish my friends in Hong Kong, who have substantially more resources, would put up a more valiant fight and come up with a more radical alternative! The Gospel has to become all or nothing for us. We must become fools and idiots for Jesus’ sake.
[To be continued…]