What constitute a healthy, biblical, vibrant and growing church?
* Orderly, thoughtful, reverent worship services[Checked!]
* A heart for God as evidenced by an emphasis on prayers [Checked!]
* Attentiveness to the hearing of the Word of God [Checked!]
* Authentic community of faith centering on God [Checked!]
* A covenant community focused on families / children [Checked!]
* A desire to live out God’s Word even at great cost [Checked!]
So far so good… but there are more… * Christ-centered, grace-centered Gospel preaching [A little bit iffy…]
* A growing sense of unworthiness and Gospel gratitude [Not so evident…]
* Growing in grace as a result of constant Gospel feeding [Quite doubtful…]
… THE BAD…
* In Part 1 of my reflection, I have hinted at “a trace of legalism / moralism” in this seeming vibrant community of faith. That suspicion became a sad reality as I sat through their Sunday School class in the hour following the worship service. There were essentially two Sunday School offerings: one for the seekers / new believers, one for the more seasoned followers of Christ / official church members. I opted for the latter which in hindsight was not a very good choice as the class was saturated with legalistic / moralistic exhortations, making it impossible for the Gospel to flow. I felt “spiritually suffocating” just sitting through a class like this.
* The teacher of the Sunday School was Minister W, who also led the morning prayer time. He together with Brother Z were the leaders and(full-time) shepherds of this congregation. He had served in another church in the same city, but “switched over” after he became Reformed doctrinally. Unfortunately, there was very little fragrance of the Gospel in his teachings. The class was on “Strengthening Your Families / Marriages” — a practical and urgent topic in a chaotic “moral vacuum” like China. They were using a book (translated into Chinese from English) recommended by my pastor friend in America. It was supposed to be a doctrinally sound / Christ-centered piece of work. But as we all know, “the book is dead, but the man is alive 書是死的、人是活的.” The class eventually resembled not so much the book but the person teaching it.
* The lesson was mostly on the husbands’ role in relationship to the wives. Minister W typically began with a biblical verse, and then he would draw some applications. And then he would single out a couple of husbands in the crowd and asked how they fared in comparison to the biblical standards. And more often than not, the brothers would reply that they fell short frequently. From time to time, Minister W would share from his own experience. He would say, “Well, I used to be like this also… falling short and all…” Then came the punchline, “But I have since repented…” So there were essentially two modes of existence: (1) falling short, (2) having repented. If I could simplify it further, either you are a (1) law-keeper or a (2) law-breaker. The concept behind is thoroughly at home with the moralistic Confucian culture. What was appalling to me was the complete absence of the Gospel!
* When we broke down into small groups, I was asked to share (from the lesson). I tried pointing them to the Gospel, emphasizing our (Christians) continuous need for the Gospel. I reasoned that none of us could live up to the biblical standards; we would all fall and it was imperative that we ran to Jesus and learned to seek forgiveness and grant forgiveness in our relationships with one another. Well, I did not think they understood me too well for the subsequent sharing either found its way to some “confessions in despair” (I am such a bad husband) or in more “moralistic exhortations.”
* Meanwhile, the discussions outside… the Sunday School classes for seekers / new believers… sounded substantially more interesting. When I walked by them (to go to the restroom), I heard Calvin and Luther… plus all those Reformation doctrines. I was thrilled for a while. But once my Sunday School was concluded, I began to wonder if the “doctrinal class” would come with a “legalistic / moralistic tint” also. This was a scary thought! For instead of having the “doctrines of grace” melt our legalistic hearts, these doctrines were held up high as a “legalistic hammer” against those who were deemed less Reformed!
* Without the Gospel, all striving for God would inevitably be turned into currencies of self-righteousness! If my gut feeling was correct, this church was in great spiritual danger. Lord, you must come to stop this madness!
* My afternoon conversation with Brother Z only furthered my suspicion. It was becoming more evident to me that this Reformed congregation was more into doing than being. While there was a great deal of emphasis on living within covenant, not much effort was given to dwelling on the graciousness of this covenant. Christ — who is the Lord and substance of the covenant — was often missing.
* Much was said about keeping the Sabbath (they were really serious about it), but little was said about the Lord of the Sabbath and His gracious deeds in securing for us the Sabbath rest and the Shalom peace. Having recently preached through the Fourth Commandment — Remember the Sabbath, I was particularly struck by the contrast in spirit. They were more concerned about keeping the Sabbath than rejoicing in / celebrating the Sabbath. They knew not that joy — authentic Christian joy — was the essence of any true Sabbath keeping.… THE SURPRISE…
* During our afternoon conversation, I once asked Brother Z how he would prepare for his sermons. He said he was getting coached by my pastor friend in the US. And since my friend had preached on Genesis before, they would use his sermons and notes in preparation. They felt that they were not mature enough to ensure their teachings to be sound and orthodox, so they would just stick with my pastor friend for now. Sounded like a plan!
* Now, on my way back home, I kept wondering if those flashes of Christ / Gospel were from my friend’s preaching notes, and if those “curious sidetracks” and “legalistic tendency” were resulted from their own lack of spiritual maturity. Then I remembered that my friend actually had his sermons online and that I could just go and download the corresponding sermon on the same Genesis text, listen and compare. Cool!
* So I got back to Hong Kong and immediately visited my friend’s website. And bingo, I found his sermon on the same Genesis text! After dinner, I took the kids downstairs to the club house for some table-tennis. And while I “toyed” with Emmett and Theo (with my superior skills), I listened to my friend’s “rendition” on the Noah story. This was when the big surprise came! As it turned out, Brother Z was not simply studying my friend’s sermon and study notes, no, he went many steps further… he repeated my friend’s sermon verbatim at his church! No kidding! Brother Z was essentially going word-by-word, even the illustrations sounded almost the same!
* What did all these mean? Well, it means that whether it is by design or by accident, my pastor friend in America is cloning himself in China! While this was supposed to be good news (since the church in China could really use some Gospel cloning), it ended up not being so great… especially in light of the pervasive legalism / moralism I personally experienced and witnessed in the church. While I could not imagine my pastor friend teaching that same Sunday School without ever finding connections to the Gospel, the sermon was indeed his, and it did not sound all that great… with far more works than grace!
* And all these doctrinal emphases, which I knew to have originated from my friend, only complicated the whole situation. When doctrines don’t lead us to Christ, they would inevitably lead us to works — man-centered works. And let me repeat again:Without the Gospel, all striving for God would inevitably be turned into currencies of self-righteousness! What this church, any church, needs are not simply “doctrines of grace” but “doctrines of grace heavily wrapped in grace and saturated with Christ and His works.”
Thus I began with “a dream fulfilled” but I ended with “a dream dashed”…
Two thousand years ago, Paul wrote the Letter to the Galatians to warn the believers of the great spiritual danger of adding our works to the works of Christ. The (biblical and) Reformation principles of Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone are at stake here! While this Reformed church in Shenzhen would outwardly uphold and defend the “doctrines of grace,” the danger of becoming inwardly and functionally Galatians is very real! After all, we — Chinese descendents from Adam — are all legalists and moralists by birth and by upbringing!
Only our gracious God can deliver us from this great danger!
I believe my one-day experience in Shenzhen and my month-long experience in Hong Kong both testify to the long road ahead for the Chinese church. Until we arrive at the arms of our gracious Lord Jesus Christ and stay in His embrace, the Chinese church will continue to remain “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:14)
Alas, few are those who understand the central role of the Gospel in the dynamics of one’s spiritual life! Fewer still are those who are skilled in applying the Gospel as building blocks for the church. Yet the future of the (Chinese) church depends utterly on a renewed and biblical understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Therefore one dream died, yet another dream has risen. It is a dream worth praying for, worth living for, and even worth dying for. For it is a dream of the Gospel, a dream for God and His kingdom,a dream propelled by the Spirit, and a dream for the honor and glory of our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. Pray on. Dream on. Fight on.