Shen Xue Bin, vice chairman of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and senior pastor of Abundant Grace Church in Shanghai, attributes the growth of the church in China to two things: “One reason is that God is guiding,” he said. “The second reason is that in the church there are many witnesses. The believers not only listen to the Gospel; they practice what God has said. People will say, ‘My [Christian] neighbor looks different’ or ‘My [Christian] friend always has very good behavior—why?'” This opens the way for Christians to tell their friends about Jesus Christ, Bin said.
The Reverend Kin Li Yu, chairman of the Beijing Christian Council, said that society’s impressions have changed in recent years. “In the past, when we wanted to build a church, we didn’t have the support of the people in the surrounding area,” he said. “Usually they would say, ‘There was no church in history in this area. Why do you come to build a church here?’ Now, the opinion has changed. People say, ‘We welcome you to build a church in our community.'”
Beijing has about 60,000 believers, Yu said, a small proportion of the city’s 17 million-plus population. But he also said that about 5,000 Christian converts join the churches each year—an annual growth rate of more than 8 percent. And that’s where the pastoral shortage comes in. Three large churches were built in Beijing last year, Yu said, adding that a thousand-member church needs three pastors, and it takes three to four years to train a pastor. In addition, being a pastor in China—like anywhere else—is not necessarily the most attractive job to be had. Pastors typically work more than 10 hours a day and earn a comparatively low income.
In trying to meet the demand for pastors, people must not treat ministry like a typical job, cautioned Jian An Li, pastor of Kuan Jie Church in Beijing. “We need a lot of young people to stand up and become preachers in China,” he said. “But you need to be sure that God is calling you.”
Knowing that some seminaries teach liberal theology, Franklin asked about the seminaries that are training China’s pastors. “Our courses are mainly how to study and interpret the Bible,” Yu said. “We are not emphasizing theological research; the main emphasis is how to explain the Bible.”
In keeping with that biblical emphasis, pastors are anxious to dispel Western fears that the government controls what can be preached in government-registered churches.
“We are servants of God, and our message from the pulpit is very important,” said Joseph Gu, senior pastor of Chong Yi Church, where Franklin preached May 11. “So we must preach the Gospel of life—the pure, full Gospel. It is not true that the Chinese government puts restrictions on sermons to be preached in churches. I have been a pastor for 15 years; I prepare my sermons on my own.”
China’s churches seek to minister to the whole person, an approach that meshes well with Franklin’s concern for meeting physical needs while proclaiming the message of salvation. Yu, of the Beijing Christian Council, seemed to recognize this affinity during his meeting with Franklin, saying, “We hope we can come together for the sake of spreading the Gospel.”
Yu said the churches teach that spreading the Gospel is a personal mission for every Christian. He added that by meeting people’s physical needs, churches have demonstrated a good testimony. “Churches have given financial support to help poor families,” Yu said. “The church tells people that God loves them. It passes the love of God on to society–and that has won respect and understanding.”
That respect and understanding extends all the way to people in the central government, according to She Hongyu, assistant director of the research and development center at the Amity Foundation, China’s first faith-based non-governmental organization.
Though winning respect and understanding may help the church to accomplish its work with fewer hindrances, it cannot be an end in itself. “Without the power of the Lord, we couldn’t do anything,” said Jian An Li. “We can only preach the Gospel of Jesus, and God’s Spirit will do the work.”