China

“China”

This is the second of two articles on China.

 

I dislike travel. I dread getting into a metal box and spending hours on the highways. I know that some of you enjoy driving. The automobile spells freedom for you. For me it means confinement. It means I am trapped for hours in a tiny space, unable to stretch my legs, needing​​ regular​​ stops, etc.​​ Worse is being trapped in an aluminum tube traveling at 550 mph for 12-15 hours. Okay, it’s a first-world problem. I’m not working in the fields​​ or a coal mine (like my grandfather)​​ for 12 hours a day or living on a subsistence​​ diet. I’m just saying​​ traveling to distant places​​ not my first choice. I’d rather not. Then why do it? Why not just stay home? Then​​ I​​ could quit assaulting​​ others​​ with​​ my​​ gripes. Good question. Here’s why. I go on these trips (Lima,​​ Kiev, Taipei, St. Petersburg,​​ Chengdu, Shenzhen, Shanghai) because I perceive an obligation to do so. If career missionaries are willing to pick up​​ their roots and spend decades overseas in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar culture, how can I possibly say no when asked to go to distant parts for a week or two? My answer is, I can’t.

 

Lectures

The study of worship is my avocation, one might say. I have pushed myself to learn all that I can about the history and practice of worship, especially as understood in the Reformed church.​​ I’ve written books on the subject. So I get asked to give lectures on the contents of my books for the sake of​​ burgeoning​​ Reformed churches that lack resources.​​ In August 2018 I travelled to Chengdu in order to teach at​​ the Western China Theological Seminary, sponsored by the​​ Early Rain Presbyterian Church.​​ Their pastor,​​ Wang Yi,​​ now serving a nine-year sentence for daring to resist the Communist government’s attempts to control Chinese Christianity,​​ is one of the leading “house church” ministers in mainland China. House churches​​ may or may not​​ actually​​ meet in a house.​​ Instead​​ the label is how churches that are not approved by the Communist government​​ are identified. Most of them began in houses, hence the name.​​ Yet many have grown into large​​ congregations. There​​ were​​ about 700 in attendance and membership​​ at Early Rain​​ prior to being broken-up by the government. I taught​​ a class of 19 with a translator.​​ Most of the class was made up of future pastors and some of their wives. A Chinese edition of my​​ Reformed Worship​​ was available, but most of what I had to say was new to them. We met for six hours a day for five days, or 30 hours in total.​​ Given the crackdown by the government four months later (December 2018), my time there was providential.

 

Jet lag was a problem​​ for me. The time difference​​ between Eastern Standard Time and​​ Chengdu is 12 hours. That is the most that it can be​​ anywhere in the world. In other words,​​ Chengdu​​ is as far away from the United States’​​ Eastern Time Zone as one can get. I started my journey at 6:30 AM on Friday from Savannah International Airport​​ and my head hit the pillow in the Holiday Inn Express in Chengdu at 2:30 AM on Sunday morning. I was upside down for days. The return flight started at 10:00 AM on Saturday with a stop in Beijing and a total of over 15 hours flying, arriving in Newark at 4:00 PM​​ on Saturday! The world is a strange place.

 

A similar pattern held for my third trip in January 2020, first to teach the Westminster Confession of Faith in Shenzhen, and then Reformed worship in Shanghai.​​ 

 

Chinese Christianity

I was​​ again​​ very impressed with Chinese Christianity. The house churches are under constant threat. The police send officers to their services which they observe and take​​ notes and​​ photographs. My original translator​​ in Chengdu in 2018, Ben Chen, was not allowed back into China to work with me because of his religious activity.​​ A​​ few days later he was readmitted.​​ Four months later came the crackdown.​​ However, I could​​ not​​ observe​​ even​​ a hint of fear. They refused​​ to be intimidated. After Early Rain’s pastor met with President George W. Bush back in 2006, he was roughed up upon returning​​ for​​ allegedly​​ having brought shame to China.​​ Then​​ in December 2018​​ came the arrest.​​ Yet they are​​ unfazed. They regard the authorities with contempt.​​ In August of 2015 the Early Rain church published their own “95 theses,” addressing the church-state relations in China and what they call the compromised “sinicization” of Chinese Christianity.​​ My​​ January 2020 travel within​​ China resembled a spy movie: changing cars mid-trip, wearing hats and masks, even ducking so as to avoid facial-recognition technology.

 

Chinese Calvinism

Pastor Wang draws from Calvin, Augustine, Samuel Rutherford, and the​​ Westminster Confession​​ in the above​​ document, directly rebuking the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” of government-approved churches. Wang calls it a “movement of Antichrist.” Calvinism is growing among the​​ 100 million Chinese Christians, and Reformed titles are selling “like hot cakes,” according to one account.​​ Early Rain started a​​ classical Christian day school, “Covenant Reformed School,” one of 200 to 300 Christian schools now operating in China. Plans​​ were​​ in the works to start the country’s first Christian liberal arts college​​ (now on hold). Chinese​​ Christians​​ are manifesting an instinctive​​ sense of Christians all through the centuries: we must educate our own. How can a house church start a college? Not with​​ a large campus,​​ but with a few committed leaders and 20 students. They even have a​​ growing​​ pro-life movement. They have developed a “book of church order” and a hymnal with a number of metrical psalms.

 

Reformed worship

The service I attended​​ at Early Rain in 2018​​ was recognizably Reformed. It used several fixed forms: the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology and the Gloria Patri. It featured good hymns, substantial Bible readings, free prayer, a 70-minute sermon. I​​ was​​ pleased​​ by what I saw, and what I might add,​​ I​​ have​​ for years encouraged: the unity of the international church in its worship. I sought to​​ highlight​​ this in my lectures.​​ In the course of our five days together we sang 32 psalms and hymns. How did we do that? The seminary had a Chinese hymnal with over 800 selections, including a psalter in the back. I thumbed through it on the first day and was able to identify from the few bits and pieces of English at the headings about 50 that overlapped with​​ our own hymns. I sang in English, they, of course, in Chinese. For example, we sang such favorites as these:

Holy, Holy, Holy

Now Thank We All Our God

Great is Thy Faithfulness

Rock of Ages

When Peace Like a River

Like a River Glorious

Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah

A Mighty Fortress,​​ 

Etc.

 

We also sang, to the same tunes as we use in the​​ Trinity​​ Psalter,​​ Psalms​​ 1, 23, 42, 100, 103, 110, 122, and 145.​​ This same pattern was repeated in Shenzhen and Shanghai, and indeed in Taipei.​​ Good music is good music and good hymn/psalm tunes​​ are good hymn/psalm tunes in every culture. It is not without reason that so many Asian children are learning Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven on their violins and pianos.​​ This​​ Asian​​ sense of the beautiful bodes well for the future of historic Reformed worship.​​ 

 

Rudyard Kipling wrote, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” In one sense he was right. China is a very different place than Savannah, GA. On the other hand, he was utterly wrong. East and West do meet. Where? In Christ.​​ East and West, Chinese and American, red and yellow, black and white, are all one in Christ.​​ 

 

Terry L. Johnson​​ is the senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA. He is author of various books,​​ including​​ Leading in Worship, Worshipping with Calvin, Serving with Calvin, The Identity and Attributes of God,​​ and​​ Who Am I? What the Bible teaches about Christian identity.

 

TAGS:​​ Early Rain Church, Wang Yi, Chinese Christianity, Christian​​ schools in China,​​ worship in China