Thursday, 22 February 2018

Being a Church of “No Worries”

Written by Rev Dr Ji Zhang 张骥

On Sunday 28 January, the city of Nanjing was shut down by the biggest snowstorm in 35 years. The provincial council issued a rare notice to local congregations to cancel some services. Yet Mochou Lu Church was packed by a congregation of over 1000 people. Our UCA delegation joined worship in the main hall while others gathered in overflow rooms watching the service live on TV monitors.

The Assembly General Secretary Colleen Geyer preached the sermon titled “Grace, Hope, and Service”. Reflecting on the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10: 38-42, Colleen spoke of Martha’s rediscovery of her role in service. Colleen acknowledged three pillars of Christian tradition: Worship, witness, and service, and invited the audience to discern the balance between faith and deeds. We are called “to trust God to be faithful as we are faithful to God, to be open to new ways by God’s Spirit, even if it was unknown at the beginning, and to know and experience God as a God of hope”.

China Trip 1 web

The Gospel message has a special meaning in this historical church. “Mochou Church 莫愁堂” in Chinese literally means “Church of No Worries”. An appropriately named place for Australians to visit, the name actually comes from a nearby lake. It was a Presbyterian Church built in 1936. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the church was used as a workshop to print Red Books by Chairman Mao. On the day it re-opened for worship in 1980, many people were reluctant to come in. The following Sunday the church was packed once the news of reopening had spread. People walked to this church from all over the whole province to attend.  Some elderly people refused to step into the sanctuary but shuffled in on their knees while praising God for their return.

The hope has given birth to a new identity. When the physical church was closed, all institutional structures were stripped away. Denominational boundaries were removed. Faithfulness, biblical teaching, and pastoral support stood out as three pillars of the church.

Since then, this congregation has grown from a handful of families to 5000 people. In 2012, a new church was designed to house 3500 people. On Easter Sunday 2014, 8000 people packed the worship centre named after Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount - “Church of Holy Teachings 圣训堂” – next to the State Library.

This transformation from “Church of No Worries” to “Church of Holy Teachings” is a telling example about the people of God in Jiangsu Province.

Rev Zhang is the Moderator of TSPM (Three-self Patriotic Movement) and the Principal of the regional seminary. He shared with us some joys and challenges. In this province, there are 2.4 million Christians, 4600 churches and other gathering places for worship, and 400 ordained ministers. Currently they have 1 minister for 6000 Christians compared to the national average of  1 minister for 18,000 people. The Moderator’s biggest challenge, also the most urgent priority, is to train enough ministers for every congregation.

The Bible college was built 20 years ago to teach a three-year ministry training course. The school is among few seminaries that have been accredited to teach the four-year degree course in recent years. A new extension was completed last year to house even more students, and there is now capacity to house 400 people living on campus. The seminary is located in a university town, next to Nanjing Normal University.

This is the seminary from which they have sent a New Testament Lecturer to Australia. Currently, Rev Zhao Chengyi is working towards a PhD in New Testament theology. His study is supported by UnitingWorld. The reason that the college cannot grow more is that they don’t have enough teachers, especially experts in academic research and course design. When he returns from Pilgrim Theological College, he will not only teach, but also provide leadership to the academic board and research team.

China Trip 2 webRev Zhao will face a challenge. With the current capacity, it would take another 50 years to train enough students just to meet the current demand. But the church will continue to grow. Each year about 80,000 to 100,000 adults are baptised into the church. A 3000-member city church is considered small by rural congregations, as they represent 70% of church growth throughout China. Apart from formal theological education, lay leadership training is another pathway to equip the laity through the synod. The church heavily relies on its laity to fully participate in and contribute to church leadership at all levels.

In this synod, it is done in conjunction with Amity Foundation. The General Secretary of Amity Foundation is also the President of Jiangsu Christian Council. He lectures at the seminary and has the vision to teach social service as a permanent component of all theological formation.

“We will work with the National Office,” says the Moderator in affirming his commitment. “Our synod will support national programs, including teaching social service in our theological college”.

Our delegation also visited the operations of Amity Press - the largest printing press in the world that prints the Bible. Contest not the wrongs of the world, but place the Good News in the hands of millions is their motto. At the time of our visit Amity Press had just recently printed the 170 millionth copy of the Bible. Of these, about 30% are for international bible societies.