For many Christians living in the post-Christendom West, suffering or even persecution is an obscure theme they may have only encountered in the narratives of the Gospels and Acts or sometimes in their reading of church history. They may have learned that Afghanistan and North Korea are among the countries where it is hardest to follow Jesus, and that fifty-nine percent of worldwide recorded church attacks happened in China last year. Still, like reading news about famines in Africa on social media, it is not that they do not care; it is just far beyond their existential experience. At the same time, for many, social and cultural shifts in the West are clouding the future of Christianity in this country initially built by the Protestant pilgrims. From the context of the pandemic and severe political pressures,Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church serves as an opportunity for Western readers not only to hear voices about Chinese house churches but also from them. It provides a window through which the Christian triumph and struggle in Chinese house churches can be glimpsed firsthand and contribute to stimulating reflections of the Christians who are sojourning in lands outside China’s boundaries.
The collection of sermons consists of three sections: Meditations on Brokenness, Meditations on Redemption, and Meditations on Hope, each composed of three sermons from different pastors. These sermons originated from a series of public evangelistic meetings, a continuation of an international convention on the gospel and culture, “focusing specifically on the theme of building the heavenly kingdom on earth” (Faith in the Wilderness, 6). The pandemic that broke out in Wuhan, China, did not hinder the courage of the attendees but fostered a unique opportunity for them to preach by livestream and reach out to more Christians and non-Christians than they had ever imagined they could.
A Theology of Pilgrims
Perhaps for Chinese Christians, the fact that Christendom has never been a historical reality, or a predictable possibility in the near future, causes them to be consciously aware not only from the Scriptures but also from their experiential situation that they are exiles and pilgrims in this present age, and the world is not their ultimate home. Therefore, pilgrim theology is evidently demonstrated in the sermon collection.
This pilgrim theology may partially explain where the strength of Chinese house churches lies. Being banished from public and political discussion to a large extent, reluctantly or willingly, Chinese house churches, in general, could focus more on shepherding the flock inwardly and evangelizing non-Christians outwardly. Facing obstructions from many quarters and potentially direct political persecutions, Chinese house churches labor to build solid gospel-centric communities for church members, who also have needed to count the cost to be a follower of Jesus Christ from the moment they heard the gospel. Moreover, due to several factors such as dramatic social dynamics in the past thirty to forty years, most members of Chinese urban house churches are first- and second-generation Christians. In a country where Christianity is entirely absent from public exposure, the only way for many urban churches to grow is to evangelize their non-believing neighbors. Combined with other social and cultural factors, Chinese house churches have an irrepressible passion for the lost souls in a society that desperately calls for comfort, certainty, and hope.
These social elements are reflected in the sermons of the book and sometimes to an extent that may sound strange to the ears of Western readers living in a relatively peaceful environment. Some statements in the book describe Christian earthly life in a way that seems to undermine God’s common grace. For example, there may be better ways to communicate the fact that we live in a sinful world than to consider marriage itself as “the grave of love” (26), or in our final moments, “your family and the people you love will leave you,” and staying at home “feels like staying in hell” after arguing (45-46). Nevertheless, in a fallen world and particularly a broken society like contemporary China, these expressions reflect the feelings of many people, especially non-Christians. We should remember that many of the sermons are evangelistic in their original contexts.
However, the theology of pilgrims is not primarily a result of the current circumstances in China but is rooted in serious theological reflections. We have experienced “only a tiny fraction of the result of redemption,” and Jesus’s return will reveal its entirety (133). Therefore, Christians live in between ages, aiming for their ultimate destination. The eschatological life of faith on earth helps Christians to “develop a heavenly, transcendent, and surpassing view of life.” Instead of “dreaming of building a heavenly kingdom on earth, focusing on their own families, on earthly achievements, and maybe on social change,” Christians fix their eyes upon the age to come (116). Pilgrims hope for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore, hopes for a “democratic China, the continued centralization of power and dictatorship, isolationism, or the possibility of new leadership” are not the true Christian hope (132). This clear awareness of living in a world that is passing away releases Christians from the pressure of transforming the societies in which they find themselves into another “Christian country.” In other words, pilgrim theology places no further eschatological burdens on the Christian leading a mundane life under God’s common grace and faithfully carrying out the ordinance and obligation given by God.
A Theology of the Cross
We live not only in a world of alienation but spiritual hostility. Chinese Christians know that and have encountered that socially, culturally, and politically. However, the suffering of Christians is not a peculiar circumstance brought by a communist party. The particular form of suffering may be that, but in essence, suffering is “the consequence of sin” (97). Therefore, whether in the face of social and political persecution or a pandemic that seemingly never ends, Christians should “not ask why, but how” (98). In other words, suffering is a result of the brokenness of the world.
Positively, a theology of the cross understands the suffering of Christians in this world as an inevitable corollary of union with Christ. Christians follow a suffering Savior and follow him in suffering. Modern theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann (1926-) tend to blur the biblical distinction between the suffering of the Messiah and ours, and their theologies are not unknown to Chinese Christian intellectuals. However, most Chinese churches maintain this crucial distinction, and thus the distinction between the doctrine of justification and sanctification, when they talk about suffering in Christ (e.g., 49-50).
These sufferings are not the final destiny of Christians: they have an unshakable eschatological hope. “A Christian or church in the midst of suffering can rejoice greatly at the thought that at the end of this life, they will be met with a glorious view before the throne of God.” (142). This hope grants Christians faith and strength during severe persecutions and other sufferings.
In a word, a robust theology of the cross demonstrated in several sermons of this book is a beautiful example of the theology that characterizes Chinese house churches. This is also a reminder to many Western readers for whom the theme of suffering feels so foreign: that what they try to avoid may be something essential to their identity as followers of a suffering Jesus in this present age.
One Representative of the Chinese Church
Of course, you are not obliged to agree with the theology and exegetical details of every pastor in the collection. For example, “God the Father and God the Son were split apart” on the cross (51), or the pandemic was God’s judgment against the country and “against our church and against every Christian for not being able to live out life as salt” (47, 57).
In several sermons, the pastors are not afraid to publicly mention controversial figures or Chinese political leaders (e.g., 20, 136-37). These are indeed brave actions because they will potentially bring trouble not only to the pastor but also to the congregation they serve. However, one may wonder whether these mentions are all necessary. For example, do we really need a dream in which Xi Jinping, the current General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of China, came to the pastor’s home and spent a joyful time with him, to make the point that we are all sinners and no better than others (45)?
Having served as a minister of the Word in a Chinese house church for a decade, I know many churches, mine included, choose not to comment on Chinese politics in the pulpit not out of cowardice but for the sake of Christian conscience and to avoid unnecessary conflict. Chinese house churches all share the same political pressure, but respond differently, just as pastors in the United States have various reasons to decide whether to remark on the presential election in a Sunday preaching. Similarly, readers should note that statements like those accusing “the prophets of this age”—Christians and non-Christians—as “silent dogs” for failing to speak directly to the king assume a convention not shared by all Chinese Christians (20). I think this is a fitting example to indicate that even within the stream that this book intends to represent—“urban, grace-centric, theologically trained”—the river of Chinese house churches is a complex of varying tributaries.
As a theological student in the United States and a servant of a Chinese house church at the same time, I pray that more brothers and sisters in the West will read Faith in the Wilderness as a reference resource for their ecclesiastical reflection. At the same time, I pray that my suffering brothers and sisters in China continue to draw from the rich spring of theological reflections in the West, which are thousands of years earlier than ours. At the end of the day, there is only one church and one ultimate home, and we are all sojourning in this wilderness now.
Qingjun Luo is a husband, father, and church member of Escondido URC. He holds a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and an M.Div. from Westminster Seminary California. He is currently doing his S.T.M. study at Yale Divinity School.