Back from the Future by David A. Shirey

Back from the Future by David A. Shirey

Global Ministries and New Church Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) teamed up to organize an immersion trip to China August 30 to September 15, 2006. The purpose of the trip was to expose new church pastors to Global Ministries’ partners in China and to experience firsthand the vibrant Chinese church. Each participant was encouraged to consider how this exposure to the global church could have an impact on their new church starts back in the U.S. and Canada.

Global Ministries and New Church Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) teamed up to organize an immersion trip to China August 30 to September 15, 2006. The purpose of the trip was to expose new church pastors to Global Ministries’ partners in China and to experience firsthand the vibrant Chinese church. Each participant was encouraged to consider how this exposure to the global church could have an impact on their new church starts back in the U.S. and Canada.

Back from the Future
by David A. Shirey
Coolwater Christian Church

Isaiah 55:10-12

At some point on Wednesday, August 30, aboard American Airlines flight 289 from Chicago to Shanghai, just west of the westernmost Aleutian Island of Alaska and just east of northeasternmost Siberia, I realized I was crossing the International Dateline. I crossed over into tomorrow, left everything and everyone familiar behind, and entered into a new day. For the next two weeks, I got to live in that new day—the new day that is being enjoyed by the 1.2 billion people in China in general and China’s 16 million Christians in particular.

And then this past Tuesday, September 12, we awoke at 4:30 a.m. Beijing time in order to catch a flight to Tokyo for a transfer to our return flight to Chicago and a connecting flight to Phoenix, arriving in Phoenix at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 12, 32 hours after I awoke in China. Crossing the International Dateline in reverse, I returned from tomorrow to today– I came back from the future with a desire to share with you today what I saw happening in China tomorrow.

In a word, I observed three things in my trip to the church of tomorrow that I would like to see take root, grow, and bear fruit in me and in our congregation today. I observed among Christians in China:

  • The irresistible power of God’s Word;
  • The willing sacrifice of Christian people, and
  • The inexpressible joy of the Holy Spirit.

First, the irresistible power of God’s Word.

I had an inkling on the flight over that I was to pay attention to the power of words on this trip. As you know, I like words anyway. I like to read words, study words, write words, and reflect on what they mean.

I keep a journal as part of my daily spiritual discipline—Jennie and I read scripture together each morning, discuss whatever our reading of God’s Word triggers in our hearts and minds, and then pray together. I follow up that time by writing in my journal whatever it might be I sense God is saying to me—a sanctified diary is what it is. In preparation for my China trip, I bought myself a brand new journal to record my reflections and observations—a 70 sheet college-ruled red spiral notebook that I filled over two weeks. I brought home 70 pages worth of words—a verbal scrapbook of a once-in-a-lifetime trip– by far my most significant souvenir. And one of the recurrent themes I discerned in rereading my journal entries on the long flight home was the irresistible power of God’s Word in China.

How so? In the production of millions of Bibles, for instance. We toured the Amity Bible Printing Company in Nanjing, an endeavor initially sponsored by United Bible Societies world-wide in 1988 and now self-sustaining. We toured that Bible printing press on Sunday afternoon, September 3, and were struck by the magnitude of the operation. “This is no Mom-and-Pop print shop,” one of my colleagues said. Indeed not. Last month alone, 720,000 Bibles were printed. Over 50 million have been printed in less than 20 years. Its 320 employees work 24/7 in order to keep up with the increasing demand of Chinese Christians for Bibles– Bibles that are readily and legally available at Christian bookstores and churches for $1.50 a piece.

We witnessed first-hand that hunger for God’s Word. After the church we attended in Beijing let out last Sunday, we stood in the courtyard and watched as people lined up at what looked like ticket windows at an adjacent building.

“What are they doing?,” we asked.

“They’re getting in line to buy Bibles and other Christian literature,” was the answer.

Standing in that line was a woman who had sat next to the two Chinese members of our delegation on an airplane trip the day before from Xi’an to Beijing. The entirety of her story I’ll save for another day, but she was introduced to the Christian faith by conversation with our hosts, wanted to hear more, was invited by them to join us for church the next day, came, listened, and after worship got in line to buy a Bible so she could learn more about this faith and this man named Jesus. Jim Gordon, my roommate for the latter part of the trip and a new church pastor in Lincoln, Nebraska, saw her in line, walked over to her, and handed her a Chinese-English Bible he had purchased himself just a few days earlier at a church in Shanghai. The way she received that Bible, held it, and leafed through its pages for the first time was a precious sight I’ll never forget.

It’s a precious thing, God’s Word, and churches in China are sending their own to the seminaries that have been resurrected from the persecution of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in order to learn it and study it so they can return to their home churches and teach it to a new-born generation of believers who are all ears when it comes to hearing and learning from God’s Word.

And teachers are desperately needed for those new believers. The vast majority of churches are served by lay people with little or no formal education. We learned there is 1 seminary-educated pastor per 10,000 believers in China. It will take 90 years to be able to provide even 1 pastor per church if they graduate 500 pastors per year and no one dies! To see the desire and commitment of current Chinese Christians of all ages to do whatever is necessary to equip themselves so as to pass on the faith to a new generation made me evaluate my own commitment to studying God’s Word. I want to be able to teach it more effectively to our congregation as we begin next month’s new Christian Education classes on Sunday morning. How does our passion for learning and teaching the Bible compare? Do we share their recognition of the preciousness of God’s Word?

We met a young man at Nanjing Seminary from Xinjiang Province in far northwestern China where the dominant religion is Islam. The child of non-Christians, at age 15 he read a book about the Bible. Intrigued by what he read, he asked a friend he knew to be a Christian if he could borrow his family’s Bible so as to read it. His friend regretted he couldn’t lend out the family Bible because it was “too precious.” But he did invite him to come to church where he could hear the Bible read each week and interpreted by the Pastor and sung in hymns and spoken as part of the language of faith. He accepted the invitation, fell in love with God’s Word and the people who opened its pages and meaning to him, in time was baptized, was sent to seminary, and now at a tender age is teaching Bible in seminary.

We witnessed the preciousness and power of God’s Word time and again in China. Do we take this book for granted here? Do we ache to study it so as to teach it to others? Are we aware of the power its pages transmit to lives open to its teachings?

In China, I beheld the irresistible power of God’s Word.

I beheld as well the willing sacrifice of Christian people.

Christianity first came to China as far back as the 7th century, only to be forbidden by one of the emperors and for all intents and purposes disappear until a new wave of missionary activity in the mid- to late-19th century. Sadly, the missionary work that took place in those early years was largely counter-productive. It was linked with imperialistic endeavors that took advantage of the Chinese people, showed disdain for their culture, and abused their trust to the point that Christianity was scorned as an invasive, alien religion by people who had been invaded by all-too-many outside forces for centuries.

There were, however, a blessed few missionaries who came to China respecting its indigenous culture and who patiently, prayerfully sought ways to lovingly sow the seeds of the faith from within rather than force-feeding it from without. These missionaries, including several from our own church family, the Disciples of Christ, did so by first establishing ministries of compassion and service. Social service became the key to opening hearts to the gospel.

For instance, we visited Drum Tower Hospital in Nanjing. Founded in 1892 by a Disciples missionary, Dr. William Macklin, it is today one of the oldest hospitals in China and the largest in Nanjing, renown for its Medical School and healthcare services. (Photo: author at Drum Tower Hospital with Ms. Xiaomin Qi, Director of Foreign Affairs Department)

Disciples missionaries also began schools in those early years, several of which sought to educate women and the rural poor, some of which are still operating today and counted among China’s best.

Today the healing and teaching ministry of Jesus is continued by the sacrificial service of the staff and volunteers of what is called the Amity Foundation, a church-affiliated social service ministry supported by our Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Its ministry includes 16,000 “clinics of love” in rural areas underserved by China’s still-developing medical system, homes for the aged, care for physically-challenged and special needs children, many of whom are abandoned each year at the doors of Amity-assisted orphanages. Add to that an extensive blindness-prevention and HIV/ AIDS awareness programs done on a shoestring budget with volunteers and underpaid staff as well as a program dedicated to providing English teachers to impoverished students in under-equipped rural areas. Many of these Amity teachers are persons from the U.S. who are willing to spend two years in a remote village teaching English at a stipend of $5,000/ year plus an additional 2,500 Chinese yuan ($300/ month). Nothing to get rich on—but as we were reminded over and over again as we heard the stories of our missionaries and our Chinese Christian brothers and sisters, following Christ is not about a whopping salary but a willing sacrifice. The Church in China is built on the willing sacrifices of its leaders and its people.

Take the elder generation of Christians in China. If you’re a Christian in China and you’re aged 50 or above, you have suffered and sacrificed for your faith.

The Rev. Xiaoling Zhu, Area Executive for East Asia and the Pacific of Common Global Ministries of Disciples and UCC, our leader told us one morning on the bus of his personal experiences during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, a time of unimaginable chaos and upheaval in China, and persecution for the church. Churches were closed during those years, Christianity went underground, and many Christians, including Xiaoling, were persecuted for their faith. Age 16 at the time, Xiaoling was forced to wear a dunce hat at school and a sandwich-board placard on his chest that read: I’m a disciple of Christ because his father was the only minister in the city. His family was forced to give up their parsonage. A 16 square meter room became their new home. Xiaoling’s father was taken away by the Red Army and was bound and tormented for three harrowing days without food before being released. Xiaoling himself was sent away to a rural area for 8 years to farm rice at 10 cents a day. His story and that of his father (whose memorial service we attended at the seminary he founded in the early 80s and where he was still serving as President at age 92) were representative of any number of senior Christians we met in China. The common denominator in their lives was willing sacrifice for the cause of Christ.

But younger Christians, too, were sacrificing. We visited several seminaries and were amazed to see students the age of our high-schoolers who had been sent by their churches to Bible schools and seminaries for two or three years to be educated and would then be returning to their home churches to be teachers and leaders without pay or with very little pay– $40 a month is the salary of many pastors. We also saw laypersons in their late-20s, 30s and 40s—including mothers and fathers who had left their families in order to do the same thing… and they did so gladly.

Rev. Gao Ying, the Vice-President of Nanjing Jingling Union Theological Seminary in Nanjing, told us her story over dinner. How she had been raised in a non-Christian family. How her parents were active party members. How in the late-70s as the Cultural Revolution ended, she was hungry for hope, for love, for goodness in the wake of such terror and tragedy. How she quietly went to church one Sunday with a friend. How she heard the preacher preach “You must be born again” and how in that moment “something touched my heart” and how in the ensuing year she was awe-struck by how Christians really did “love one another.” Within a year she was baptized, took the seminary entrance exam, was accepted… and was summarily disowned by her parents.

I was reminded as she told her story of how we had just heard the seminary choir sing us two songs. They were thirty or so in number, high school-aged, maybe a few in their early- to mid-twenties, half of whom were likely first-generation Christians. Their choir director, an American mission partner who had just arrived with his wife for a two-year stint introduced the first song which they sang in English and then prefaced the second song by saying, “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know this one because it’s in Chinese and I haven’t heard the translation yet, but as you’ll hear, they sure sing it with a lot of heart.” And they sure did, and several us recognized it instantly— it was the old gospel tune called “I Surrender All.” How fitting! The Chinese Christians we met, their elders, and the faithful missionaries who preceded them could well have sung that as their theme song: I Surrender All.

Hearing that music and remembering the stories I’d heard of such willing sacrifice, I wrote in my journal: I am being called to go further and deeper and make more willing sacrifices because of the witness I’ve seen here. I’m not sure exactly what form that sacrifice will take for me—but I’m praying God will show me what I can do to stand in fuller solidarity with my Chinese brothers and sisters who willingly surrender all and I invite you to consider the same. The Chinese Church is built on sacrifice of its people just as the universal Church is built on the sacrifice of its Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Coolwater’s witness will be built upon the foundation of your sacrifice and mine.

But I hasten to add this: The sacrifice I witnessed in China was willingly and joyfully offered. In China, I witnessed the inexpressible joy of the Holy Spirit spilling out all over.

I witnessed that joy the first day in Shanghai as we visited with Elder Ji Jianhong, leader of the Chinese Protestant Churches who hosted us in his office with what we came to expect everywhere we went: a cup of hot tea and a warm welcome. The Chinese people received us everywhere with open hands, open hearts, and an open table. Our cups ranneth over. As Elder Ji spoke, his cell phone rang—some things transcend culture!—and the ring tone was Ode to Joy: “Joyful, Joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love….” I heard that refrain and that joy everywhere we went.

In sanctuaries on Sunday mornings to be sure. Where the main sanctuary was filled at least forty-five minutes before the service started, where people sat outside the open windows to listen in or in an adjoining building where they could watch on closed circuit television and then leave so another group could come for the next service and pack it again to overflowing—a pattern that repeated itself up to six times over the course of one weekend. Where a bold Amen! followed every petition of prayer. Where the Lord’s Prayer was almost shouted with conviction. Where the singing was so full and broad that the rafters shook. Where in one of the churches a guest from another province shared an offering of singing and dancing to a piece called “Jesus Is the Light of the World” and as he sang, the sun shone through a yellow sun-shaped piece of stained glass right on cue, bringing a bright smile to his face and the congregation’s at the same time.

I saw joy in children’s faces when we stepped into an adjoining Sunday school building in one church and entered a room no more than 20’ x 20’ where we were greeted by 60 (I counted them) first-and second-graders and four teachers who leapt to their feet to greet Western visitors, beaming from ear-to-ear and singing together at the top of their lungs a song in Chinese whose words were “Welcome to the Family of God.”

Joy permeated the meals we shared with our hosts in each of the places we visited… and my, the meals we shared! I ate cuisine I’ve never seen before, let alone eaten (some of which was looking right back up at me!) including squid, snail, lotus root, duck, shark fin and seaweed soup and untold other things there’s no English word for and no way to describe, but the long, leisurely pace of the meals and the rich conversation we shared as we broke bread filled us body, mind, and spirit.

It seemed everywhere we went we looked into faces etched with joy. Overwhelmed at times, I wrote one day in my journal, “I have a palpable sense of joy welling up within me. The joy that Paul says is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart. Joy to the World, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King.”

And it dawned on me then and there how what I witnessed in China all fits together: The irresistible power of God’s Word. The willing sacrifice of Christian people. The inexpressible joy of the Holy Spirit. The more you enter into God’s Word, the more you sense the call to surrender all; the more you sacrifice willingly for the Lord and for others, the more joy wells up within you and splashes all over you; the more joy you experience, the more you hunger for God’s Word; and the cycle begins anew– Word, Sacrifice, Joy, each time deeper, richer, and more satisfying than before.

I’ve come this morning to tell you I’ve come back from the future. I’ve been to tomorrow and I’ve seen a church burgeoning with growth and vitality and energy, a church marked by a hunger for God’s Word, a church willing to sacrifice for Christ’s sake, a church soaked in the joy of the Holy Spirit.

I’ve come back from the future to tell you that we can be that kind of church tomorrow too, if today we give ourselves again to the One whose kingdom is without end.

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13) AMEN.