By Shea Fitzgibbons, Associate Pastor, First Congregational Church of Kingston, NH
The destination? Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai. The duration? 12 days in August 2017. The travelers? Ockenga Fellows Program (OFP) participants (17 pastors and ministry leaders from New England), GCTS Associate Professor of World Christianity and Asian Studies Dr. Xiyi Yao and two Christian Chinese nationals. The cost? $0. The experience? Priceless!
“The Ockenga Fellows Program identifies high-potential, early-career pastors to participate as cohorts in a two-year program consisting of seven, three-day retreats (“roundtables”) and one study abroad trip to China, all at no cost to each participant.” Read more about OFP at www.gordonconwell.edu/ockenga/church-renewal/.
In addition to Dr. Yao, acting as guides on our trip were Jack, an associate pastor from a house church and Hunter, a director of short-term American study tours for Chinese youth. While our adventures included a fair share of tourist attractions (Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Terracotta Warrior Museum, et al.), the lasting value was experienced through shared meals, prayer and worship with leaders from the Church in China. Chris Dunaway (ABC-VT/NH) in my Community Pastors Group recently remarked in a sermon,
“Both Sundays of our trip we worshiped with local churches. And we didn’t understand a word of what they were singing, and we didn’t understand a word of the sermons. But you know what? Standing there, with all those believers singing words we didn’t understand, but words we knew were directed to the same God as ours, became even for us, a joyful, worshipful experience.”
The joy came from “the unity of the Spirit” and the tears I personally experienced while worshipping reflected the reality of God’s Word: “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call” (Eph 4:4). Though none of the leaders we interacted with are connected with the CCCC, many of them are living out a number of our guiding values:
- David in Beijing is a young pastor keen on living out shared life and mission as he remains dependent on believing prayer and intercession to guide their church through leadership succession after their founding pastor (currently on sabbatical) recently announced he is not returning. Wendy, who attends the church and works for Campus Crusade, is reaching urban students and connecting them with her healthy disciple-making church.
- Pastors Jacob and April traveled 3 hours to meet with us in Xi’an! They exhibited unparalleled gratitude for GCTS’s online resources as well as the encouragement we shared through prayer and intercession. Jacob shared stories of their ministry to Muslim background believers in Lanzhou, demonstrating the fruit of his church’s shared life and mission amidst a diverse harvest field.
- Bi-vocational Pastor Randy and his associates in Shanghai as well as young church leaders Ye, Zheng, Ju and Linjing originally from Wenzhou all relayed stories of advancing the gospel in their workplaces. These Christians demonstrate courageous evangelism in a society where it is illegal to proselytize. Though the government knows where practically every unregistered house church meets, to keep a low profile and rather than continuing growth in one location, these urban churches typically plant new churches after reaching between 300-500 members.
One Saturday evening over a healthy bowl of noodles, I asked Joshua, a young deacon of a Shanghai house church who works as a designer, “Do you talk about Jesus with your co-workers?” and without hesitation he replied, “Of course!” He expounded, describing in his current position which he began one year ago how he immediately told co-workers he was a Christian. Over time, Joshua’s associates curious to learn more about Christianity began asking him questions and eventually accepted his invitation to attend church. After seeing the surprised faces of my colleague and me, he asked us, “Do Americans talk about Jesus in their workplaces?” Our answers were significantly less emphatic, and ambiguous at best. Without a word, our table was dumbfounded with irony, best described by a Chinese church leader cited in Daniel Henderson’s Old Paths New Power (Moody, 2016): “We believe we are handling our persecution better than you are handling your prosperity.”
While China remains officially atheist, the Communist Party cannot purge from the Chinese soul what is plain to them: That God exists and He is sovereign. So many respond to the gospel because it fills the longing of their hearts. And the result? They tell their family, friends, associates, and neighbors about Jesus. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47b). Personally and ministerally, this trip was refreshing to me. Apart from the CCCC Annual Gathering in Pittsburgh, I hadn’t taken a break from my local ministry context for retreat or vacation since December 2016. As a result of this excursion I was inspired, challenged, and humbled by the faithful work of our brothers and sisters in China. I returned to New Hampshire determined to equip the flock unto the end that, if asked whether they talk about Jesus wherever they go, the answer will be, “Of Course!”