Tuesday, December 1st
Today marked a significant shift of context. Up to now our meetings have been with CCC/TSPM leaders, during which the focus was on national issues for the church. This morning we made the shift from a macro approach to the micro with our visit to Dushu Lake Christian Church in Suzhou. It was the first time we had an opportunity for an in depth conversation about the life, work and aspirations of a Chinese Protestant congregation. Some of what we learned almost brought me to tears—like how the government built the church then handed the minister the keys mortgage free!!! Even when we were told that the government insisted on the design, I still think any Canadian congregation would happily take a free building.
It was clear that Dushu Lake Church enjoys dedicated and gifted pastoral leadership. Rev. HE Jie Miao exudes faithfulness and an easy sense of humour. As we asked our many questions he responded with warmth and patience. I was curious, given the theological diversity within the Chinese Church, how individuals choose a congregation. The first part of the answer is that most people affiliate themselves with the church closest to their homes. This said, he reflected on the strategies his church employs to embody true openness in the face of the many expressions of the faith. A simple but powerful decision was made in the design of the three lower level chapels. Each space includes colours and symbols familiar to one of the large subsets of the congregation such as youth, Korean and English-speaking. Offering three Sunday services allows more breadth for theological expression in worship. Rev. He and his worship team have rejected the ‘one size fits all’ approach to liturgy.
Another feature of the openness of the welcome at Dushu Lake Church is its demographic reach. We were awestruck when told that nearly forty percent of the congregation is under forty years of age. As we wrestle with the aging of our UCC, such numbers are astonishing! Some of their success attracting youth can be attributed to their proximity to many university campuses but, further conversation revealed how intentionally the church responds to youth and young adults. Rev. Chris Wang serves as the minister of education providing a broad spectrum of programming to build faith and community for those living away from home.
The pastoral reach of Dushu Lake Church includes many migrant workers coming from western and central China seeking employment in the city of Suzhou. The church strives to connect with these people by creating meeting places in locations close to where these internal migrants live and work. Like any church-plant, there are always challenges around funding, location and leadership but in China they have the additional requirement of a government permit for a legal gathering.
When asked about pastoral care, Rev. He spoke of the task of caring for such a large congregation. He held up visiting the sick along with counselling and supporting university students as significant ministries.
I was especially happy to hear him speak of a mission project they have developed providing seed to farmers in rural villages. The hope is to provide employment and financial independence. It is like the micro-banking model that has been so successful in places like India.
I left this visit with a much clearer picture of church life in China. I encountered ministry personnel who are both deeply devoted to Christ but also gifted with creativity and vision. They are committed to the transformation of lives by faith and acts of grace. On so many levels, the church in China and the church in Canada are more alike than I had imagined.