In front of Shanxi Christian Council office there is a park reconstructed on the top of the Tang dynasty city wall. The moderator Rev Wang pointed to the place below and said “This was the Western Gate”. In 635 the Prime Minister Fang travelled from the imperial court to this gate (today about 45 minutes driving) to receive the Patriarch from the Church of the East. The journey to the East reversed the direction of the Silk Road, and the missionary work was the result of two generations of Persian traders who lived in China. This story was recorded on the Nestorian Stele in Xian Stele Forrest Museum.
Theologically the church does not have a mission, but the mission of God calls the church into being. “Missio Dei ≥ Mission ad gentes + Missio inter gentes” – this is the formula that attempts to summarise the first introduction of Christianity to China.
According to the Record of Major Meetings of Tang Dynasty, a royal decree was issued in 638: “The Dao has no perpetual name; the Sage-hood has no unchanging form. Let [the Nestorians] have the access to establish this religion, so that many lives can be brought across [the ocean of suffering]”. In the period of 649-683, the Church grew quickly through interfaith dialogue with Buddhism and Daoism. The inscription says: “The religion was spread over ten administration zones, the country enjoyed prosperity and peace. The [Christian] Temples occupied close to a hundred cities, whilst households were enriched by the blessings of the Luminous [Christian] faith”.
Protestant missionaries came 1200 years after the Persians. Derived from the China Inland Mission in the late 1870’s, today Shanxi Christian Council has a large footprint in the remote west. Its theological education prepares leaders for 5 provinces covering a vast geography along the Silk Road to Xingjiang Autonomous Region. Xian was the capital of 13 dynasties. Most of the old buildings in Xian have various degrees of heritage protection, including some church buildings. The General Secretary shared with us their challenge to reclaim and redevelop church buildings. Contrary to coastal synods, here they were under resourced. A few years ago the synod was offered a free rental for a floor in the office building that the government purchased so the synod could move out of a basement.
The top priority is to equip enough leaders to sustain the growth in the west. Currently the college can only offer a 4-year diploma program, because some students only had middle school education. The synod has three approaches to capacity building: a) upgrade accreditation from diploma to degree, b) expand lay and continue education, c) construct a new college with 350 residents and redevelop the old college into a social service centre. Being a UCA president from the laity, Stuart resonated with their focus to equip the laity, and encouraged the UnitingWorld program to include this province.
The key to resolve the antithesis between mission to the gentiles and mission with gentiles is contextual theology. Xian is culturally diverse and religiously plural. During the Tang period, there was an innate openness to various cultures, even the Nestorian monks were invited by the Foreign Minister to take roles of diplomacy. Mission was done through a two-century long dialogue with Buddhism and Daoist in a Confucian society as a minority.
This non-Christendom context was a common interest between the moderator and the president. In Xian it is the 5000-year written history and the capital of 13 dynasties. In Australia’s Northern Territory it is the 40,000 years old indigenous culture from the land. Although the two cultures have never met, the task of contextual theology is the same: Gospel with Culture. In this light, the Preamble to the UCA Constitution is a contextual theology in the making. Two leaders exchanged the idea to have a joint conference in Xian on Theology and Culture.
The large need to equip the laity was not fully conceptualised until we attended the service on Sunday. The church was built in 1919 by British Baptist Church with a capacity for 500 people. Now it has a membership of 13,000. Because of its heritage overlay, the church built a 3-floor building next to the sanctuary for extra worship space. There were 5 services on Sunday, and we were at the 3rd of 5 Sunday services. On our arrival, we saw the 2nd service was overflowing – with people standing near the gate.
Stuart shared with the congregation about the UCA/CCC partnership, and social service training in Shandong. On a number of occasions his speech was either echoed or interrupted by a loud response of “Amen”. The lay preacher gave a well-researched and delivered sermon on child-parents relationships based on OT scriptures of God’s promise over future generations. She was a retired engineer, and this was her third sermon after completing lay education. When the congregation recited the Lord Prayer in one voice, we all felt the Spirit’s presence among the faithful. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they should see God”.
Our big surprise was visiting a church-run HIV clinic. We were shown two videos about the ministry by the laity, a number of elderly people from a small Christian gathering place. They wanted to care for the people suffering from HIV AIDS among migrant workers; they wanted to care for them regardless of their sexual orientation – to be loved by God. The staff showed us a city map marked with places where gay groups and sex workers gathered. The clinic went through a difficult journey to be accepted by the church and the society.
Today this clinic has been licensed by the local government. It is supported by the CCC national office, recognised by the central government, and partly funded by Bill Gates Foundation. They have gathered hundreds of volunteers from nearby universities to engage HIV awareness programs and advocacy for caring migrant workers who have sacrificed their youth for urban development. The powerful ministry of the laity has manifested again in the social margins. The work is not based on doctrinal correctness, but compassion-driven praxis. Sometimes the ministry is a pastoral visit to gay communities, sometimes is to participate in a burial service for the deceased – the unwanted, lost, and forgotten.
When we visited the Nestorian Stele in Xian Stele Forrest Museum, one sentence in the inscription began to speak to us. Between 635 and 781, every year the Christians would gather in four places. “[They] prepared various [charity] works on the Pentecost Day. When the hungry came, they fed them; when the cold came, they clothed them. The sick were treated so [they could] get up; the dead were buried, and so [they were] laid to rest”.
The Mission of God is bigger than mission to the gentiles. In mission with the gentile, the horizon of God’s mission begins to open and brings the common interest of life between the secular and the sacred into focus. It is the Incarnation of God’s life in the world, regardless of the church’s capacity to conceptualise its fullness in theology. On this journey we have seen the work of the Spirit. The Church has been, and is, working hard – to capture the Spirit of life, by which the people of God have been captured.