Post-Pandemic, Will China’s Church Be Changed Forever?

Each day, Aaron Zhang—all names in this story are pseudonyms—wakes up and helps his two children get ready for their day. His oldest is in elementary school, and like a growing number of other Chinese Christian families, their family homeschools.

Last year, they were dreaming about overseas mission work. Zhang even quit his job to prepare. But now, with restrictions tight, the family can’t obtain or renew passports. Their goal of being missionaries is on hold indefinitely.

These are difficult days for Chinese believers, and darker days loom. On February 1, 2020, harsh new regulations overseeing every aspect of faith practice went into effect across China. These completed a spate of regulations initially rolled out in 2018.

But during the 2020 rollout, the government’s attention was diverted: one week before, Wuhan was locked down. Chinese society entered a season of intense quarantine and separation.

More than a year later, life in China remains somewhat bizarre, yet largely functional. But there may be no return to normalcy for the church.

Restrictions

The new restrictions require Chinese Communist Party oversight for every measure of religious life—staffing, fund management, gatherings. China’s unofficial churches, known as house churches, have operated in recent decades in an ambiguous space: they have rented public space, welcomed visitors, and been open about some of their activities, all without official government sanction. The February restrictions effectively close that era of semi-openness.

In China, there may be no return to normalcy for the church.

More ominously, these measures specify that all religious activity within China must promote and support the Chinese Communist Party.

“I think a lot of the churches could disappear,” said S. E. Wang of China Partnership. Still, “God is leading the way forward. This pandemic . . . is not the beginning of the end; it is the end of the beginning.”

Short-Term Opportunities

Even before COVID-19, a lot of Chinese house churches couldn’t meet face to face.

“Persecution prepared the Chinese church to face this pandemic, because it forced churches to close their public meeting places,” said Simon Liu, a pastor who trains unregistered church planters.

All religious activity within China must promote and support the Chinese Communist Party.

Since the pandemic, Chinese pastors have held online crusades. These are not intended to replace Sunday worship, but to preach the good news and unite disconnected Christians. And they require courage: the evening’s preacher must be willing to show his face to a non-vetted crowd, which can be dangerous.

“The risk is there, but I think more and more see opportunity,” Liu said.

The online meetings average 1,000 to 2,000 direct connections. One northeastern Chinese pastor began his message this way: “The Christian hope lies in this—we are not stronger or purer than others, but rather than believing in ourselves, we believe in Jesus, who upholds us whenever we fall, who strengthens us when our strength is drained, who loves us when we are in pain.”

Christians have invited their family and friends, but also have asked their enemies. “Some people have even invited their local police,” Liu said. “The persecuting parties feel like they are also vulnerable: ‘Maybe I could get this virus. Maybe I will die. . . . You are not afraid of death, so maybe something in your faith is quite unique.’”

Persecution prepared the Chinese church to face this pandemic.

Believers have also done what they can to serve and care, whether next door or around the world. Chinese social media were replete with stories of Christians donating masks and caring for quarantined neighbors.

A Chinese Christian in New York received nearly 6,000 masks from mainland Chinese Christians at the beginning of the pandemic. Those masks came in small packs of 100 or 200, from Chinese brothers and sisters who reported it took as many as nine hours to obtain and ship one such small package.

Long-Term Worries

Even while leaning into short-term opportunities, Chinese pastors see problems ahead. The pandemic likely ushered in the beginning of a new reality.

In the United States, churches radically altered the life of their bodies to conform to pandemic norms. Although some of those modifications will remain, most American churches have already returned to worshiping together. In China, things may not ever revert to pre-pandemic days.

“This is not short term,” Wang said. “Even if the pandemic is over, the public space has been squeezed very small for the churches to gather. There is no public space for people to go back to.”

He’s referring to tightening government controls, which mean house churches will no longer be able to rent commercial space for corporate worship, as many have been doing.

In China, things may not ever revert to pre-pandemic days. . . . ‘There is no public space for people to go back to.’

Private space is also tightly controlled. These days, nervous neighbors are more likely to report a gathering of 20 strangers. “Basically, you cannot have larger than two families, or three,” Wang said. “That will be a new norm for Chinese churches.”

“The Devil is using this opportunity to crack down on the church, that’s for sure, but God will use it in a different way,” one Chinese pastor said. Before persecution intensified in the last several years, many in China were attracted to the celebrity-pastor model. Gifted teachers attracted national and even international followings.

This new normal means less elevation of central leaders and a sharper focus on smaller groups. As Christian communities are broken down into smaller clusters through plague and persecution, church leaders must raise up a new generation of local leaders equipped to walk their people through marriages, deaths, and family conflicts.

Much of the training has to be indigenous: many missionaries were driven out of mainland China last year. Even after the pandemic ends, the number of overseas workers ministering in China will be much smaller than before the pandemic.

To that end, preparing capable teachers remains a priority.

“Even if today everything is going down, all of a sudden the door could open widely,” Wang said. “It is our responsibility to make that start to happen, so that when the door opens, a group of ready preachers can go to the streets and stadiums and preach the gospel.”

Pandemic and Persecution

The book of James is clear that no one knows what tomorrow will bring. Life is a mist that appears and then vanishes.

“The pandemic and the persecution have led to a new situation,” one Chinese pastor said. “We still do a lot of active planning, but more humbly we say, ‘Lord, if you are willing: this is your time. Use it.’ . . . We don’t know what the future holds.”

Chinese Christians have watched God work in uncertain times before. During the Cultural Revolution, believers were forced underground for decades, and many Western observers despaired at the church’s future. But in the 1980s, the Chinese church experienced an explosive period of growth. Today, there may be as many as 100 million Chinese believers.

“Sometimes we feel like God is pretty close to these things; sometimes we feel like God is pretty far,” Liu said. “But we know that everything is under his control, and he is behind everything. Whatever happens is God’s way to prepare his church. He is always preparing his church.”

Aaron Zhang agrees. “Through uncertainty, we depend on our certain God,” he said. “God calls us to live an uncertain life, so that we can trust and rely on him.”

Tim Keller: Hope for a Better World Starts with the Resurrection

The American belief has long been that each generation will have a better life—economically, technologically, socially, personally—than the previous one. But this idea of linear historical progress did not exist in most other cultures. All ancient cultures—Chinese, Babylonian, Hindu, Greek, and Roman—had different views. Some saw history as cyclical, and others saw history as a slow decline from past golden ages.

The idea that history was moving in the direction of continual progress and improvement in the human condition simply did not exist.

Then, however, came Christianity. As Robert Nisbet writes in his book History of the Idea of Progress, Christian thinkers gave “to the idea of progress a large and devoted following in the West and a sheer power that the idea could not have otherwise [in the absence of Christian beliefs] acquired.” The Greeks thought that the accumulation of human knowledge led to a mild, temporary improvement in the human condition—but only between conflagrations. But Christian philosophers “endowed the idea of progress with new attributes which were bound to give it a spiritual force unknown to their pagan predecessors.”

Christianity, then, offers unparalleled resources for cultural hope. (We are not for the moment talking about individual hope—hope for life after death. We are talking about corporate hope, social hope, hope for the future of society, of the human race—hope for a good direction to history.) Looking at the arc of history through the lens of Christ’s resurrection, we can make four broad statements about the nature of Christian hope: It is uniquely reasonable, full, realistic, and effective.

Christian hope is reasonable

First, there is formidable historical evidence that the resurrection of Christ actually happened. This makes Christian hope different from any other variety.

N. T. Wright explains that the resurrection of Christ presents evidence that demands explanation from historians and scientists. It can’t simply be dismissed. He writes, “Insofar as I understand scientific method, when something turns up that doesn’t fit the paradigm you’re working with, one option … is to change the paradigm.” We are not to exclude the evidence just because our old paradigm can’t account for it, but we are to include it within a new paradigm, “a larger whole.” A failure to provide a historically plausible alternative explanation for the eyewitness accounts and the revolutionary, overnight worldview change of thousands of Jews is not being more scientific—it is being less so.

Various kinds of Western progressivism believe history is moving toward more individual freedom or class equality or economic prosperity or technologically acquired peace and justice. But these views are not hypotheses that anyone can test. They are “hope so” hopes—beliefs that are not rooted in the empirical realm. The resurrection of Christ, however, includes powerful evidence from the empirical realm and, while still requiring faith, provides a highly reasonable, rational hope that there is a God who is going to renew the world.

Christian hope is full

Every religion has offered people a hope for a life after death. Our secular culture, in radical contrast, is the first in history to tell its members that both individuals and world history will end in ultimate oblivion. In the end, we go to nothing, both as a civilization and as persons.

Other religions are ultimately “spirit-ist” in the sense that they believe matter is unimportant and in the end all that will exist is spirit. Secularism, of course, is materialist in its belief that there is no soul or supernatural reality, that everything has a scientific, physical cause.

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Christianity differs from both. It does not merely offer the prospect of a wholly spiritual future in heaven. The resurrection of Jesus, to cite the Greek New Testament, is arrabon, a down payment, and aparche, the firstfruits of a future physical resurrection in which the material world will be renewed. It will be a world where justice dwells, every tear will be wiped away, death and destruction are banished forever, and the wolf will lie down with the lamb; these are lyrical, poetic ways of saying that this world will be mended, made new, liberated from its bondage to death and decay (Rom. 8:18–23).

This is the fullest possible hope. The resurrection of Christ promises us not merely some future consolation for the life we lost but the restoration of the life we lost and infinitely more. It promises the world and life that we have always longed for but never had.

Christian hope is realistic

The philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel has long been highly influential for Western thought. Hegel taught that history was proceeding through a “dialectic” in which, in each age, conflicting forces reached a new, greater synthesis. This meant that every age was better than the one before and history was moving upward in a series of unbroken steps. That, as we have seen over the last century, is simply unrealistic. Christianity offers an infinitely greater and more wonderful destiny for human history and society, but it does so realistically.

If we look to the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus, we see a very different divine model. His life was not in any way a series of upward steps. He emptied himself of his glory and came and died, yet this descent led to an ascent to even greater heights, because now he rules not only the world in general but also a saved people. It was only through his suffering and descent that he was able to save us and ascend.

This is not the Hegelian merger of equal and opposite forces. Jesus did not “synthesize” holiness with sin or life with death. He defeated sin and death through death. But neither are Jesus’ life and ministry the random sequence ruptures described by the postmodernists. Jesus goes through darkness to eventually bring us to greater light. History is moving toward a wonderful destiny, but not in a series of successively better and better eras, going from strength to strength. That is not how God works.

The secular idea of progress is naive and unrealistic. It is wrong to base a society on the assumption that every generation will experience more prosperity, peace, and justice than the one before. But the postmodern alternative robs us of any hope. Christianity, however, gives us a noncynical but realistic way to see history.

Christian hope is effective

Finally, Christian hope works at the life level, the practical level.

The New Testament uses the word hope in two ways. When it comes to hoping in human beings and ourselves, our hope is always relative, uncertain. If you lend to someone, you do so in the hope that person will pay you back (Luke 6:34); if we plow and thresh, we do so in the hope that there will be a harvest (1 Cor. 9:10). We choose the best methods and wisest practices to secure the outcome we want. We insist to ourselves and others that we have it sorted and under control. But we do not—we never do. This is relative, “hope so” hope.

But when the object of hope is not any human agent but God, then hope means confidence, certainty, and full assurance (Heb. 11:1). To have hope in God is not to have an uncertain, anxious wish that he will affirm your plan but to recognize that he and he alone is trustworthy, that everything else will let you down (Ps. 42:5, 11; 62:10), and that his plan is infinitely wise and good. If I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, that confirms that there is a God who is both good and powerful, who brings light out of darkness, and who is patiently working out a plan for his glory, our good, and the good of the world (Eph. 1:9–12; Rom. 8:28). Christian hope means that I stop betting my life and happiness on human agency and rest in him.

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A person who gets a diagnosis of cancer will rightly put relative hope in doctors and medical treatment. But the main source of dependence must be upon God. We can have certainty that his plan and will for us is always good and perfect and that the inevitable destiny is resurrection. If a cancer patient’s main hope lies in medicine, then an unfavorable report will be devastating. But if that hope is in the Lord, it will be like a mountain that cannot be shaken or moved (Ps. 125:1). Isaiah 40:31 says that those who “hope in the Lord” are not anxiously holding on but always “renewing their strength” and even “soaring.” Hope in God leads to “running and not growing weary” and “walking and not being faint.”

Jesus has secured this for us by his death and resurrection. When this assurance abides in us, our immediate fates—how the current situation turns out—can no longer trouble us. Hope comes from looking at him.

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. This article is adapted from HOPE IN TIMES OF FEAR, by Timothy Keller, published by Viking, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Timothy Keller.



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Did Jesus Really Exist?

Did Jesus Really Exist?


BreakPoint.org

Each year as Easter approaches, pseudo-scholars, newspapers, and cable networks make headlines claiming to offer the real story about Jesus. Their accounts assume that much of the Jesus story contained in the Gospels, especially anything miraculous is largely a myth created and propagated by, first, His followers, and then, Church leaders seeking to expand their power. Despite the skepticism, few suggest that Jesus never existed.

Online, of course, that is a different story. Though there are no serious scholars who question whether Jesus of Nazareth actually existed, it’s still a claim you might encounter, either on the internet or from someone who believes their internet source. So, what if you find yourself in a conversation with someone who says: “No one really knows whether Jesus existed or not.”

The latest video in our “What Would You Say?” series tackles this question: Here’s my colleague Shane Morris…

The next time someone says they don’t think we can be sure that Jesus ever existed, here are 3 things to remember:

Number 1: Several non-Christian historians of that period mention Jesus.

Josephus was a Jewish historian who had grown up in Jerusalem in the first century, the same city where Jesus was reported to have been crucified. Josephus’ father was a Jewish priest who would have been a contemporary of Jesus, and almost certainly would have seen him if he had existed. Josephus mentions Jesus on two occasions in his History of the Jews: In one he reports his crucifixion at the demand of the Jewish leaders and in the other, he mentions the execution of James, the brother of Jesus who is called Messiah.

Josephus would have known Jesus was a historical person and would have no reason to invent him if he didn’t.

Other non-Christian historians also mention Jesus, including the Roman historian Tacitus, the Greek satirist Lucian, and a prisoner named Mara bar Serapion.

Number 2: The apostle Paul, someone who persecuted the Christian Church, would have been a contemporary of Jesus and claims to have known Jesus’ brother James.

It is very unlikely that Paul would have given his life to a movement he had once persecuted if it had been based on a fictitious man who had supposedly traveled and preached in the same area in which Paul himself lived. Jesus would have been publicly crucified at a time and location where and when Paul would have been present, in response to demands made by Jewish authorities whom Paul would have known. Paul claimed to personally know Jesus’ brother James. Fictitious people tend not to have brothers who are personally known.

Number 3: Most contemporary scholars think that at least some of the Gospels are closely rooted in the eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ disciples.

Although modern scholars differ in their opinions about the historical accuracy of the Gospels, most think the Gospels of Mark and John are closely based on eyewitness testimony of two of Jesus’ disciples, who had traveled with him. It would have been easier to invent the existence of a mythical person that supposedly lived centuries prior to writing about them. It’s much harder to invent a person that supposedly existed within the memory of living eyewitnesses. The accounts of Jesus are eyewitness accounts.

Find the whole video of Shane answering the question “Did Jesus Really Exist?” at whatwouldyousay.org. Or, search for “What Would You Say?” on YouTube. The first result will be a music video from the Dave Matthews Band, but look for the icon with the blue question mark. That’s the What Would You Say channel. Be sure to subscribe and be notified each time a new What Would You Say video is released. And look out for next week’s video on “The Resurrection of Jesus and Pagan Myth,” just in time for Easter.

Publication date: March 24, 2021

Photo courtesy: ©Sparrowstock


BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can’t find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.

John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

Missionaries Married for Nearly 70 Years Die within Minutes of Each Other from COVID-19

Missionaries Married for Nearly 70 Years Die within Minutes of Each Other from COVID-19


After being married for nearly 70 years, a husband and wife ministry team died earlier this month within minutes of each other from COVID-19.

Bill and Esther Ilnisky worked as Christian ministers and missionaries, preaching in places such as the Caribbean and Middle East before settling to work for the last 40 years in Florida, ChurchLeaders reports.

Bill was 88, and Esther was 92. Their 67th wedding anniversary would have been this weekend.

“It is so precious, so wonderful, such a heartwarming feeling to know they went together,” their daughter Sarah Milewski said. “I miss them.”

According to the Associated Press, Bill and Esther met in Missouri. Bill had attended Central Bible College, an Assemblies of God school in Springfield, Missouri. He was preaching at nearby churches and needed a piano player.

That piano player was his future wife, Esther Shabaz, a fellow student from Gary, Indiana.

“When my dad proposed, he told her, ‘Esther, I can’t promise you wealth, but I can promise you lots of adventure,’” Milewski said. “She had a lot, a lot of adventure.”

The couple opened churches in the Midwest and after a mission trip to Jamaica, decided to open a church in Montego Bay.

In 1969, after adopting a 2-year-old, Milewski, the family moved to Lebanon where Bill worked with college students and his wife started a Christian rock band.

In 1975, the couple was stuck in the middle of a civil war in Lebanon and fled in 1976 to the U.S.

Bill became the pastor at Calvary Temple in West Palm Beach, later renamed Lighthouse Christian Center International. His wife started Esther Network International, a ministry to teach children to pray.

Bill retired from ministry three years ago, but Esther continued her work via Zoom during the pandemic.

They were diagnosed with COVID-19 in February and later placed in hospice. Esther died at 10:15 on March 1. Bill died 15 minutes later.

“They were always, always together,” Milewski said. “So in sync.”

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Kayla James


Amanda Casanova is a writer living in Dallas, Texas. She has covered news for ChristianHeadlines.com since 2014. She has also contributed to The Houston Chronicle, U.S. News and World Report and IBelieve.com. She blogs at The Migraine Runner.