In recent years, some churches have come to understand the importance of reading and began to explore various forms of reading clubs to promote study and communication among believers. Pastor Z, from East China, has many years’ experience in shepherding young people. Later, he chose to serve in the field of culture and founded a cultural ministry to help churches and Christians promote a combination of faith, culture, and life. His first ministry was promoting book clubs in different cities nearly three years ago.
A few days ago, Pastor Z had a talk on this with the Christian Times, an online Chinese Christian newspaper. He especially hoped that Chinese churches would recognize the importance of a cultural atmosphere of readings, dialogue, and discussion and would therefore promote the shaping of this culture and atmosphere through book clubs, tea parties, symposiums and forums.
Pastor Z specifically mentioned that he felt the need to launch a dialogue forum at the moment, inviting Christians, pastors or scholars to express, communicate and interact from their respective perspectives, hoping to stimulate thought among Christian groups. He also expected Christians with similar ideas to use the platform to contact and promote a stronger cultural atmosphere of readings, dialogue, and discussion among Christian groups.
The following is the interview between the Christian Times (CT) and Pastor Z:
CT: Recently, you shared that Christians nationwide have begun to form an awareness of the necessity for starting reading clubs. Indeed, this phenomenon has taken place, for you founded some of the earliest book clubs. About three years ago, you started to push for Christians and churches to do book clubs. Why did you initially plan to promote book clubs? Why do you think book clubs have sprung up among Christians?
Z: Personally, I found participation in pastoral meetings and theological education problematic: Sometimes we have no problem recognizing theological concepts, but a problem in understanding them. We often have limited general education, which leaves us with limited ability to understand some truths. We end up doing only lip service or being very shallow. To put it simply: Sometimes the churches aren’t down to earth in the implementation of their ministry. You may have spoken of a lot of practical truth on the podium, but when your teachings are put into practice, believers will leave you with the impression that they didn’t understand your teachings at all.
In fact, the lack of understanding is often related to how we spread doctrines, basic truths, and theological concepts. So I think our faith and life should be kept on the same track and that should not be impossible.
I think our foundation is essential and our readings are related to our foundation. Reading actually broadens our horizons, patterns and ways of thinking. This kind of training is like “sharpening the axe without delaying the wood chopping” (a Chinese idiom meaning it’s worth making long-term preparations in order to achieve success - translator’s note). It keeps our knowledge and understanding of things on-the-mark.
For instance, I find that many disputes between denominations actually stem from the different terminologies they have adopted. When theological terms are mentioned, hearers will generate an idea. Holders of this concept usually have no common communication points with the outside world. In other words, the various groups are not on the same page. But if we rise to a certain higher level, we will discover there is not such a big gap between us regarding our means of expression. Some industries have their own not understandable slang and jargon, causing a sense of distance among outsiders. But if concepts are stated differently, many issues can be solved.
Therefore, reading is a good means of broadening oneself and becoming acquainted with others; to build a bridge between different beliefs and ideas, and to build a bridge between Christianity and society.
Our evangelism is not only a mode of conveying basic truth – it also reflects our understanding of culture and can influence others greatly. This is the original intention for my promotion of reading.
I think many church leaders have also realized that reading can improve the cognitive structure of the whole youth group or of church workers. This cognitive structure and ability can help us understand the truth of our beliefs, which in turn can be fed back into the pastoral care of believers.
CT: You have been doing a book club for about two or three years. What kind of development does your book club have up to now? Did you achieve the desired effect? How can reading clubs be improved in the future?
Z: The findings of my book club in the past two or three years include the following:
First, it still has market demand. In fact, many young people or young church workers are not satisfied with only a certain framework of basic truth and feel that faith needs further expansion and application.
When we do reading clubs, we find that many people will have problems after reading. We therefore hope to have a dialogue concerning these problems and questions. This is not like the traditional model of church teaching, which was essentially just indoctrination. I think this is a problem with our educational model. China’s education itself has the nature of “stuffing ducks” (a Chinese derogatory term claiming that students aren’t actually being educated, but are rather only ‘fed’ with knowledge - translator’s note). Perhaps the church also has such a problem, that is, when you are told what is what, you have tended to accept it automatically.
I think there is no problem with the certainty of biblical truth, but people’s understanding of biblical truth is relative and diverse. Sometimes when we teach an absolute concept, the listeners don’t necessarily accept it as being that. Many children who grow up in Christian families think in absolute terms, but they still have many doubts in their hearts and many questions have not yet been answered. Their relationship with society, therefore, feels more real and they feel clearer regarding their social education because they have been supplied with many processes of explanation, thinking, and dialogue there. They will therefore conclude that humanistic knowledge is more practical and relevant. Biblical truths on the contrary do not reach them. Many people can be freed from their confusion through the reading of books. Books not only express doctrine, but they are also educational, humanistic, spiritual and comprehensive.
Reading is a useful supplement for those Christian groups who want more than just the usual church gatherings, which in turn benefits church life.
I believe that many churches may be thinking about such a problem. They are realizing gradually that reading promotes the whole and is beneficial to their understanding of an entire belief system. I think this is an additional aid and from the perspective of cultural mission, it is a necessary means. This refers not only to reading, but also to music, culture, and tourism, all of which influence people from the perspective of universal enlightenment.
CT: In recent years, we have actually seen a phenomenon: Many young people in churches do not deny the teachings – they only want room for more free discussion. They need some communication, discussion, and thinking. And they need the right to ask questions. How do you think we should balance the tension between the absoluteness of doctrine and the questions we retain?
Z: The relationship between the book club and the church that we promote is similar to the relationship between an institution and the church. It does not belong to the church, but it will play an auxiliary role in the church. Through these, we hope to promote how the organization can form a supporting and auxiliary role within the church which is beneficial to both sides.
I think the concept of basic truth is correct, but our life is inconsistent with that concept. For example, when many Christian parents educate their children, they know that the doctrine tells us not to pay attention to secular standards and external achievements but to pay attention to the inner life. But in fact, we find that many Christian families are measuring their children’s growth indicators or achievements. Because the quality of life is a concept and achievement is a real thing, life cannot be quantified. Therefore, many correct concepts do not shape a person’s life. Reflection and discussion may be more helpful for a person in discovering the true nature of one’s life.
A brother once said to me: “We don’t understand universal revelation, but we think we know special revelation.” I think this statement may be controversial, but many special revelations indeed cannot be realized and understood by our own reasoning. It’s up to the work of the Holy Spirit.
In fact, what we see may deviate from reality, because we live with other values completely, and they are often very empty. As I mentioned before, the duck-stuffing nature of education gets a lot of things right, but those receiving it may not really appreciate it.
The process of discussion is the process of knowing oneself and not always giving an immediate answer. This seems to be correct, but it is suspected of superstition. Why do young people ask questions and reflect? Because they are not satisfied with you simply telling them what is right. The young person wants to know why something is right. In fact, because of the lack of communication and dialogue, one is simply informed about what is right, but they actually do not understand. In fact, this is not a real system of thinking, but is instead a pseudo-orthodoxy.
The traditional way of teaching neglects the way young people communicate. Nowadays, the cultural mission advocated by many churches is often actually discipleship training. Jesus and his disciples ate and lived together. This is a kind of culture, a process in which you live your faith in life, that is, Jesus teaching his disciples.
Discipleship training has become a set of theories in some churches, but we believe that discipleship training is actually a process in which the Lord and disciples share a common life. From the perspective of cultural mission, this process of sharing needs to enter your workplace and church life. In this process, your company does very effective training. Your guidance in the workplace is also very effective training.
Looking at the Gospels, we may understand that life and society were not out of touch with each other when people first believed. The process of preaching the gospel with Jesus and the apostles has always been accompanied by the tension between culture, religion and environment. Faith needs to live with this tension. So discipleship training should be training for living, not just a means for supplying answers.
Sometimes the basic truth seems right, but it hasn’t been tested. For example, when you were a child, you could remember something quickly. But you could not apply that information if you did not understand it. We may know a doctrine, but in most cases, we simply know the correct answer without exploring the connotations of that answer. That leads to many associated problems.
We think reading is also a means of inquiry. Many books reflect a person’s understanding of faith. Reading is to read others’ feelings, not to find a standard answer, but to resonate with the author. You can agree or disagree with his feelings. This will help you know more clearly what you feel rather than what others tell you. The combination of belief, culture and life is like the combination of your occupation, lifestyle and education.
When we say “by faith from first to last”, the first ‘faith’ is confidence. As for the second ‘faith’, I think it is actually a response, that is, a person is more convinced of what they believe through experiences. However, if you haven’t experienced it, your faith may actually be weak. In fact, it is built on sand and its foundation is not strong. It may fall when you encounter the wind and the rain.
(To be continued...)
- Translated by Charlie Li