Roundtable: Changes in Rural Hometown Churches

A rural church
A rural church
By Katherine GuoFebruary 28th, 2024

During the joyous celebration of the Chinese New Year and the return to their hometowns, the editors of an online Christian newspaper, the Gospel Times, had the opportunity to connect with grassroots churches. Then, they discussed the changes observed in hometown churches during the Spring Festival. All their names below are anonyms and the locations of the churches hereafter mentioned are ambigous for security reasons.

Hardware upgrades in churches

The first noticeable change was the improvement in hardware in their hometown churches, especially in rural areas where the meeting environment has improved.

In a rural church in Datong, Shanxi, new air conditioning units were installed, and a batch of pews were replaced. Another village church in Dalian, Liaoning, now has two standing air conditioners and a piano valued at around ten thousand yuan. It's worth mentioning that the hardware upgrades in these churches were partly due to the assistance from their brother churches. A nearby village church gave away the newly replaced chairs in the former church, and an urban church donated the air conditioners in the latter.

Another editor was also amazed at the development of the local church. The hardware facilities of a church in his hometown are no less impressive than those in the new first-tier city where he lives. It is equipped with a large screen, central air conditioning, hot water in the washbasins, and white jade railings.

Impact of social development on the number of believers

Several editors mentioned a decrease in the number of believers in rural churches. Apart from some elderly believers passing away, some elderly ones face mobility issues, and others move to cities to live with their children. Additionally, young people moved to cities due to new rural and community planning and construction, resulting in a decrease in the number of attendees. However, there are also new middle-aged Christian ladies entering and contributing to the development of churches in new villages.

Collaboration with urban churches to get help

Many rural churches face challenges such as an aging congregation and weak pastoral care. Collaboration with urban churches has provided a solution for some of these challenges. Following is what the editors share.

Xiao Fu: Our rural church, which lacks young believers and invites pastors to take turns delivering sermons, has difficulty countering the intrusion of heretical teachings. Currently, some local Christians gather privately, regularly studying content related to the Book of Revelation. Many gatherings in the vicinity follow Charismatic practices such as speaking in tongues, crying, falling, vomiting, and rolling. Faced with these situations, the church's pastors feel uneasy but struggle to accurately discern the issues.

Xiao Yin: It may be a way forward for rural churches to join forces with larger churches. Our church is connected to a county church, with pastoral care becoming more systematic and professional. The county church gives us many resources, and at the same time, staff members from the rural church take part in training sessions offered by the larger church. Gatherings mainly focus on Bible study, worship, and prayer, with materials provided by the county church. On Sundays, speakers who can't preach well directly read the materials. We sang hymns mostly related to the New Year theme in praise and prayer meetings during the Spring Festival. We also read three creeds, something rare in larger churches, and even Christian women taught how to sing hymns. The church also has books like the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Xiao Yue: Indeed, our local urban church has a significant impact on the pastoral care of rural churches around the city. The pastoral care of grassroots rural churches generally does not lack in quantity or quality of workers; they meet adequate standards. With a good spiritual state, believers, the majority of whom are middle-aged and elderly, are fervent for God.

However, this pastoral care system has encountered some problems. Some grassroots pastors express that the management of pastoral areas is rigid, and local churches have low autonomy. Currently, the issue with local churches is not weak pastoral care but weak evangelism.

Pastors' proactive learning

The editors found that, despite challenges in their learning journey, some pastors have developed a proactive attitude towards learning, which greatly benefits church pastoral care.

Xiao Shi: In my hometown church, several senior sisters in Christ are responsible for preaching. With a spiritual journey spanning more than a decade, they have been preaching for over ten years. I feel that their preaching has become more profound and that they explain the deep truths of the Bible combined with daily life. I believe they improve their preaching ability through faith practices and continuous study of the Bible. They read commentaries and listen to sermons by renowned pastors with participation in diverse studies, resulting in the improvement of preaching skills. 

Xiao Dai: In my hometown church, a young woman volunteer without a certificate in pastoral care felt inadequate in serving believers, especially those who are educated. She is now attending an online training course three days a week. She is concerned about potential heresy and prays before each session, discerning the content and continuing to learn after finding peace of mind. A woman who got married and served in another city also mentioned that there are no opportunities for further studies for church workers. People entering the ministry are not skilled enough and need to learn. However, church leaders believe that their current level of service is enough.

Tensions between culture and faith, and conflicts of belief and unbelief

Two editors mentioned that the attendance was low at Sunday services in hometown churches on February 11, with reasons generally similar. One reason was that believers visited relatives during the packed festival and the other was that non-believing family members returned with rejection of the faith and made believers hesitant to attend gatherings. Additionally, during the Spring Festival, the flourishing folk beliefs intensified conflicts between Christians and non-believing family members.

Xiao Fu: In the rural areas of my hometown, almost every household worships the "Kitchen God" and the "God of Wealth," with many families also worshiping ancestors and burning incense at mountain temples. A sister in Christ had significant conflicts with her family on this issue. Upon accepting faith, she removed the ancestral worship items her non-Christian husband dedicated to gods. As a result, he severely beat her, and their relationship deteriorated. It took a considerable amount of time for their relationship to improve gradually.

Xiao Yin: Some believers have family members who burn incense to worship idols at home, and it's challenging for believers to intervene. The son of an elder in the church married a non-believer, living in another city. The wife doesn't allow him to attend gatherings. Luckily, living close to the church, the husband secretly attends gatherings while exercising outdoors.

Xiao Shi: Both my maternal and in-law families are believers, but my maternal family's faith is more conservative. This year was the first time I celebrated the New Year with my in-laws, and traditional folk beliefs were more prominent there. We had to bow to elderly relatives and neighbors on the first day of the lunar new year, which was a custom that even the local Christians accepted. However, my mother insisted that I must not bow at my mother-in-law's home, and they understood. I went with them to pay respects but did not bow.

Family-centered faith

During family gatherings on festive occasions, interacting with non-believing family members becomes a common challenge for believers.

Xiao Shi: I met familiar believers at my hometown church, where members gather regularly. However, in recent years, there have been new faces and more Christian families, with many young ones joining the choir.

Xiao Yue: In our city church, there is a praise meeting on the first day of the lunar new year, with a lively atmosphere. Believers from surrounding rural areas come to participate, and the attendance is numerous. Most attendees come as whole families, and individuals are relatively few. Women and men are equally involved in gatherings, with a balanced age structure.

Nurturing the youth's spirituality

During the Spring Festival, a large number of young people who are studying or working outside return to their hometowns, attending religious activities and strengthening their connections with others.

Xiao Shi: In my mother-in-law's church, they held a three-day thanksgiving gathering before the Chinese New Year, which is a local tradition. As the Spring Festival approached, believers who were inspired could also organize religious activities. My parents-in-law organized a three-day gathering to express gratitude for God's blessings over the past year. After we returned, my husband shared his testimony at the church. When we went to my maternal family's home, the church staff also asked us to share the gospel with the young people. We felt that the church at home wanted to provide more spiritual support to young people who are away for most of the year.

Xiao Dai: It is a tradition in our family church to have a praise meeting on the first day of the lunar new year, with the youth fellowship being the main force. With more than 100 members, the youth fellowship was divided into several small groups after the recent Spring Festival rehearsal. Each group has two church workers in charge who are responsible for caring for scattered young people. There is also a possibility of further online learning.

In addition, the church in her hometown impressed a Yunnan editor. Although Christianity is a minority faith in the local area, the church is centrally located in the town and is quite active. During Christmas, they play drums and trumpets. The surrounding residents are aware of the church, which is full of love. During the New Year's event on the first day, the pastor conducted a Bible contest, and elderly believers were able to answer. The pastor's sermon was profound, and the believers, who have been Christians for over twenty years, have a deep understanding of biblical knowledge and truths.

- Translated by Abigail Wu

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