Beijing Pastor Reflects on Running, Staying, and Returning

A woman carries a cross.
A woman carries a cross. (photo:  Erik Mclean via Pexels)
By Pastor PaulJune 21st, 2024

Editor’s note: This article originated as a PowerPoint presentation at a meeting in 2022, during the pandemic. Although two years have passed, as of this writing in 2024, the insights and lessons contained within remain highly relevant and important.

1. Run, Running, Runology

The term “running” (润) has once again gone viral due to the “exodus” phenomenon that occurred after the lifting of the COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai. It has become the latest buzzword among young Chinese people, following trends like “involution” and “lying flat.”

“Running” and “the last generation” are silent cries of despair from many Chinese young adults in their twenties and thirties who feel hopeless about their country and future. The following two examples may offer a glimpse into the increasingly apparent reality of mainland China—a hyper-controlled society in the post-pandemic era.

The first example comes from a May 25, 2022, report published by The New York Times Chinese website titled “‘The Last Generation’: The Disillusionment of Young Chinese.” The article includes the following passage:

Tongji University in Shanghai, known for its engineering and architecture programs, issued detailed instructions on how to use a mobile phone-based queuing system for the toilets and washrooms, according to a document on the system reviewed by The New York Times.

Each student would need to press ‘start’ when they left the dorm for the toilet, and press “stop” when they returned to avoid two people in the hallway at the same time, said the instructions. Each toilet run would be allowed a maximum 10 minutes. After eight minutes, the others in the queue could digitally poke the student in the toilet. After 10 minutes, the student would need to explain to the queuing group why it took so long.

The second example is an article from the Singaporean newspaper Lianhe Zaobao published on August 3, 2022, titled “About 1.2 Million Chinese Entered Malaysia in the Past Three Years with No Exit Records.

Malaysian immigration records show that from 2018 to 2021, approximately 1.2 million Chinese nationals entered the country without any record of departure. The Islamic Party of Kedah believes that the federal government should establish a commission of inquiry to investigate this matter thoroughly.

According to the party’s newspaper Harakah on Wednesday (August 3), the chairman of the Kedah Islamic Party, Ahmad Yahya, issued a statement on Tuesday (August 2) stating that the above data is based on the recent reply from the Ministry of Home Affairs in the lower house of parliament. He said that according to the 2018 report of the Auditor General, there were more than 100,000 tourists from China and India who entered Malaysia but had no exit records.

Due to this reassessment of history, present reality, and the future, many people have chosen to “vote with their feet,” that is, to “run” (润)—to escape the mainland, to escape China.

2. The Beijing Church’s Understanding of “Running”

The immense societal tremors and crises of recent times have deeply resonated within churches in Beijing, sparking significant discussion and debate among its pastors. During the first half of 2022, amidst the pandemic and uncertainty surrounding the future of both China and the church, a crucial question emerged: “Is China Sodom or Rome?”

One perspective likened present-day China to Sodom, a nation poised to face divine wrath and inevitable judgment from heaven. This view painted a bleak picture of China’s future, characterized by prolonged suffering and despair, using evocative sayings or terms like “after tomorrow,” “misfortunes never come singly,” “where will it all end,” “one after another,” and “unending.”

However, a more prevalent perspective among pastors drew parallels between contemporary China, particularly Beijing, and the city of Rome during Augustine’s era. Despite facing internal and external turmoil, Rome embodied the duality of the “City of God” and the “City of Man,” a complexity that distinguished it from the outright wickedness of Sodom.

Those who envisioned China as Sodom presented a series of predictions regarding the future of both society and the church:

  1. Widespread business closures and downsizing would impact society at large, leading to discontent within the business community.
  2. The general populace would experience hardship and declining living standards, potentially resulting in social instability and unrest.
  3. The post-pandemic world could see nations distancing themselves from China, forming a united front against the country.
  4. The United States might implement new policies specifically targeting China.
  5. While large-scale monetary interventions by the state could offer temporary relief, the long-term success would hinge on factors like industrial upgrades, economic revitalization, and the resumption of foreign trade. Failure in these areas could lead to irreversible economic damage.
  6. The era following Putin’s leadership in Russia could bring significant changes and uncertainties.
  7. The upcoming leadership transition in China could trigger internal conflicts within the system, potentially escalating into widespread public protests and unrest.
  8. In the Taiwan Strait crisis, a possible evolution model is to continuously accept and expand Taiwan’s status and space in the process of “de-Sinicization,” without the need to declare independence, which would make the situation completely different.

In light of these potential challenges, the church in China must cultivate a heightened awareness in the following theological and pastoral areas:

  1. A deep understanding of the theology of the cross is crucial, encompassing its significance as theological content, methodology, and ethical framework.
  2. A focus on eschatology encourages a detachment from worldly concerns and a conscious awareness of our heavenly home. Recognizing the nearing of the end times fosters a sense of reverence and urgency, leading to active engagement in God’s redemptive plan.
  3. Beyond mere attendance at gatherings, a more profound sense of belonging and commitment to the spiritual community is essential.
  4. Actively questioning and responding to reality through the lens of the Great Commission is not merely a temporary measure to weather a crisis. Instead, it represents a more fundamental and conscious, deliberate response.
  5. The church possesses a basic understanding of the challenges it faces.
  6. The church requires a holistic and organized approach to address the difficulties ahead.

Specifically, the mainland church is likely to face many significant challenges, including:

  1. Strict community management may restrict access to church buildings, potentially leading to a normalization of online gatherings.
  2. Economic hardship could impact both individual members and the overall financial stability of the church.
  3. Circumstances may force members to relocate, leading to a decline in church attendance and participation.
  4. As James warns, times of turmoil often breed discord and division among believers.
  5. Prolonged online services may result in decreased spiritual engagement, ineffective pastoral care, and a weakening sense of commitment among members.
  6. Many training programs may be suspended or transitioned to online formats, potentially impacting their effectiveness.
  7. The current climate may present significant obstacles to evangelism and outreach efforts.
  8. Students may face challenges in accessing pastoral guidance and support due to restrictions and limitations.
  9. Amidst a changing world and the emergence of seemingly beneficial ideas and movements, the church may mistakenly confuse its own desires and ideologies with the voice of Jesus, leading to misguided pursuits.
  10. The church may experience internal divisions and strained relationships between different congregations, hindering inter-church collaboration and unity.
  11. Connections and interactions with churches outside the mainland may undergo significant changes.

The church in China must consider the possibility of extremely difficult times and focus on individual evangelism, small group discipleship, and fostering a community of deeply committed individuals. Church life within the country may become more inward-focused and individualized, reminiscent of the 1950s and 60s. In such a scenario, the church’s response to the world would primarily consist of individual faith and moral integrity, along with occasional personal evangelism efforts.

While the church is likely to experience a prolonged period of dormancy and weakness, its survival remains highly probable. The true crisis lies in the challenges related to pastoral growth, discipleship, and expansion. For most believers and churches, the immediate threat may not directly pertain to personal safety or survival.

Under such circumstances, we have noticed several important cases regarding the question of running or not running within the mainland churches.

The first one is the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church (SHRC). As is widely known, at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, sixty Chinese Christians from SHRC, led by Pastor Pan Yongguang, left their homes in Shenzhen and sought religious asylum in Jeju Island, South Korea. With the support of many, they eventually immigrated to the United States.1

The second case is the large-scale emigration and missions of a certain church in Beijing. Starting in 2019, a particular church in Beijing began relocating its core theological and Christian school education personnel to a Southeast Asian country. The sudden outbreak of the pandemic significantly accelerated and even altered this process. Today, the vast majority of pastors, co-workers, and families from this church, numbering over 800 members, have migrated to this nation. However, a deeper understanding of the church’s history and theology reveals that this remarkable shift is not essentially an act of running, but rather one driven by mission, evangelism, and God’s calling.

3. Historical Inspiration

Can and should the church “run”? This is a real and present question before us. Perhaps we can glean some insights from church history.

In the late 1940s, the Chinese church faced a similar dilemma. Some individuals chose to run (either actively or passively), such as Andrew Gih, Timothy Chao, and Philip Teng. In early 1949, both Pastor Andrew Gih and Pastor Timothy Chao were invited to the United States for ministry conferences. By the time they were ready to return to China, the political landscape had shifted dramatically, blocking their path home. They arrived in Hong Kong and, independently, rented theaters to preach the gospel. In 1951, Pastor Gih established the Canaan Church in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and in the same year, Pastor Chao founded the Kowloon Ling Liang Church.

However, others chose not to run, such as Watchman Nee.2 In June 1948, after resuming his ministry, Watchman Nee immediately held a successful co-worker training session in Kuliang, Fuzhou, with over 80 brothers and sisters participating in the first term. He formulated an ambitious plan: “Spread the Gospel throughout China in 20 Years.” This plan involved five major routes: first, from Tianjin and Beiping into Suiyuan; second, from Yantai and Qingdao along the Longhai Railway to Xi’an; third, from Shanghai along the Yangtze River all the way to Sichuan; fourth, from Xiamen, Fujian, through Jiangxi into the interior; and fifth, from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and then to the southwest. In 1949 (when the sounds of cannons across the Yangtze River were already clearly audible), Watchman Nee believed that God had entrusted the gospel work of all China to the local church. What the local church lacked at that time were workers. Therefore, he wanted to expedite the training of workers and establish local churches throughout the country, following the model of the apostolic era, to fulfill the commission and revelation he received from the Lord.

In a letter titled “Watchman Nee’s Final Exhortation,” he wrote:

Finally, apart from the basic training of believers, the spirit of evangelism, the principles of authority, and other teachings, please do not mention anything else. You are to share with those who can receive it. I sense the path before us is quite dark, but I believe there are no insurmountable challenges for a dedicated individual. The Lord reigns supreme over all; let us learn to rely on him, to both love and trust in him. He is a God brimming with compassion and glory, and we delight in approaching him to serve. Fear not, nor worry. Though we are but dust, we have received mercy and are granted the privilege to partake in this glorious service. Let us give thanks to God. In calling us to serve him, God has bestowed upon us the greatest honor. There is no greater grace than this. Amen.

We observe that at this historical turning point, at the crossroads of running and staying, Brother Watchman Nee’s unwavering focus remains on: God’s calling, God’s will, and God’s guidance.

4. Running, Staying, and Returning in the Bible

Regarding the concepts of running, staying, and returning,3 we can glean valuable lessons from the Bible.

Abraham stands as the forefather of the “running clan.” Let us trace his running path: from Ur of the Chaldeans to Haran, to Canaan (Shechem to Bethel), to Egypt, back to Bethel, and finally to Hebron. On a map, we can clearly see Abraham’s movements between the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, running back and forth. While his journey from Bethel to Egypt was driven by circumstance (famine, Genesis 12:9–10), the fundamental reason for Abraham’s migration from the then-center of the world, the great city of Ur of the Chaldeans, to the barren land of Hebron was rooted in God’s calling and promise (Genesis 12:1–4).

Jacob’s story appears more relatable to many of our brothers today, as he chose the path of running for personal gain. His journey took him from Canaan to Paddan Aram (where Laban lived), back to Canaan, to Egypt, and back to Canaan to return his bones. His first departure from his homeland was to escape his brother’s vengeance after committing a crime, while his second departure, descending to Egypt in his old age, was driven by the hope of family reunion. However, the true guiding force behind his running journey was his nighttime encounter with God at Bethel, where he received a message directing his path (Genesis 28:10–16).

Moses’ exodus was an unprecedented and magnificent event, a radiant chapter in history. He led the entire Hebrew nation in a collective departure from the land of Pharaoh (the word exodus itself signifies running). They endured ten plagues, crossed the Red Sea, wandered in the wilderness, faced trials and tribulations, yet persevered with unwavering determination. Their exodus ultimately triumphed, leading the Israelites to the “land flowing with milk and honey.” The origin of this remarkable journey lay in the profound burning bush vision (Exodus 3:1–21).

Jeremiah’s case was unique. He fervently encouraged the Israelites to (passively) run to Babylon (Jeremiah 24:5–7), yet he himself declined the offer to go to Babylon under the best possible conditions (Jeremiah 40:1–6). In the end, he seemed to run to Egypt in a tragic and seemingly defeated manner (Jeremiah 43:6–7). However, we believe that Jeremiah’s entire journey, from beginning to end, was under the authority of God’s word: “The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.”

Sheshbazzar (Zerubbabel)’s return was prompted by the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1:1–4), Ezra’s return by the decree of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:11–20), and Nehemiah’s return by God’s calling, inspiration, and the edict of Artaxerxes (Nehemiah chapters 1–2). The Israelites believed all of these events stemmed from God’s providence and mysterious ways.

After Stephen’s martyrdom, the church faced severe persecution. Except for the apostles, the disciples scattered (went) throughout Judea and Samaria. Philip went to Samaria to preach, and he and his four daughters later settled in Caesarea. This fulfilled the mystery of the Great Commission: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Paul’s life was spent traversing the eastern Roman Empire, around the Aegean Sea. He was born in Tarsus, raised in Jerusalem, and radically transformed on the road to Damascus. After Damascus, Paul journeyed through Arabia, Damascus, Tarsus, and Antioch. He made five trips to Jerusalem, three missionary journeys, and was later escorted to Rome, continuously clarifying his visionary journey (from Jerusalem to Spain, and to the ends of the earth). His life’s running journeys were all driven by the fact that Paul “was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19).

5. Conclusion

Within the Bible, the motivations for running (immigration), non-running (staying), and re-running (returning) can be categorized into three groups. First, personal reasons, such as escaping hardship or disaster. Examples include Lot leaving Abraham for Sodom, Elimelech moving his family from Bethlehem to Moab, and Jacob fleeing to Paddan Aram. Second, involuntary relocation, such as Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt and the Israelites being taken into exile. Third, a conscious decision to move in obedience to God’s will. Examples include Abraham leaving Ur, Jacob’s family going down to Egypt, Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, and the exiled remnant returning to Israel.

However, the reality is that all instances of running, staying, and returning are in God’s hands. Firstly, it is crucial to understand God’s will, have a clear heavenly vision, and discern the mysteries behind our circumstances. Secondly, the emphasis should not be on running but on death. Whether we choose running, staying, or returning, we should choose the path of death on the cross. Thirdly, as we ultimately journey towards eternal life, we should all yearn to run to the New Jerusalem in heaven. “I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them” (Jeremiah 24:6). This land is not an earthly one but the heavenly new city.

Finally, let us not forget the lessons of history. The debates, clashes, and conflicts within the church regarding running and staying are concerning. Nehemiah 5:1–19 reflects the intense disputes and conflicts between the returning and staying factions after the return from exile. In Korean church history, similar conflicts arose between the independent faction that ran to Northeast China, the northern faction that fled (ran) from Pyongyang to Seoul after 1945, and the staying faction that remained in South Korea and endured Japanese colonial rule. We hope that such conflicts will not be repeated in the Chinese church.


  1. The church is now called Mayflower Church. See
  2. It is worth noting that although Brother Watchman Nee stayed in mainland China and chose not to run (leave), in the overall strategy of the Local Church, Witness Lee was sent by the church to run and leave mainland China. He expanded and planted churches in Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and the United States, which had a decisive significance for the growth of the Local Church into a Christian denomination with global influence.
  3. Or, in other words, “reverse run” (逆润, nì rùn), which refers to people who have already left mainland China but choose to return. Such cases occasionally happen.

Originally from "ChinaSource"

CCD edited and reprinted with permission

related articles