Assistant Professor (Practical Studies)
For cross-cultural workers, the efforts of adapting to homecoming are much greater than initial adjustment to the field. The difficulty lies in the fact that having lived in a foreign culture for more than a decade, they find everything familiar since childhood suddenly become so strange, quirky and uncomfortable.
When I first started working in a city of the Mainland, I realized that it was very common for brothers and sisters to use the term “fellowship” when referring to their local congregations. At first I thought it was because these local congregations are usually in small-scale with flat organizational structure. Gradually I realized that “fellowship” not only conveys the real meaning of the gathering of believers, but also defines the relationship between local congregations and the Body of Christ. Communication of the fellowship is not confined to a physical meeting place that may change from time to time in our city. The subjects of communication are not only about the Word of God and ministry, but also about personal, family and even national matters. Meetings and plans are undoubtedly necessary for faithful administration of the “fellowship”, but it is more crucial for the leaders to share vision and analyze the situation, as well as to spend ample time on praying for each other. The ministry team not only gather for regular meetings, but also for praying, visiting, eating and drinking together. They are not mere casual acquaintances to each other, but are spiritual companions based on honesty, mutual encouragement and accountability, with trust and understanding. The term “fellowship” makes us realize that there are other Christian “fellowships” in the same region, who are also members of the Christian body, bearing witness for Christ. In this way, it is normal to have communication and cooperation within the body of Christ, and there are even mergers and dissolutions of “fellowships”. After all, the fate of individual “fellowship” would not necessarily be regarded as a significant change in the body of Christ.
Back in Hong Kong, it is a familiar practice to use the term “church” to refer to local congregations. The phrase “going to church” seems to reassure believers that church life is confined to Sunday worship and small group gatherings. Fellowship is only part of one’s social life as modern people are used to apply secular wisdom to coordinate different spheres of life by allocating time and efforts to each sphere and relationships according to function and benefits. Pastors must put all their energy on coordinating and implementing various “church” activities, in the pursuit of excellence. Caring and guidance for their flocks inevitably falls into the category of an important but not urgent matter. Church leaders are particularly enthusiastic in meetings and business discussions, meticulously studying details of matters such as church regulations, traditional practices, reasons for change, possible impacts, organization of resources, and the like. On the contrary, the formulation of missional direction and evaluation of the spiritual life of the congregation are often delegated to pastoral team in the name of job division.
Pastors and deacons admire believers who are dedicated to serving the “church” after work, and give recognition to those who are involved in ministries of other Christian organizations. However, these services are often positioned as ministries outside of “church”, and can hardly receive the same level of attention as the ministries within the “church”. They are sometimes not even allowed to share their service in regular gatherings within the “church”. The “church” is not entirely indifferent to external affairs though. In fact, she is often aware of the current challenges of the Great Commission through various channels, such as the needs of evangelism from afar, the plight of local poverty and the injustices arising out of economic globalization. However, having evaluated prudently the resources needed and whether these initiatives can bring more people to the “church”, the “church” is often hesitant about responding to these needs. It goes without saying that the “church” is firmly devoted to its own philosophy, history and boundaries, reducing the mission to worship attendance, number of baptisms and offerings. Compared with the “fellowships” in Mainland, the “churches” in Hong Kong possess more resources and bigger picture of the Mission, yet have become content with the comfortable and zero-risk religious life within the well established structures. They gradually lose the fragrance of the first-generation faith community – a fragrance of being mission-oriented, acting by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, breaking through the ethnic and traditional boundaries, and seeing hardship and suffering in a manner worthy of the Gospel.
It is an innocent ideal to build a faith community without organization and governance. The church is both an organism and an institution. The purpose of institutionalization is not to do more with less, but to allow the faith community as a whole to bear witness in public realms, to preach the Gospel that reconciles and set people free, as well as to bring positive impacts to society and culture.1 Yet, an institution without vision is destined to attain nothing and arbitrary operation, because there is no one to be loyal to, and no standards to comply with at the beginning. Organizational structure is designed to achieve the vision of an enterprise, therefore it can be altered and innovated at any time.
In the same way, structures and systems of churches are created during the process of fulfilling Christ’s mission. Yet, such structures and systems would in turn calcify and even monopolize the “church” operation, impeding how it carries out its mission. Many devoted brothers and sisters would rather serve the needy in the community out of their own pockets, because the process of obtaining church funding for these services is often cumbersome and complicated. We may also find glamorous meeting halls and gatherings with a strong middle-class culture, which often create obstacles for the grassroots or non-Chinese to participate in the Christian community. Fortunately, in recent years, many churches are willing to break away from the mentality that resources can only be utilized for its own gain. Now they would cooperate with organizations to serve groups that are different from their own church culture, and to invest resources in ministries initiated by brothers and sisters.
The church is the one new humanity created through the death of Christ, a community that spreads the Gospel in the world. The church is being sent out to fulfill the mission of bearing witness of Christ. Mission is central to the church’s identity and nature.2 Diversification of ministries, professionalization of pastoral team, and expansion of churches are undoubtedly operational development strategies. However, if a strategy has nothing to do with its mission, it will only be a snare for the church leaders. The tumultuous changes and economic downturn in recent years seem to be a message from God, telling the congregation to stop clinging to the comfort established by the institution, but to consider whether the philosophy of the current operation is able to motivate believers to experience and enter into the people in suffering at this time and place? Is the Christian community able to manifest the mercy and justice of Christ through humble service, only for the sake of magnifying Jesus Christ?
The above observations are not new insights, and are certainly not ruthless criticisms as an outsider, as if my own spiritual growth had nothing to do with my local congregation. I am very aware of my own share of taking part in, agreeing with and even contributing to the deviation of the practices and institution of local congregations. In fact, many Christians who grew up well in their local congregations, as well as experienced pastors, also share the same thoughts. Some of them try to step out of the church structure, hoping to create a new outlook, while others choose to remain with their local congregations and continue to serve faithfully, in order to restore its original glory. I recalled responding to a young student who pointed out the weaknesses of the church in the assignment. Touched by this student’s passion and well wishes for the church, I commented, “I feel your love and commitment for this church community.” The student responded, “Your words moved me to tears... as if God is affirming my love for the church through your words. Yes! I love Jesus Christ and His Church.” Indeed this sacrificial Christ, who laid down his life for the church, continues to inspire generations of Christians not to give up nor to give in despite a flawed and imperfect church, but to live out the mission of the church with love and care.
1. Jim Belcher. Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 190-196.
2. Cheryl M. Peterson. Who is the Church: An Ecclesiology for the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 83-84.