As Christians in China, we continually preach the message of reconciliation between people and God in Jesus Christ within an indigenous Chinese context. We strongly believe that this message of reconciliation should be spread outside the Church, to allow more people to be able to experience the love of God. The Church needs to serve the people of the world. In worship and fellowship, we help congregations understand that God is concerned with us offering service to people around us, a concern which should be shared by all those who love God.
One of the important characteristics of modern Chinese society is its amazing transformation from the traditional to the modern, a process not only of changing social structures, modernization and urbanization, but also of renewal and the readjustment of people's ideas and concepts in this rapidly changing environment.
As part of society, the Church needs to adhere to the behavior and regulations common to the society in which it finds itself. Sociology defines "society" as a community or group of unique and specific people, a community in which people are living and interacting together. Therefore, the societal nature of churches should be folded in to our ministries of preaching the Gospel well and serving the people well. In this way we can achieve the aim of all God's creation enjoying reconciliation and concordance with God.
How should we interpret the relationship between preaching and serving? Bishop K.H. Ting has said that salvation does not belong to any individual but to the whole of society, that the Good News is related to social service as demonstrated in the Gospels. "What makes the Christian gospel the gospel lies in its proclamation that this God is love, that this God reconciles humanity to himself and human persons to each other. To this end, God became flesh, and opened the door of reconciliation through the cross... Humanity's being reconciled to God is of course more fundamental than human persons being reconciled to each other. When a person has been reconciled with God, that person is motivated to work at reconciling with others."
Among the social service projects carried out by Chinese churches, there are medical clinics and elderly nursing homes which meet local needs; there are "Loving Heart Primary Schools" mainly for poor kids in mountainous and remote areas to go back to school; there are special "Technical Training Schools" set up to instill renewed confidence in those who have just been released from prison; there are "Drinking Water" projects specifically for farmers living in inconvenient mountain areas. All these are testimonies to an interaction between Gospel preaching and social service in the indigenous Chinese context.
Because the salvation of God does not belong to any individual but to society as a whole, we can understand a link between God's creative and redemptive work in our social service ministries. "God created male and female. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth'" (Gen. 1:28). God gifted us with wisdom and ability, demanding us to love Him more than anything else and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Everybody has the responsibility to love and the right to be loved. Before the Ascension, the resurrected Jesus Christ commanded all his servants in the Church to go out in to society and make disciples of all nations "in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1Pet.2:9).
The establishment of the Social Service Department of the China Christian Council in June 2002 is a symbol of our desire to carry out this social service ministry in a more standardized and systematic way, a sign that a Church with vitality needs to have its own vision-God's will being done through the history of human beings. We are encouraged and inspired by God's love so much that, even in the process of serving the weakest group, we realize the necessity of serving the Lord first so as to understand Him more thoroughly.
Knowing that there is a strong message of service in the Gospel, we are also aware of the difference between the social service work done by the Church and that done by other organizations. Generally, social service work done by society offers specific help according to certain institutional guidelines. And, it is social service communities and NGOs who take care of such service at an international level. This kind of social service work is often included in the social security system of a country, usually in regard to issues of survival, reconciliation of family members, counseling youth and renewing those who break the law, etc. The function of social service work is to help people in trouble to leave behind their problems, to prevent the reoccurrence of social problems, to alleviate social conflicts and to bring order to society.
Meanwhile, the social service ministry done by churches, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, involves experiencing the spirit of social service through communication among church members, loving each other, praying for each other and supporting each other.
Therefore, as a consequence of faith, Christians have an important social responsibility to care for other people, to help people in need and to solve their problems. This message must be preached in each particular context. The Church exists in society, where we should see ourselves as servants not as masters. "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk. 10:45). As long as churches demonstrate beautiful behavior as their witness to faith, they can attract others through personal example as well as through verbal instruction. In doing so, churches are encouraged to adjust to a changing society and to help society know the Church better.
We admit the influence of churches on society. But, it would be a form of ignorance for Christians simply to think that the function of the Church is limited to saving souls only, that churches have no need to serve the people of the world now. Without doing good to people around them, a serving Church cannot demonstrate Christian rebirth. And it cannot demonstrate how Jesus's teachings inspire His disciples to make full use of their blessed gifts to serve others. Without exemplary behavior, it is hard for the Church to explain that the healing of Jesus is not only powerful for our bodies but also for our souls and minds, not only helpful to individuals but also to society as a whole.
As Bishop Ting has emphasized, there are many teachings in the Bible telling us how to be of benefit to other people. Among them, faith, hope and love abide, with love more important than faith and hope. Great love is demonstrated when we let people see good deeds and virtue which compassion and faith inspire. In fact, through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are blessed with more peace, happiness, sympathy, endurance and reconciliation.
On December 8 2002, supported by and coordinated through the Social Service Department of the National TSPM / CCC, the church in Henan Province donated wheel chairs to some disabled people. This one example demonstrates that the social service ministry of Chinese churches is opening up directly to the weakest people in China and trying to usher human relationships into a more reconciliatory stage. Witness such as this will help make preaching the Gospel more attractive, will allow more people to communicate with each other and will make our service to God pleasing in His sight.
The Elderly Nursing Home run by the Christian church in Ningbo City (Zhejiang Province) offers round-the-clock service. They also provide daily spiritual devotions, prayer meetings, scripture readings and fellowship activities for the seniors in their care. A comfortable material life together with a joyous spiritual life let these elderly people, who need care and love, deeply believe that God is the origin of all this goodness and kindness.
We witness to the Gospel through the social service ministry of the Chinese Church not only because we think about or speak about such things daily but because of the strong love and compassion that naturally come from the bottom of our warm, servant hearts. Christians need to match their words with their deeds. If their words can explain their deeds and their deeds can confirm their words, their love is all the better expressed in good service. In this sense, social service will surely be an important means for Chinese churches to express and convey their love to society.
In our social service ministry we fully understand that it is the right of each person to have a fulfilling life. Since God has given us the duty to help others achieve reconciliation, we need to care for others, not only because we are human but, more importantly, because we need to bring the great Love of God to those around us. In our social service ministries we are naturally going to encounter various kinds of complex social problems. On the one hand, we need to look upon God and rely on His help at all times. On the other hand, we need to work closely with other social service departments to solve problems. For instance, a church in Hubei province set up an "Ark English Training School" to help young people in the city who are behind in their studies. These young people are encouraged to face challenges bravely and receive help with their English studies in order to build up confidence again. Greater confidence is also helpful in preventing some social problems. For the love of God, we need to put our hearts into this work of helping people enjoy reconciliation with each other.
"Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, so I send you" (Jn. 20:21). This world was created by God and looked good in God's eyes. It surely can work in harmony with God. We would never deny that our social service ministry in China is influenced by the surrounding environment, both socially (politics and economy), culturally (morals, customs, lifestyle etc.), and interpersonally (human relations, communication between believers and non-believ-ers). Nonetheless, we especially experience the following while carrying out this ministry:
— a life of believing in and learning from Jesus.
— a witness of loving each other.
— acts of mutual help between both believers and nonbelievers.
Mei Kangjun (Rev.) is executive associate general secretary of the TSPM and chief editor of Tian Feng.
Talk delivered during CCC/TSPM visit to the WCC in Geneva, April, 2003.
Rerpinted with thanks from Amity News Service.
* Love Never Ends -Papers by K.H.Ting (Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2000), 246-246.