Global Analysis

A Landmark Encounter

The significance of the ACLF for the church in China

Ezra Jin Nov 2013

Some events only happen after an extraordinary long wait — and during such a wait, many people persevere through failures and frustrations and keep praying in the midst of hardships, making great efforts to see things happen. The Asian Church Leaders Forum (ACLF) held in Seoul in June 2013 was such an event.

It seemed at first like any other international conference. However, for the representatives of the house churches in China, it was a conference of far-reaching significance. The deep sorrow felt by Chinese representatives at not being able to attend the Third Lausanne Congress at Cape Town in 2010 was greatly relieved. Their presence at ACLF symbolically fulfilled the mission of attending Cape Town 2010, and ACLF partly fulfilled the purpose of Cape Town 2010 for them.

When Chinese representatives were preparing to attend Cape Town 2010, they aimed to fulfil three purposes:

1. Fellowship with the global church in unity

Since 1949, when foreign missionaries were expelled, the church in China has been isolated from other churches in the world. Though the connection was partly restored after China’s reform and opening up, the church in China still hopes to see a deeper, comprehensive, and more open fellowship with the Global Church.

The existence of the church in China is the fruit of Gospel seeds sown by countless missionaries in the past 200 years with blood and tears, and is the evidence of the mission work of God’s Spirit throughout the church. Chinese representatives hoped to restore the fellowship and connection of the church in China and the Global Church in the body of Christ, to inherit the history of the Universal Church, and to strengthen the mutual understanding of the church in China and in other parts of the world.

2. World mission

They sought to mobilise the church in China to participate in world mission. They wanted to learn what churches throughout the world are doing about world mission, and to see how churches can all partner together to advance the work of the Gospel of Christ.

3. Growing in maturity

They also wanted to help the church in China grow in maturity. Dietrich Bonheoffer once said that God’s people are scattered in this hostile world. This is especially true in China’s context. He then said that when we meet and gather in the name of Christ, it should be a foretaste of God’s eschatological gifts. Hence, Chinese representatives also desired to see different networks and different parts of the body in China become connected through this whole process, to be a witness together as a loving body in Chinese society, and to partner together in evangelisation and world mission.

ACLF basically fulfilled these purposes:

  • It was a significant gathering of Christian leaders. Representatives from different regions and organisations around the world, including 200 church leaders from Asia and the global church, and more than 100 representatives from churches in Mainland China, gathered together. Although not all of the 200 Chinese representatives invited to Cape Town were able to attend for various reasons, the basic constituency of participants remained the same. They were from the traditional Chinese house church; mainly rural networks that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s; emerging urban house churches; vibrant Christian communities in education, culture, and business; and mission organisations in China.
  • ACLF was highly strategic. The history, current status and challenges of global mission movements, especially in an Asian context, were presented. To meet the needs of churches in China, ACLF also arranged workshops on church planting and pastoring in an urban context, theological education, and world missions. Chinese representatives shared the status and opportunities of Christianity in China in the 21st century, and issued the ‘2030 Mission China’ vision of the church in China for world missions. There were deep interactions and conversations with leaders from around the world about challenges pertaining to the urban church, theological education, witnessing in Chinese society, the ‘Back to Jerusalem Movement’ etc.
  • ACLF brought comfort and unity. During the three days, many world-renowned leaders did not even have a chance to speak publicly; yet they came just to be with Chinese representatives, and were fully involved throughout the conference. Chinese representatives received their fellowship with gratitude, and felt accepted and included by the global family through their silent companionship.

Part of the family

One night, Dr. Michael Oh, the newly appointed Executive Director of the Lausanne Movement, came to the Chinese delegation’s meeting. He said “You are our heroes, but I also know deeply that you are sinners who need God’s grace in Christ. We are ready to see what kind of sinners you are as we walk together”. When the delegation heard this, they truly felt that this was the family of God, because they, with their weakness and sin, were fully accepted in love.

One particular example illustrated such love. When delegates were about to watch the video testimony of Rev. Jin Tianming, the media staff suggested that only three minutes be aired since the broadcasting quality was extremely poor due to technical difficulties. However, the ACLF committee did not follow this suggestion. Despite the poor quality, everyone listened carefully to the testimony of this suffering servant together, which made Chinese representatives feel that the Global Church was sharing the suffering together with them in Christ.

The most touching scene was on the last day’s morning session when God’s word, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35) was shared. After the sharing, the General Secretary of Chinese Coordination Centre of World Evangelism (CCCOWE), Joshua Ting, on behalf of the overseas Chinese church, solemnly apologised to representatives from Mainland China, for not effectively supporting the persecuted house church.

His action led many to confession and repentance, and brought many to tears. During the past two years, the overseas Chinese church and the house church in China were estranged over the Cape Town 2010 controversies. However, ACLF reduced this divide, strengthening everyone’s determination to grow in mutual understanding, commitment, love, and prayer. Is there a greater testimony than to see brothers and sisters live together in unity? This gathering greatly encouraged each participant. Towards the end of the conference participants were asking each other, “How many times did you shed tears at this conference”?

Seoul Commitment

Furthermore, this gathering encouraged participants to move toward deeper unity and firmer commitment to each other. The ‘Seoul Commitment’, drafted by representatives of the church in China in response to the Cape Town Commitment, expresses their common aspiration:

  1. “We commit ourselves to love the Gospel of Christ. We are determined to humbly learn the vision of evangelisation of the Lausanne Movement, to walk in the light of the Gospel, to proclaim the Gospel in Chinese society, and to advance the evangelical movement.
  2. We commit ourselves to maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We are determined to accept one another, to strive for the unity exemplified in the Lausanne Movement and to live out a loving covenant community, so that we can bring praise to his glory as a spectacle to angels and men.
  3. We commit ourselves to joining hands with the Global Church in world mission. We are determined to take the vision of world mission of the Lausanne Movement, to pray faithfully for world mission, and to take action in mission mobilisation, mission education and missionary sending.
  4. We commit ourselves to raise up younger leaders of the next generation. We are determined to respond to the challenges and opportunities of our era in the spirit of the Lausanne Movement, pass the vision of evangelisation onto the younger generation and proclaim the salvation message of the old rugged cross with creative methods”.

In addition, Rev. Daniel Li of Beijing City Revival Church, cast the vision of ‘2030 Mission China’ (which he authored) during the conference. He urged the Chinese church to work and pray to see 20,000 missionaries sent out from China by 2030.

ACLF future impact

The impact of ACLF will be felt in various areas:

  • ACLF provides a clear ‘2030 vision’ for the church in China. This vision provides a specific and clear direction for the church, mobilising resources and passion to augment the waves of world mission.
  • This vision will catalyse strategic meetings and organisations.
  • The church in China will enter a new phase of consolidation.
  • As the spirit of Lausanne becomes more deeply rooted, theological dialogues and conversations among churches will inevitably increase, which will have a profound and positive impact on the development and maturity of theology in China.
  • The leadership networks and platforms formed around ACLF will have a direct impact on urban church planting, the transformation of rural churches, cross-cultural mission to minority groups in China, and overseas missions.
  • Connections with overseas Chinese churches and mission organisations in different continents will reduce the preparation period for churches in China to participate in world mission.
  • There are also some people speculating that the successful participation in ACLF by Chinese representatives is a sign of a new phase of church-state relations in China.

Suggested responses

The global church should recognise that China in the 21st century still needs careful attention from the mission world. Although China’s Christian population has increased rapidly, reaching tens of millions (33 million according to official statistics), less than 7% of the population is evangelised. China is still the world’s largest country that contains people who have not heard of the gospel, with many unreached people groups.

Furthermore, the Chinese church has experienced enormous challenges of urbanisation. Young people from the rural church are leaving. There is a shortage of pastoral leadership in the cities. The rise of heresy, tensions in church-state relations, and rampant materialism are among many daily challenges facing the church after its recent rebirth.

The global church should join with the church in China in shouldering this responsibility. The deepening exchanges between the global Church and the church in China should lead to a gradual building of deeper partnerships. This could include working together, not only in ministries among indigenous Chinese, but in mission to minorities, in cooperation with churches in China. It could also include opening the door for the Chinese church to be engaged in world evangelisation. At this current stage, the aim should be to increase strategic dialogue and communication.

It is undeniable that God has led his church through the valley of the shadow of death, and made his church a beautiful testimony on the earth. Indeed, his faithfulness is its stronghold.