Perspective on the Underground Church

This article is available to listen to at “China Church Plant” Podcast through itunes and google play.

The Gospel in the Underground Church

Reaping a harvest needs patience and diligent work.  I’m thankful that someone put their hand to the plow so I could receive the Gospel at a young age in life.  Before the Gospel made its way to my wife and me, countless men and women bled and died for the cause of Christ, working tirelessly so we could have the opportunity to hear Christ being preached.  Now, God was passing the metaphorical baton over to my family and it was time for us to run the portion of our race for Christ.

…let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”

Hebrews 12:1

If it takes great effort to deliver the  Gospel in a free country where there little resistance, how much more effort would it take to make the Gospel available to those like my Chinese friend Leo who lives in a country where the Gospel is censored?  After nearly a decade of formal training, I found myself with my wife in China with two years of the Chinese language under our belts.  We had met Leo at his university where I had an opportunity to teach an English Bible study on campus.  After each Bible study, Leo would come home with us to continue reading and discussing God’s Word.

At certain points, I would challenge Leo to make a response to the Gospel, and after several months, he began to confess his belief in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  Excited to hear this, I asked him if he was ready to receive the Lord as his Savior, and to my disappointment, he refused.  Leo said, “I’m worried about what my parents will think.   They are paying for me to finish college and I do not want to upset them by becoming a Christian.” 

Since kindergarten, Leo’s main objective in life has been to graduate college and find a good-paying job that his parents would be proud of.  And so, Christianity to him seemed to jeopardize his presumed reason for being alive knowing his parents would make a great objection to straying off the course laid out for him.

Nearly two months after this, on Easter Sunday, Chinese police raided the morning service, detaining and interrogating all in attendance, many of them being first time guests. Most of them were college students, and they were threatened to discontinue attending church services.  If they continued, then they were told they would not be allowed to graduate college. It seems the police knew exactly what to say to scared college students. Most of them wanted nothing more than to graduate from college.  This threat seemed to prove very effective, for half of them never returned and I feared never see Leo again. 

My wife and I were arrested and after a brief stop in our home to rummage through personal items, and then we were taken to the police station for a more thorough interrogation. The interrogation lasted much of the afternoon and we were released without our passports and placed under house arrest.  There were no formal charged filed, no formal explanations, no trial, no due process, just random phone calls from the authorities ordering us to appear somewhere for further questioning. 

The next Sunday rolled around and we texted the Chinese believers telling them we will meet for Sunday worship in a new location.  When service began, I was pleased to see about half of the congregation present in spite of being arrested and threatened the previous Sunday.  To my astonishment, Leo was sitting in the front row!  We did not have a sermon prepared, nor did we go through with the normal order of a worship service.  Instead, the Chinese believers began immediately to give their personal testimonies for Christ.

One testimony that was given is the following, “God’s Word has given me a new view of the world, I’m thankful for what God has done in my life, I can’t imagine living without this truth.” Each testimony spoke of how the Gospel had fundamentally changed them and how they are grateful for what God has done in their lives.  They would “rather suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.”  It would have been only too easy for any of them to stay home that Sunday, but with courage, their church attendance communicated they would rather have Jesus.  Their testimony in the context of threats and affliction gave a powerful witness to my friend Leo.  Leo has heard the gospel dozens of times, but now he was hearing it in power of what the Holy Spirit can do in a Chinese person’s life.

“For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance…”

1 Thessalonians 1:5

Leo was last to stand up and give his first public testimony for the Lord.  He went on at length talking about how reading the Bible together had changed his way of thinking.  He spoke of the fear he once had of what it meant to be a Christian, but after hearing the testimonies of others, he was proud to stand up and say he is a Christian.  Leo came forward and I had the privilege to baptize my friend in the middle of the kitchen where a kiddie pool had been inflated and filled with water.  That was the last piece of ministry we were able to do in China, for the next day we found ourselves being deported and banned from China.  Was it worth it?  Hudson Taylor, missionary to China said, “If I had a thousand lives, I’d give them all to China.”

Lift Up Your Eyes to the Overwhelming Need

“…behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.”

John 4:35

If while you are reading this knowing you are saved and secure in the hands of Christ it is because someone once lifted up their eyes to behold your need for a Savior.  The person who delivered the gospel to you did not save you by their own effort, rather they paid a certain price to point you to the Lord Jesus Christ. 

For some to hear the Gospel, it may require a great deal more of labor and sacrifice on the behalf of the messenger.  Perhaps in your own personal testimony, you could tell the story of how you came to Christ through the great effort of someone else.  Did your situation require a great deal of endurance, patience, or maybe even suffering from another Christian in order for you to hear the Gospel? 

No matter how much effort was required to get you the Gospel, the amazing fact that you’ve heard the Gospel message is evidence of God’s grace in your life.  It is the same grace that sent Christ to suffer the agony of death on the cross for your sin so that you might have life.  His disciples first witnessed that grace and they, because of it, sacrificially lived for Him so that others could experience the same grace.  And so, that precious news has trickled its way down through the ages to finally be presented to you, grace from the Lord Jesus Christ who loves you and died for you.

In modern America, there is a saying that is gaining some traction our pop culture and has become recognizable by many.  The saying is “pay it forward”, and it simply means that when you are the recipient of a stranger’s kindness, you should continue the same kindness to the next person.  But that concept did not originate in modern America, it has long been the primary method of how the Gospel message makes its way around the world. 

As a recipient of that precious message, you have tasted and seen the goodness of God.  Before we received the gospel, we were merely beggars made destitute by our sin, but when someone showed us the Gospel, we found salvation in Jesus Christ and the continued nourishment of our souls.  The Gospel is an endless feast that will make content all the souls whom Jesus died for and so all that remains is for us to tell other beggars where they too can be satisfied.

Some areas of the world are challenged with a famine of God’s word and laborers who can carry the message.  For those of us who live out our faith in relative comfort, we can but marvel at dear Christians who worship Jesus “underground” or secretly because of the severe persecution they face.  Such was the circumstances in which my friend “Leo” came to Christ in the underground church in China.  But long before Leo came to Christ, God was already working in the minds and hearts of countless others before the gospel would be delivered to Leo’s door.    Indeed, God’s plan for Leo began long before you or I were ever around.  Leo was in the Savior’s mind as He died for him, shedding His own blood for Leo’s sin.  God continued working through the Holy Spirit in every believer until our own time when God began working in my life to see the incredible need of China to hear the Gospel.

For reasons known only in the mind of God, places like China are “roped off” by Satan which would give the impression to missionaries that preaching the Gospel is “out of bounds”.  But truly, the political and cultural situation in many countries where there are “underground churches”, the situation is no different from the one Christ entered into in the first century.  During Paul’s day, Christianity was finally outlawed and heavily persecuted by both Jews and Gentiles, yet the persecuted harvest was the fertile ground in which the Gospel turned the world upside down. 

The price that must be paid to deliver the Gospel in such a climate can be extremely high.  It cost Christ His life as well as many of the apostles and disciples, but the outcome was a harvest of souls demonstrated by the power of God.  There is a blatant theological atrocity in modern Christian thinking that health, wealth, and comfortable living is equated to spiritual prowess and being accepted by God.  But this isn’t the Gospel at all.  The cross is a symbol of suffering.  Christ saved sinners by His death.  The Gospel is preached at the expense of countless martyrs and many others who “lost their lives” for Christ’s sake.  The Gospel is given by sacrifice and is delivered through sacrifice.

The underground church and the persecutions they endure are a marvel to Christians who abide in daily comfort and risk very little for Christ. But comfortable Christianity is an anomaly in the world, not the norm. Before Christ Himself was delivered to death, He prepared His followers for what would define the lives of many Christians in the coming centuries.

Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.

Matthew 24:9

Paul would later establish the church in the worst political conditions where persecution and death were all commonplace.  It is the western comfortable church that is out of place in history.  The reason?  Our zeal and passion for Christ have been diluted with the love of the world and indifference to souls perishing for whom Christ died. 

What Should Be Done for The Gospel in the Underground Church?

After the Jews at heard Peter’s powerful Pentecost message on the risen Christ, they were pricked in the heart and asked, “Sirs, what must we do?”  We must ask the same question when we look up to the millions living without the Gospel.  Being recipients of the Gospel, such a gift of God, though freely received, we ought to freely give.  We are indebted to them all, but what can we do? 

Trust God

Start with trusting God.  The first step out the door to the nations is saying goodbye material and comforts that enthrall our hearts. Only God’s people armed with such an attitude of trusting God will be used in any significant way.

So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.

Luke 14:33

The underground church first needs God and learn to trust Him. In the case of my friend Leo, trusting in Christ meant laying aside everything he thought was important.  Such is decisions for all Christians who must endure persecution from their own government and culture. “For without faith, it is impossible to please God.” We cannot even begin to help them if we ourselves are not able to trust God and “forsake not all” for Christ.

Get Training

Secondly, mentor-discipleship training is the only method the Bible provides that can fully cover the scope that God called us to do.  One great need in the underground church is leadership with sufficient ability in the Scriptures.  Heresy thrives in the underground churches of the world because of the lack of Bible training and leadership.  Without a strong standing on God’s Word, people are defenseless against false teachers and “every wind of doctrine”.

That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;

Ephesians 4:14

But more than just Bible knowledge is needed, mentor-disciple training is the method by such knowledge of God is transferred.  Jesus Christ our supreme example.  He could have done anything.  He could have made disciples in Rome with powerful politicians.  He could have raised up elite Bible schools.   He could have had a much more impressive ministry in terms of numbers of people and reputation for Himself.  But His method was profoundly simple.

And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach,

Mark 3:14

The method is secondary to the message but no less important.  We need to waste no time arguing that mentor-disciple relationship training was God’s choice for Gospel work. Neither do we need to argue that it was profoundly successful in extreme cases of persecution. 

We make it easy for an antagonistic government to combat our efforts when we centralize our training methods to a single university where we call on students to come to us.  It would be all too simple for countries like China to squash the efforts of a school or university overnight. But it would nearly be impossible to extinguish Gospel flames that persists between mentor and disciple. 

When the Jews threatened Jesus before His appointed time for the cross, He simply relocated with the disciples, taking their Gospel training with them.  Their classroom was wherever their Master was, watching Him at work.  Learning did not end so they could go to lunch, but they learned even while they ate with him.  They slept in the same accommodations and accumulated thousands of hours together in training whereas an academic degree is only one hundred twenty hours of class time.

The quality of time spent together reached far beyond just the academic needs (something colleges and universities are limited to) but transformed their personal lives which are far more important to people in the ministry. The disciples saw Jesus in every facet of life, how He prayed, how He ate, How he spends His private time, all to the glory of God.

This is a mentor-disciple model that is desperately lacking, not just in the underground church, but all over the world where leaders are being trained.  Church leadership has forfeited their responsibility to train the next generation and given the honor to institutions outside of the Gospel mandated church.  The result is weaker churches, sending those away who are called into full-time ministry, and pastors and other leaders who lack the ability to train disciples. 

The underground church can be helped if we observe the teaching methods used by Christ and later by Paul.  Such is the New Testament model of training men and church planters that allows us to have a viable plan for world evangelism, a plan to reach the entire world with the Gospel in our generation.

Pathway to Ministry in the Underground Church

In conclusion, I’d like to briefly challenge you by saying again to lift up your eyes to a lost and dying world.  They are on their path to judgment and hell simply because they do not have your life to tell them the Gospel.  The challenges of the underground church might be impossible for men, but they are not impossible for God, so trust Him and dream big what He will do with you. 

Seek training, first with the counsel of your pastor. Discuss with him how God might be moving you towards a place that needs the Gospel. Taking a missions trip with your pastor may be used of God to stir a burden in your heart that will get you moving. The missions agency of which my family is affiliated in Vision Baptist Missions of Atlanta, GA.  Their website would have ample information on what to do if your desire is to be a missionary.  All hail the power of Jesus’ name!

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