As a young seminary graduate in 1995, Timothy Zhang became pastor of the Anjing church. With few material resources, a common reality in rural church settings where most families are subsistence farmers, the Anjing church had little support to offer him.
Pastor Timothy worked in almost complete isolation from other church communities and pastors. Making decisions was difficult in his lonely walk, so he sometimes discussed issues with the foreign Mennonite teachers who lived at the college in Anjing.
Those teachers became a source of personal support for him.
Mennonite teachers have been present in China since the 1980s, when China began opening its doors to the outside world. Under the umbrella of predecessor organizations, Mennonite Church Canada Witness was there, within the partnership then known as China Educational Exchange, now Mennonite Partners in China (MPC).
By walking alongside local Christians in the Chinese congregations where they have worshipped and served, Mennonite teachers built bridges and nurtured partnerships that led to community outreach programs and training and leadership development opportunities within the church.
“I like how they (MPC teachers) trust and work together with local pastors without demands and restrictions,” says Pastor Timothy. “They have been important in the development of the local church.”
As Mennonite teachers developed partnerships with various congregations, they encouraged connections between those congregations for mutual support and resource-sharing, sparking growth.
Pastor Timothy points to the local Sunday school program as an example. It began in 2002 with about 20 students. With MPC’s encouragement, the church connected with another congregation where Sunday School training was taking place. In 2007, 4 teachers from the Anjing church took part in that training. In 2008 and 2009, more teachers attended. Since then, the Sunday school program has expanded significantly, now reaching more than 100 children from elementary to high school each week.
As Mennonite Church Canada workers in China since 1991, my husband Todd and I are fortunate enough to have been involved in bringing together several church partners. These partners have now formed a fellowship of support and sharing.
When these pastors meet to discuss what God is doing in and through the church in China, we feel honoured to be invited to the table.
Todd says, “It is a real joy to see how God is working through and in this group of church leaders who challenge each other both in their personal lives and in the ministry of their congregations to follow Jesus. One of the pastors often phones the others and always ends the conversation by saying, ‘This life is so short. We have the chance to use it to follow Jesus! What a privilege!’”
Since these pastors began meeting, their focus has shifted from building their own congregations to sharing a common vision for building the Kingdom of God. They say that coming together enables them to more effectively reach out into the community beyond their individual churches, drawing the larger church toward Biblical ministry with active, living, missional congregations. They have shared financial resources for building funds, lay leadership training programs, and after summer flooding in 2010, for direct church to church disaster relief.
Pastor Zhang attributes the Anjing congregation’s plans for a retirement home and social service centre to the encouragement of the group.
“We have spent so much energy and many resources getting people into the church but we were only telling them half of the story,” says Pastor Sun, one of the first pastors to join the group. “Most don’t even know why they are there! We need to work together to build the Kingdom of God.”
Several pastors draw inspiration from the Anabaptist vision being shared among the group. While most do not call themselves Anabaptist or Mennonite and none have either name on their church door, they are inspired by notions of servant leadership, Christian discipleship and ethics, and the importance of walking in a community of believers.
“We are not alone,” says Pastor Zhang. “We are many churches united. All the churches can develop together.”
As an integral partner in this ministry in China, Mennonite Church Canada is building up the Body of Christ by walking alongside these congregations for mutual support and encouragement.