Below is a 2016 year-end update from our partner in China. For their protection, they are referred to as Mr. and Mrs. Jones.
Wow – another year has passed! We are sure that many of you may feel the same way we do – where did the year go?
We write this update on New Years Eve, our time (we are 13 hours ahead of you), reflecting back on what has been an eventful year serving our Lord and Savior. As we shared with many of you during our time home in the Fall, 2016 was a “pivot year” for us both personally and in ministry. Personally, we grew deeply in our marriage. We say in America that “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” There were certainly times when we thought God’s sanctification of us through marriage might kill us … but by His grace it has made us stronger. We are thankful for those who God put in our path to help us in this journey – You know who you are!
Ministry wise, we completed the transition from a broad-based ministry model to one where we concentrate on serving a single club in a single location. This has been a difficult transition, but we are deeply committed to “the church” as God’s vehicle in the world in this dispensation. While we thought this might make our ministry life more manageable, the complete opposite has been true. The church can be a messy place, but the church is God’s means of displaying his glory – not only to mankind, but even more importantly in the “heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). So we consider it all joy as we encountered various trials (James 1:2). It has tested our faith and it has produced endurance! We pray that all of you have the joy of Christian support and fellowship that only the Church can provide.
By God’s grace and sovereignty this “Priscilla and Aquila” ministry team (i.e. Mr. and Mrs. Jones) experienced some wonderful highlights in 2016, including:
- Church governance: We completed a year-long process of examination and preparation to install a plurality of male Elders to replace our Club’s 10-year “steering committee” structure. In March of 2016, five men were nominated to become Elders and, Lord willing, will be formally installed in the first quarter of 2017;
- Ministry Philosophy and Structure: One of the chief tasks for the Elder candidates was to develop a clear and biblical philosophy for ministry, along with a structure to support their ministry programs. The results of this 9 month effort was literally presented today (New Year’s eve day) at the Club’s annual general meeting;
- Expository Preaching: Completing a process that began in 2015, the Club fulfilled their goal to staff all of their preaching internally. Seven men committed to an intensive training process to learn the expository preaching method. We began with a series on Jesus’ sermon on the mount and then on to our first book – James. In November of this year, they began what will be a year long series on the book of Ephesians. In addition to preparing their weekly messages, the “speakers” prepare a Small Group Discussion Guide (SGDG) as a companion to their sermon. In 2016, a number of the Club’s Small Groups experimented with the SGDG using it to go deeper with an emphasis on applying the messages to their daily lives. What a blessing to see the Holy Spirit fill lay-leaders for this important ministry of the church. Remember, none of these men have had the privilege of formal theological training and ALL of them serve bi-vocationally! A testimony to being submitted to, and walking in, the Spirit;
- Biblical Counseling: Like many churches, there is a great need to counsel people on handling life biblically. Significant steps were taken to train an initial group of Biblical counselors – completed in 2016 – and then deploy them throughout the Club’s small group network – a work in progress;
- Bible Studies: Two women’s (singles, Mom’s group) Bible studies and one mixed Bible study commenced in 2016 – studying the book of Romans. It is a very new thing for this Club to participate in detailed verse-by-verse exposition of the Bible. It was pure joy to watch them experience slowing down and discovering the richness of God’s word;
- Personal discipleship: Both of us worked closely with a small number of key leaders in the Club, meeting on a regular basis to focus on growing in spiritual maturity and as Club leaders. Our home was filled with people most nights of the week – something new, and challenging, for both of us as the gift of hospitality is not a “natural” one. This started slowly, but by year end has started to yield some fruit.
- Celebration: 2016 marked the 10-year anniversary of this Club, which they celebrated with a “club wide” gathering … a first in their history. What a joyful time it was! What began as a small group Bible study has grown into a 350 person Club that conducts three weekend services, children’s and adult Sunday school classes, and 30 weekly small group gatherings. What a testimony to the power of God – and the faithfulness of these local saints. Again, let me remind you … not one paid staff member. Completely lay led. Quite remarkable really!
The forgoing were truly joyful highlights for us as we labored to be instruments in God’s hands throughout the year. But despite these highlights, we are not without struggles. We will address these in the praise and prayer section at the end of this report.
So, what does 2017 look like?
In terms of focus, the group’s emphasis for 2017 is “back to basics.” The Chinese are hungry students and life long learners … this is a great starting point. Unfortunately, much of their learning is task oriented. That is, the focus is on “getting it done.” As a result, the leadership feels that people are not experiencing life change in proportion to their “knowledge acquisition.” To address this reality, our 2017 ministry focus has three priorities:
- Bible: The Club has issued a corporate read through the Bible challenge for 2017 that will be administered through their small groups. A team has been formed to prepare a “pre-reading” overview for each book of the Bible. This will be followed by a “what we learned” about God and what He wants for His children, and “what we do” with what God reveals and wants for His children summary of each book. A pretty daunting task – so pray for this team!! The small groups will devote a portion of their weekly gathering to share how that week’s reading touched their lives.
- Doctrine: The Club will initiate a doctrinal study and discussion in 2017. China is filled with all manner of false doctrine – much of it imported from America! The leadership feels that they need to give their sheep a better understanding of conservative Christian orthodoxy to discern false teaching and refute error. And to know what it is they believe and stand for if, and when, persecution comes.
- Practical holiness: This aspect of their “back to basics” focus will emphasize spiritual life practices – quiet times (Bible reading, devotional study, journaling), prayer (individual and corporate), serving the body, and sharing the gospel. The small groups will be the primary vehicle for implementation. This is where the leadership will work to promote real and enduring life change.
Corporately, the leadership team is making plans for planting their first Club. It is the passion of the Club’s leaders to be Club planters! Their first step in this journey is what we will call a “soft-plant.” Because of their growth and capacity limitations at their current gathering place, they cannot accommodate new people coming to faith. As a result, they plan to take approximately 1/3 of the current Club and establish a new – standalone – Club.
They want to plant independent children that can mature to become “reproducing parents.” Their goal is to hold their first service in late 2017 and then spend the balance of 2018 “fully separating” in terms of finances, governance, and other elements of co-dependency. Like human children, the “mother Club” hopes to impart essential DNA, but leave room for the children to develop on their own beyond those essentials. By God’s grace we will learn as we go in this endeavor – thus the 2-year plan.
Praise and Prayer Requests
- Praise for living accommodation: Upon returning to China we needed to find a new apartment as our current lease was expiring in January. To begin with, apartments are scarce and they are expensive relative to the quality. Last winter was simply miserable as our apartment did not have adequate heat. We prayed that God would provide a new place in the same general area of our current apartment – reasonably renovated, with HEAT, and reasonably priced!! As time was winding down, we learned of a couple in the Club that lived one block from our apartment that was being relocated to Singapore and wanted to rent their home. Net, net – their apartment was beyond every expectation that we had prayed for – at less rent!! God answered our prayer exceedingly … and provided something we didn’t ask for; a lower price. This turns out to be important as our mission board has needed to impose an administrative fee that cut into our monthly resources!
- Prayer for a potential division in the Club: One of the challenges we returned to is a group within the Club that wants to leave and form their own gathering. There is a lot of history with this group that is beyond the scope of this report. On the one hand their departure would solve a problem that has distracted and consumed leadership’s time and energy. On the other hand, if we truly love this group we should make every attempt to dissuade them from their error. In short this divisive action is a sinful choice driven by a hardness of heart. Please pray that the leadership might have the kind of wisdom that Solomon requested in 1 Kings 3:9 … namely, the understanding to discern between good and evil and judge rightly.
- Prayer for discernment as new religious policies are enacted: Over the past ten years, the church in China has experienced a period of peaceful coexistence and relative freedom to meet openly. This appears to be changing – both quickly and severely. The Chinese central government issued new religious regulations for comment over the summer. If enacted into law (very likely), they will lead to serious persecution and drive significant changes to the way the church, to be God’s church, has to operate in China. At the extreme, our group might be faced with breaking into their 30 small groups to avoid detection. Some recent activity in Hong Kong (late 2014), led by misguided Christians, has reignited the government’s sensitivity toward Christianity – both its influence on Chinese people and its perceived use by Western governments to foment insurgence. In short, the modest gains in semi-open Christian gatherings over the past ten years will be rolled back in a draconian fashion when these new regulations become enacted in March of 2017. Please pray for discernment and protection for our Club. We will embark upon some concentrated planning in January in anticipation of these changes. The authorities in our location have historically taken a wait and see approach to new central government policy initiatives like this one, so we should have some time to do contingency planning and execute some trial runs on how to “get smaller” before the storm comes. That said, this is real and will likely change the landscape if God allows things to proceed. For us personally, it may result in changes to our ability to be here on a full-time basis. We have been told by credible sources that we may need to treat every month as if it could be our last month …
- Prayer for physical and spiritual endurance: Lastly, please pray for our physical and spiritual endurance. While only back for 2 ½ months, it seems like two years already. It is a privilege and a joy to do what we do – but the pace is extremely demanding and the needs are endless. And all of this will only get more intense as the aforementioned religious regulations become law. Pray that we can be sustained as we “work to complete the harvest” before the winter storm. Or even better – the storm does not materialize and things slow down!
As always it is our distinct privilege to be supported by you, enabling us to fulfill our call to be at the “tip of the spear.” Through your support you demonstrate the unity and diversity of the body, and this works together to accomplish His purposes (1 Cor 12). We are able to go … you are able to go with us by your gifts. We are most thankful!
Happy New Year … and remember those New Year’s repentances – Ps 51!
Our Love in the Lord,
Mr. and Mrs. Jones