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Church a challenge in China


March 10, 2004
-by Ed Olfert with Dan Dyck


The Chen family outside their bamboo hut. Mr. Chen says that more viable farm ventures could earn more money, but only at the expense of his church work.

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Nanchong, China— Tony has left his 400 fellow worshippers, and walked out of the church service. Again.

Tony is a young man, a student, who feels drawn to church to explore ideas about God with the only registered Protestant congregation in this city of 400,000. But he is upset and disappointed at what he hears.

“No matter what the scripture passage, it's always exactly the same message, a message about salvation! Aren't there also things to learn about how Christians should live? But we never hear about that!” This is Tony’s recurring frustration.

In a small courtyard, Jeanette Hanson, Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker together with her husband Todd, counsels Tony to be patient. She tells him that as more control and influence in the church shifts to younger leadership, there will be energy to explore discipleship issues as well.

The tension is familiar, says pastor Ed Olfert (Grace Mennonite, Prince Albert, Sask.). He wonders, “Will the church find ways of keeping Tony and his energy engaged?”

Ed and Holly Olfert are in Asia to resource mission workers with Mennonite Church Canada Witness’ partner, China Educational Exchange (CEE), at their winter Professional Improvement Conference. There are currently 5 Witness workers engaged in ministry through CEE: The Hansons (Jeanette – Tiefengrund MC; Todd – Grace MC Sask.), Rod and Kathi Suderman (Aberdeen MC, Sask.) and Cari Friesen (Mount Royal MC, Saskatoon). Phil and Julie Bender (Hamilton MC) plan to join them in July. Expenses for the trip have been attended to by Saskatchewan congregations, individuals, MCC Saskatchewan, and the Olfert’s personal finances.

Enroute to dinner now, a few former students who have become friends of the Hansons are eager to practice their English. Tracey is talkative and vivacious, and Ed finds himself walking beside her in the cool evening air.

"What is your job?" she wants to know.

"I'm a pastor."

"But what do you do?"

"I work in a church."

She is confused. "You don't look like a pastor!"

Ed asks her how he should look, and she laughs. But she is still confused.

"Do you just talk to a bunch of people?"

Ed senses the implication, "Is that really a job?" and he reminds himself that he is in China, where things appear to be measured by their collective work value. There is a sense of disconnect, with little language for spirituality.

"I talk to a bunch of people, and we talk about God. Sometimes, they come to talk to me, or I go to visit them. I visit prisoners in jail, and prisoners who have been released from jail."

The jail comment throws Tracey. Ed senses that she has no words in any language to find a measurement for nurturing society’s exiles, a way of putting value to that activity. Cultures collide, and the topic is changed. Ed is beginning to understand the challenges of ministry in China.

On their last day in Nanchong, the Olferts and Hansons board a public bus and ride for an hour and a half into the mountains. They transfer to a tiny van when the roads become tiny, and when the road ends, they get out and walk the last half hour to the home of the Chen family.

The Chens are a Christian family in an isolated farming community. They live in a rough bamboo hut, where they farm a little piece of rice paddy, and work to keep this small Christian community united. Mr. Chen says that wealthier neighbours look down on him because he is so poor. “Why should we believe in your God, what has your God ever done for you?” his neighbours ask. He acknowledges that there are more viable ventures he could develop on his farm to gain credibility in the community. But it would be at the expense of his church work.

The Chens borrow dishes and feed their visitors a sumptuous lunch. It is a much grander meal than the Chens would have prepared for themselves, possibly ever.