By Blake Tommey
There are already thought to be more Christians in China ( 100 million) than members of the Communist Party (87 million). In fact, over the next 15 years, China is on course to become the nation with the largest Christian population.
On a humdrum Sunday last summer – the kind when most American churches struggle to
fill their front pews – the Thanksgiving Church in Chengdu, China, baptized 55 people. Senior adults, 20-somethings, young children and even a member with a physical disability filed into the baptismal pool to bear witness to the transforming power of Christ.
Li Xia, a deacon at Thanksgiving Church, recalled her own baptism on Easter Sunday
in 2008, saying that God’s love came from deep inside and moved her to follow Jesus. But ultimately, she said, being a Christian is a journey of bearing witness to Christ in community, in the church she loves so much.
“I could feel God’s love and guidance,” Ii Xia said, “but the most joyful thing for me is to live in the family of the church, to serve God together with my brothers and sisters, to see more people come before the Lord.”
That family is a partnership between Chinese Christians and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Bill and Michelle Cayard, who founded Thanksgiving Church 10 years ago and continue to form together to bear witness to Christ. With support from the CBF Offering for Global Missions, the Cayards are planting churches, training pastors and lay leaders and sharing the story of God’s great love in Chengdu, China.
While many parts of China still struggle with access to basic resources, Bill Cayard said, the economic growth that the country has experienced over the past 30 years has positioned the church in a unique way, namely as a source of spiritual growth rather than economic development.
“Transformation here is about giving people an opportunity for a different hope in their lives,” Bill said.
“Economically, the Chinese people are enjoying better lives than they have in generations before; their material lives improve each day. Our ministry with people in China is about the spiritual good news of Jesus – hope beyond material existence, hope beyond dreaming that one day they will own their own home, hope beyond dreaming that one day they will own their own car. Here, the message of Christ is relational and fills a void in people’s lives that they often never knew existed.”
For the Cayards, bearing witness to Christ began a decade ago when the couple began meeting Chinese pastors and other Christians through a local service organization where they taught English. What began as simple relationship and Bible study soon blossomed into a full partnership toward planting a church in Chengdu. Months of prayer and planning for structure and leadership finally culminated in 2007 when the Thanksgiving Church was officially commissioned. Where 30 members once gathered at their shared worship space in Chengdu, 600 now fill the seats on Sunday at Thanksgiving’s three sites.
For the Cayards, however, growth is not about creating static church-goers; it’s about continually equipping new leaders for the church across Chengdu and the entire country. In addition to being baptized and becoming a deacon, Li Xia also spent two years in the theological training program spearheaded by the Cayards to resource indigenous church leaders. She believes equipping the church with theological knowledge helps it become a better witness to God’s work in China.
“Many people are blind. Many people are tied. Many people are not free. Many people are suffering,” Li Xia said.
“They do not see people in need, and they do not see people in poverty. When I look around, I feel like Jesus is saying, ‘this city needs you.’ So we share God’s work in our lives with each other, which is a witness. Jesus’ Great Commission is already around me, and I don’t have to go that far to fulfill it. Every minute of my life, and every person I meet, I am bringing God’s love. And I can see God is changing China and its churches in special ways. God is working actively in this land.”
When the Cayards first began partnering with Chinese pastors in Chengdu, they realized there were simply too few of them, Michelle explained. In most parts of China, she said, the church is beginning to outgrow the number of trained pastors available to help lead. In the Sichuan province of 100 million people, a mere 25 pastors graduate with theological degrees each year. Moreover, aspiring pastors in Chengdu are often forced to leave their homes and families to receive master’s level theological education in other cities or countries.
With so many bi-professional pastors and lay leaders in need of theological training, the Cayards began partnering with CBF and B. H. Carroll Theological Institute to offer seminary classes in Chengdu. With support from churches in the United States, the Cayards have also been able to help local Chinese congregations create their own training programs for pastors and lay leaders for church administration, Vacation Bible School, women’s ministry, music ministry and outreach.
“The work that I’m most passionate about is the equipping of leaders for the church,” Michelle said.
“Why is that so important? Because we won’t stay here forever. We won’t always have a partnership with these people, but they will be here and the church will be here. There is such a great need to know Christ that for those leaders to emerge and be equipped to lead others to emerge and be equipped is so critical.”
Through their theological training initiative in Chengdu, the Cayards and Thanksgiving Church are partnering closely with three pastors of the Bazhong church -Wu Yan,
Li Shijun and ZhangYanqiong. Established in 1988, the Bazhong church began with a dozen followers, Li Shijun said, but eventually grew to comprise 10,000 followers across 40 churches, all led by four full-time pastors, including Wu Yan, Li Si jun and Zhang Yanqiong. Li Shi jun said the growth of the church in Bazhong can be attributed only to the grace of God and the relentless sense of mission among their communities, no matter how difficult it proves. Since the Cayards and the Bazhong church began partnering 10 years ago, they have acted as resources and encouragers for each other as their respective communities bear witness to Christ in Chengdu and Bazhong.
Wu Yan said she became a pastor in the Bazhong church at the support and urging
of her mother, who inspired her to dedicate her life to God and the church. Because she and her fellow pastors help lead more than 40 churches, some in extremely remote areas, Wu Yan often begins her day at 6 a.m. and returns home after 5 p.m. With a bachelor’s degree already in-hand, Wu Yan enrolled in the theological training with the Cayards and is now working toward her Master of Divinity degree. She believes God gives her and her fellow ministers the strength to bear witness to Christ even in places people are reluctant to go.
“Why shouldn’t God’s love reach those remote villages when he can reach Bazhong?” Wu Yan said.
“I pray to God saying, ‘Lord, I am willing to go.’ When we see increasing numbers of brothers and sisters, when we see the growth of the church, we are so deeply happy, and the honor is ascribed to God. I believe under the love of the Lord, with the help of Bill, Michelle and CBF, Bazhong church will have a bright future, and we can manifest God’s great love. We can make Bazhong church the blessing of the Bazhong area.”
For Bill and Michelle Cayard, the Thanksgiving Church, the church in Bazhong and so many Christians in the Sichuan province, renewing God’s world means partnership. As they seek to plant more communities and train more church leaders, Bill Cayard said, partnership cannot end in Chengdu or even in China. Through the Offering for Global Missions and the dedication of Cooperative Baptist churches, the Cayards and their Chinese partners are forming together to do more.
“Please give generously to the Offering for Global Missions,” Bill said.
“Without the Offering for Global Missions, Michelle and I couldn’t be here. We couldn’t have the opportunity to experience what we’re experiencing, to see what God is doing here, to see the passion in the Chinese church. Your giving to the Offering for Global Missions is causing the church in China to grow and helping us empower more local Christians and pastors to do the work that God is calling them to do.”
Watch videos about the Cayards’ ministry in China as well as other videos showing the impact of the CBF Offering for Global Missions at www.cbf.net/bearingwitness. Learn more about the Offering at www.cbf.net/ogm.