It’s 4 am and still dark in the small town of Luhe in central China. The town is asleep, but Rev Liu Xiaofan is awake. Every day for the last 35 years, he’s risen at this time. He walks alongside the river, praying and singing, communing with God. He works a 19-hour day, seven days a week, and hasn’t had a day off in those 35 years.
Why does he do this? Because – with three other pastors – he is responsible for some 45,000 Christians over more than 900 square miles, among 244 congregations. He lives on site at his home church in Luhe town so that he can be available constantly.
“I believe in being on call 24-hours a day,” he says. “I never get a day off. It’s the way here. My daughter got married in July and even then I didn’t have the day off. For me, it’s very natural.”
With your help, we’re trying to change that. Your support means that we’ve been able to provide the best theological library in China in Nanjing Theological Seminary. It helps the students learn. And we’re able to bring in specialist teachers to add to the quality of their learning. It all helps them when they get out into their home churches.
Rev Liu is now concentrating on encouraging the next generation of pastors within his churches: 12 young people from his congregations are studying in Nanjing. This gives them “a foundational grounding to become a pastor”, he says.
So back at Luhe church, it’s now early on Saturday morning and Rev Liu is taking the Saturday church service. The church is packed. Then, after a bite to eat, he jumps in the car and drives to Gaozhuang village, about half an hour away. This rural community is bringing in the rice harvest, drying the grains of rice across the roads. So he drives carefully around vast swathes of rice to get to the church. Rev Liu visits the church once a month. The rest of the time lay leaders conduct the services.
Yu Mei Ping, 69, is one of the church members. “Because our church is not that rich we can’t afford our own pastor,” she says. The idea of the church having its own pastor is beyond her. It would be ‘unimaginable’ she says, and ‘inexpressible joy’.
Back at the town church in Luhe, it’s 6.45 pm on Saturday night and a Bible study starts with singing. This is where Revd Liu starts to train lay leaders, some of whom may go on to become theologically-trained pastors like him. Everyone is up and clapping. There’s a very cheerful atmosphere. Around 70 people are seated at rows of desks on a Saturday night to learn more about the Bible.
The next morning, Luhe church starts filling up at 5 am. By 7 am, more than 1,200 people have arrived. Late-comers for the 7.50 am service sit outside in the late winter sunshine. Among them is Duan Yonghua, 56, who’s here with his grandson. “I come to church because of God’s goodness,” he says. “My sister was called to the Lord first and I have seen a change in her life and so I came too. Now the whole family comes to the church.”
This is the case across China where it’s estimated that 40 million people are Christians. One million more join the Church every year. But at Nanjing Seminary, there are just 400 students. Two thousand have been trained since it opened in 1952. Rev Liu spends Sunday afternoon at Long Ci village where 700 people are attending the service. The church is so overwhelmed that they are digging the foundations of a new, larger building.
But they are also laying down foundations for its spiritual future, as Chen Jingchun, 28, the Sunday School teacher, plans to go to Nanjing to train to be a pastor. “I couldn’t do my job without the training,” he says. “I could try my best to love the kids. They would feel my love, but to teach the Bible I really need to be trained.”
So, in the coming years, it may be that as new pastors like Jingchun join the churches, Revd Liu could have a day off. What would you do with it, I ask? He looks rather blank. “I’ve never thought about relaxing,” he says. “Each time when I think I will have a short break, something crops up.”