While Americans talk about millennials and Gen Z, people in China refer to the post-90 (those born after 1990) or post-00 generation. Chinese Christians have found that much like in the United States, churches need to find new ways to relate to this generation of believers who have grown up in the digital age.
This is an area of focus for Sean Long, formerly a pastor at Beijing Zion Church who is now pursuing a doctorate in theology at Wheaton College. Long, 37, joined the well-known house church in 2010 and was ordained in 2017. He was responsible for a number of ministries, including worship, discipleship, and pastoral care, but ministering the post-00 generation was—and still is—the heart of his calling.
The following is an edited transcript of a 2021 interview between Sean Long and Pastor David Doong, general director of the mission organization Chinese Coordination Center of World Evangelism (CCCOWE).
Conversion and calling
Doong: Can you share with us your faith journey and calling to serve the Lord?
Long: I am the first Christian in my family. When I look back on my spiritual journey, it’s as the apostle Paul said, “By the grace of God I am what I am” [1 Cor. 15:10]. It is only by God’s grace that our lives experience incredible reversals. I went from being a “proud heir of the dragon” to a disciple of the Lord, from an atheist to the pastor of a church, from a Communist to an evangelist—a 180-degree turnaround.
My parents and grandparents were all Communists, and I grew up listening to the heroic stories of revolutionary martyrs. At the age of 17, I went to college in Beijing where I met an English teacher and campus missionary from the United States. Through him I first heard the gospel and then started to attend an underground church led by a Korean missionary. So I am the spiritual fruit of overseas missionaries. But I didn’t start going to church as a seeker—I was there to debate with Christians.
Ironically, to win the debate with Christians, I began to read the Bible very carefully, and this became a turning point in my life. During a prayer meeting, I unexpectedly saw my sins of pride and greed in a very real way. All the sins that I did not want to admit were presented to me one by one, then washed away by the blood of Jesus, leaving my heart white as snow.
I prayed for five years before my mother came to Christ and for eight years until my father also became a Christian. Then in 2008, the Wenchuan earthquake took place. When I watched news reports of the disaster, I couldn’t help but weep. I felt God touching my heart and calling me to serve him full time.
But for a young Christian in mainland China, this also meant an invisible earthquake in my personal life and within my family. I struggled for two years until in 2010, when in the midst of praying, I suddenly experienced a heartache that was spiritual, emotional, and physical. It was a supernatural experience. In that moment, I suddenly realized that my whole person, my whole heart, and my whole life did not belong to me but to the Lord who created me and redeemed me. At that moment I gave my heart to the Lord. I quit my job as a software engineer and started studying at an underground seminary in Beijing.
Doong: You studied theology first in China, then in Hong Kong, and now in the United States. Can you tell us about the different experiences of studying theology in China versus overseas?
Long: I wanted to study theology right away when I was called to full-time ministry in 2010. But that year I met Pastor Jin Mingri, the founding pastor of Beijing Zion Church. Pastor Jin advised me to stay in China and study theology while pastoring the church to strengthen my roots in the local church. So I stayed and did not go abroad to study. When the church faced persecution in 2018, I did not want to leave because I felt a great need in the church, but God told me to go abroad for theological study. God’s timing is very different from ours.
There are big differences between theological education in China and in the United States. The advantage of theological education in China is that it is closely linked with church practice. The disadvantage is the limited academic standards and lack of resources. Conversely, a great challenge to theological education in the West is the split between theology, church, and mission. In the Bible, the apostle Paul’s theology, his church, and his mission were inseparable because otherwise you would have a hard time understanding any of them properly. I believe that every Christian should be a missionary with a calling, as well as a disciple and a theologian.
From one generation to another
Doong: What do you think about young people leaving the church in North America, Asia, and Europe? What are some similarities and differences between Gen Z in mainland China and in the United States?
Long: The great need for strategy and prioritization of ministry to the next generation is unquestionable to the global church. My observation about young people in China and elsewhere is that their differences are shrinking as globalization increases.
It is expected that by 2050, almost 70 percent of the global population will be living in cities. As the world becomes more connected and digital, the cultural tensions of the post-95 or post-00 generations in Beijing or Shanghai are becoming increasingly similar to Gen Z in New York and Tokyo. Of course, at the same time, we cannot deny that there is still a huge political, social, and ideological gap between China and North America. The recent wave of nationalism that has emerged in different parts of the world has also created more barriers that prevent young people from different regions from listening to each other. This is a great challenge we face.
Doong: In a 2019 article, Holly Schroth, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, mentions that members of Gen Z in the United States are entering the workplace with less work experience than the baby boomers of the past. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety. Do you see something similar with the post-95 and post-00 young people that you have come across in mainland China?
Long: Basically, they are very similar. The psychological situation of teenagers and college students in China is very worrisome. I have seen data that 13% of Chinese teenagers have suicidal thoughts. The number one cause of unnatural death among teenagers and college students is suicide. They can’t find meaning and direction in life. Secondly, the challenge of broken families is also a universal issue, whether for the church in China, Hong Kong, Korea, or North America.
I often remind myself that many from the next generation who leave the faith do so because of what happens not in school or church but in the family. From a sociocultural perspective, we can discuss many things, such as the absence of fathers. However, I also think that Christian parents struggle to authentically teach their children about the faith. Parents often have the appearance of godliness and can speak about faith but not act out their faith. Thus, they lack the power to influence their children’s lives through example and witness.
Traditional discipleship in the Chinese church is especially lacking in the area of emotional health. But the spiritual life cannot be truly mature if there is no emotional maturity. I have observed that the next generation is still going to church, praying, and serving the church. But the problems of addiction, depression, and violent tendencies that exist underneath the iceberg have not been transformed by the gospel. The Chinese house churches often suppress and neglect emotional needs because in their tripartite view (which believes the body, spirit, and soul are distinct components), they don’t see it as a spiritual issue. We need to pay special attention to this in our disciple making for the next generation.
Doong: On the surface, different generations seem to have different concerns. But if we are willing to do some translation, perhaps we can help the two generations have a better understanding of each other. For example, we need to understand why many young people are so concerned about environmental issues. For today’s youth, environmental issues are not just about protecting the earth but also about survival. Today’s younger generation is also concerned about the gap between rich and poor and not just about whether they can live comfortably themselves. To them, the issue of wealth and poverty is actually a question of whether life is respected and whether it has meaning.
Perhaps people from different generations and different regions can have more empathy for each other so they can work together to consider what the gospel of Jesus Christ has to say about these issues.
Long: When we talk about missional discipleship and missions, we have to deal with not just the cross-regional and cross-cultural issues but also the cross-generational concerns. That’s why I love the line “One generation commends your works to another” in Psalm 145:4. Our next generation is searching for answers to environmental, political, gender, and social justice issues. Unfortunately, the older generation in the church is unable to give them satisfactory answers. We often just urge them to pray, read the Bible, and go to church. The more this happens, the more the young people resent it, and it drives them to leave the church.
The really good answers are in God’s revelation, but the question is how we present the answers. The key is that the church must tell the good story and the big story of the Bible. Before we can tackle specific ethical issues like gender and abortion, we first need to answer “How do we view the whole world? In the midst of the grand narrative, what is our view of the origin and future of humans?” The Bible provides us the most holistic worldview through the one big story.
But we often read the Bible in fragments, just memorizing golden sayings and telling Sunday school stories while ignoring the whole big story. In this generation, especially in the postmodern era, all grand narratives have been dissolved, creating a vacuum of meaning. This is the opportunity for the church to get the grand biblical narrative right. This ultimate answer is more crucial than the fragmented answers that young people can find elsewhere.
Translation by Sean Cheng