East Meets West

What happens when God moves in a heart with a call that seems extreme? For Pastor John Zhang, it was a change in both occupation and continent, from engineer to pastor and Asia to North America. Meet Church at The Mill’s newest pastor called to reach the local Asian community. This is his testimony.

Born in the Hubei Province in China, Pastor John is the son of a carpenter and youngest sibling of three. While raised in a family claiming no particular religion, the cultural effects of Buddhism and Confucianism were strongly evident in his home as they were in most Chinese families. Pastor John describes his family as “simple, countryside” and poor.

In 1994, Pastor John moved to Beijing and enrolled at the Beijing Information and Technology University. He graduated four years later as a software engineer. But his life was about to change, and God was moving in an unexpected way. As he applied for his first job, he was required to have a medical examination. He did not anticipate any problem, and he was shocked to hear that his heart was enlarged. Within two to three years, he would need a transplant or would die.

That frightening diagnosis led him to do two things. First, he moved from Beijing to the southern city of Guangzhou to be near his sister. Second, he decided to investigate religion in general. It was natural to start with Buddhism, but that didn’t prove helpful. Pastor John went to the temple to speak with a monk, but he said, “I didn’t gain much.”

It was Pastor John’s brother who made a difference. He had become a Christian in college after hearing the gospel from an American English teacher. In 1999, he shared the gospel with Pastor John, gave him a Bible and took him to church. Pastor John began to read the Bible and was drawn by the wisdom he found there. Of particular interest was Ecclesiastes, because its theme of meaninglessness was close to the Buddhist idea of emptiness. Pastor John says that while he appreciated what he read, he “didn’t want to surrender.”

Then company stock options became his, an amazing development to a young man raised in poverty. Travel came next, as did a break from long hours at work. But Pastor John found no joy in the money he now had nor the places he visited. He remembers thinking, “If my whole life was to pursue money, I would know in my old age that my life had been wasted. So I needed to pursue a better thing – something meaningful.” He also realized that “there were so many bad things in my mind, in myself… I felt like I was in a cage – a prisoner, a slave of sin. No matter how much money I had, no matter where I was, I could not save myself…only through Jesus could I be free.”

Pastor John was baptized on September 16, 2000. Now it was his parents’ turn. He and his brother shared the gospel with them, but they were not interested. That, however, was not the end of their story. On a trip to Thailand to procure travel visas, his parents met American missionaries who were giving out free Chinese Bibles and a DVDs to travelers. This simple act caused them to wonder why the missionaries had come so far to give them these gifts, and they were truly touched by the encounter. When they returned home, his parents started reading and watched the DVD. His parents became believers. Pastor John now says with a smile, “We are all first generation Christians.”

Pastor John had been teaching at his church and reading as much as he could about Christian theology and related areas. Church leaders encouraged him to become a pastor. But with Chinese Christian churches having only been established for 20 to 30 years, plus a limited access to theology texts in Chinese, he soon realized he needed to pursue a stronger education elsewhere. Wishing to connect with “the spiritual heritage in the States,” Pastor John brought his wife and children to Louisville, Kentucky in 2017 and enrolled in The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2018.

He graduated in December 2020 and took a vacation to the Smoky Mountains intending to visit friends (also former missionaries). A pastor and friend of theirs connected Pastor John to the South Carolina Southern Baptist Convention where he was introduced to the concept of planting ethnic churches. He also made a connection to Jason Williamson exploring the possibility of a multi-ethnic Asian church in Spartanburg County.

The new church will be meeting in The Chapel at Church at The Mill. Pastor John intends to begin with the Chinese community because of the ease in communicating, and later reaching out to other Asian cultures. His vision involves meeting new people, sharing the gospel and discipling others. COVID has caused some discomfort among the Chinese in meeting, so Pastor John is asking for prayer in making connections in that community.

Pastor John and his wife, Addie, who he married in 2002, and their four children, Esther (17), Matthew (13), Lucy (10) and Tom (6) are currently living in one of Church at The Mill’s mission houses. He has just received his new business cards that include one of his favorite verses in Chinese, John 3:16:

神爱世人,甚至将祂的独生子赐给他们,叫一切信祂的,不致灭亡,反得永生。

And by the way, his heart is just fine.

—Debbie Robinson

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