A graduate of COCM’s first graduating class in the “Certificate of European Ministry ” course, and the first pastor of the Spanish Chinese Christian Church, his career began in the National Bank of China, then he became the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Spain, and finally pastor of an Overseas Chinese church. In quiet surroundings, I interviewed this legendary and vigorous young pastor – Pastor Jian-Ping Cheng.
Called as a stranger
In 1985, the then 24 year old Cheng resigned from his secure position in a bank in inland China, farewelled his new wife and set out on the hard road for a better life overseas. He was sure that by hard work and using his brain he could achieve a brighter future.
“Within one year I had visited both Ecuador and Brazil. Dealing with an unfamiliar culture and lack of security, I came to realize my own weakness; but fortunately my wife, Xiao-may Lin, came out to join me and keep me company. She was indeed God’s angel for me.”
“Can we talk about your marriage?” I asked.
“When Xiao-may and I were married in Wen-zhou, I was not yet a believer. She was a Christian, and she had laid down some conditions:
1. I had to believe in the Lord.
2. I had to go to church with her.
3. I had to read the Bible and pray.
After we were married, I did indeed pray, but my heart was not in it. I also went along to church to keep my wife happy, and I enjoyed the atmosphere there.”
“She had come over to keep me company and she really did help me feel more secure, although I didn’t feel happy at her having to just float around with me. Yet, Xiao-may kept saying that the Lord would plan our future for us. At the time I did not have that kind of faith; but she didn’t give up, and her attitude was a great comfort and encouragement.”
“In August or September 1987 a Christian sister invited us to go to Spain. I did not see how this could be possible! But my wife began to kneel in earnest prayer every morning and evening; and as I watched her, I also prayed silently in my heart, ‘Dear God, please answer her prayers!’
“One morning when I woke up Xiao-may told me excitedly, ‘I know we’ll definitely be going to Spain! Praise the Lord ! He’s going to lead us there!’ When I saw the sparkle in her eyes and how she seemed caught up in a kind of ecstasy, I felt a tinge of uneasiness. Had Xiao-may become so engrossed with the idea of moving to Spain that she had lost her senses? But she went on, ‘Jian-ping, I’ve had a very strange dream and I believe it has all come from God!’ Then she told me her dream.
‘You and I were on a bridge and we knew that the other end of the bridge was Spain. We were trying to decide whether we should cross the bridge, when all of a sudden, at the other end of the bridge we saw a large group of brothers and sisters who had been our friends in Wen-zhou. They were all smiling at us; and then they started calling, ‘Chien-ping, Xiao-may, come on over here! All of us here at the Spanish Chinese church welcome you !’ Their shouts woke me up’
“After hearing her dream, I remembered that in the Bible, in the book of Genesis, there was a man called Jacob. When he was running away from his brother he had a special dream about a heavenly ladder. In his dream an angel appeared to him and told him that God promised to bless him, and care for him.
“And now, here we were at a cross-road in our lives, and my dear wife had had a dream about a special bridge, and a wonderful call from Spain. There really must be a God! and for the first time in my life, I felt that He really cared about me. The God of the Bible was wanting to play a part in the pathway of my life.”
From nomad to committed follower
The ‘wanderer’ continued his unforgettable tale of his past history…
“By March or April 1989, I had opened my first restaurant on the Spanish island of Malaga. In May or June that year, a short-term mission team came to Malaga from the Chinese Christian Mission in England, and I was glad to offer them the use of my restaurant for evangelistic meetings. I also took them to visit local Chinese and invite them to the meetings. After the mission team left, my restaurant business really took off. Xiao-may kept saying that this was a special blessing from God, and I agreed: that if God blessed me, I was willing to do what I could to help. That would be a win-win situation, wouldn’t it?
“Time flew by and very soon, in March 1991, I opened a second restaurant in Spain’s third largest city, Valencia. This was another new beginning for my faith; I prayed that God would be the director of my restaurant!”
By this time, filled with curiosity, I asked him how he became a Christian. With deep emotion he recounted how it had happened.
In 1990, some believers from Wen-zhou organized a summer camp in Italy and Chien-ping attended. He would never forget that time. The gathering lasted three days and he was very attentive. On the third day, the speaker was preaching from a passage in Matt. 12:9-13 about how Jesus healed a man with a shriveled hand. The speaker said, “A man’s strength is in his hands, and yet this man’s hand was shriveled up and useless. In today’s world, people are also like this. Many of them think they can succeed in this world by their own efforts, but they end up empty-handed just like this sick man in the Bible. The Lord Jesus alone holds the secret of a man’s life and our strength comes from Him. Come to Him and accept His healing and blessing and your life will be renewed…
Although the preacher on the platform was still speaking, yet Chien-ping heard no more. His mind was a turmoil of feelings, as when different flavors are all mixed together, the tastes are indistinguishable. Like the story told by the preacher, he had left his banking position in China to come abroad, and he had been drifting around ever since, hoping to achieve success and happiness by his own efforts. But after so many difficulties, and even having had a taste of success, his hoped for wonderful life still seemed a distant dream, while day by day the best days of his life were being frittered away. If he went on like this, maybe one day his hand would actually shrivel up like the man’s in the gospel story.
At this point, Chien-ping’s eyes filled with tears. Suddenly, the voice of the preacher exploded in his ears: “Put your trust in Jesus Christ and obey Him; this is the only true way of life!”
Tears poured down his cheeks as Chien-ping’s innermost heart opened up to the Holy Spirit, yet his eyes were still closed. In the distance a voice seemed to be asking: “How much longer are you going to wait?” The words seemed to be his wife’s, or maybe the preacher’s, or maybe it was an urgent call from heaven.
“Lord, I won’t resist You any more. Today, I resolve to trust You with my whole heart.” Once he had made this decision, his whole being was filled with an enormous sense of relief. Suddenly, a strong urge came over him, “The most worthwhile business in the world is serving God; I am to serve God like these preachers and pastors!” He was surprised that this thought had come to him; yet he did not resist it, but murmured quietly to himself: “Lord, I’m willing to be used by You.” That same day, following the service, he was baptized.
“I never imagined that my being born again, called to serve Him, and being baptized could all happen on the same day.”
In February 1993, Chien-ping opened his third restaurant in Spain, in Barcelona. But by this time his whole heart was committed to the way of truth in Jesus Christ, and his value system had been turned upside down.
God put into his heart a concern for the Chinese churches of Europe. While he was still in Valencia, in the evenings he would often read the Bible and meditate by lamp light after the restaurant closed; or perhaps go out doing visitation, spreading the gospel. He was filled with such zeal that his faith in the Lord grew stronger and stronger. Many people thought that because this couple was so devoted in serving the Lord, that He would bless their business and make it more and more profitable; but their third restaurant in Barcelona turned out to have very few customers, and they were serving only a few tables each day. It was becoming more and more difficult to continue the restaurant as an on-going business. What should they do? Chien-ping brought his problems to the Lord in prayer, but the Lord did not lead him to close it down. So, every day he opened for business in faith, and prayed when he closed up in the evening. During this time he was very aware of the comfort of the Lord Jesus. Not only that, he was ‘joyful in his suffering; because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us’.
This went on for three years until finally, in 1997, the restaurant business picked up and got better every day. However, during those three years God had been moving his heart with a fervent desire towards full time ministry!
He was often reminded of that evening in Italy when he had believed and of the urge in his heart towards full time ministry. He looked around Spain and saw that there were a lot of Chinese churches being raised up but there was not one single full time minister! Much important work was not being done and the messages from the pulpits were not satisfying the spiritual hunger of the brothers and sisters.
“Who cares about the Lord’s heart desires ? Who is willing to be used by Him?” This phrase of a hymn kept returning to his mind.
“At the beginning of 1998, I heard that a theological training class was being organized by the English COCM, starting in September, for all the Chinese churches in Europe – a certificate in pastoral ministry in Europe. I thought of applying; but seeing my third son who had just turned 4 years old, the contented smile on Xiao-may’s face, and the increasing profitability of the restaurant, I hesitated.
“Quietly, I asked the Lord to make His leading clear. During one prayer meeting, as the brothers and sisters were pleading together for the Lord to send a great revival on the Chinese churches in Europe, suddenly a small voice spoke in my heart, ‘Sell the restaurant and go and study theology.’ I was in shock. My mind was a complete blank as the voice continued, ‘Have you forgotten how I moved in your heart when you were saved? Have you forgotten how when the restaurant was struggling, you made a promise that if God blessed your business and made it profitable, you would sell it and serve Me full time? How much longer must I wait?’ I was in tears; the Holy Spirit’s reminder and reproof lifted me out of my dithering, and I said to the Lord: ‘Dear Lord Jesus, I can never repay You for Your grace towards me; I am willing to re-consecrate my whole life to You, and never take it back.’
“When I told Xiao-may about my decision to sell the restaurant and go to study theology, this devoted sister was quiet for a long time. I was nervous and asked her, ‘Senior, what do you think ?’ As she was the one who had had the greatest influence on in my journey of faith , I always call her ‘Senior’. She opened her mouth and said,
‘Unless God gives this Senior a sign; otherwise, please take back what you have just said.’
‘What kind of sign?’ I asked.
‘That your mother tells us that Chien-ping ought to become a pastor. Only then would I agree for you to go and study theology.’
I was dumbfounded. My nearly 70 year old mother had been a Buddhist all her life and the only thing she wanted was for her son to be successful in his restaurant business; Buddha or Jesus, all she wanted was success for her son’s business. Although it seemed a remote chance, I had no choice but to accept her condition. So I said, ‘OK. We’ll ask God for this sign.’
About a week later, my mother came over to the restaurant while we were both in. She came in and said, ‘Xiao-may, Chien-ping, there’s something I want to say to you.’ Right away we took her to our bedroom down the back. ‘I think Chien-ping would make a good preacher. Some time ago you said you had an opportunity to go and study theology in England; I suggest that you go. The restaurant business is going well, and it should fetch a good price to support Xiao-may and the three kids.’
After my mother left, Xiao-may came to me in tears, ‘Chien-ping, off you go. I’ve nothing more to say.’”
To this very day, my mother still does not understand it. She kept saying to herself, “How could I say such a thing to my son and daughter-in-law? I was muddled. Maybe Jesus is more powerful than Buddha!”
On the last day of August, 1998, Chien-ping flew to England, and changed from a self-centered nomad to a devoted follower of Christ. What an amazing change in this 35 year-old man!
A satisfactory answer sheet
In September, 1998, Chien-ping arrived in England and started on the first stage of his seminary study. Praise God, he received a strict training and when he graduated in July, 2000, he submitted a satisfactory answer sheet.
“I remember that when I first arrived at COCM, I found it very difficult and challenging, mainly because the homework was so hard. Most of our teachers were from Hong Kong, so there was a language problem. Added to that, I had been away from school for nearly 20 years, so with all that homework and so many books to read, you can imagine how difficult I found it!”
“Did you ever consider giving up?” I asked.
“Praise God, I never thought of giving up. I kept praying to the Lord for help. When our class considered how we were the first generation of seminary students from Chinese churches in Europe and that we were committed to bearing the burden of ministering to these barren European Chinese churches, we felt even more determined to complete our studies. I think God used this to discipline us all.”
“Did you miss home?”
At this question, Chien-ping’s eyes became moist with tears and his voice was shaky…
“When I went to England to study, at first things were quite tight financially; and there were also issues with my visa, so I did not get back home for 7 months. I had also had to save up for my plane ticket. At the other end of the phone was my son’s voice would plead, ‘Dad, when are you coming home? We miss you so much!’ I longed to rush back to their sides. In particular, it was very tiring for Xiao-may caring for three kids by herself; but she did not complain and urged me to study hard, because the Lord was with her and our children, so I could relax. Only I knew what a sacrifice she was making for me!”
In July 2000, Chien-ping graduated from his class with honors, and he also won the Barnabas Loving Prize! At Graduation, when seminary president Rev. Chang urged them: “Tend your flock faithfully, and carry out your mission in prayer”; he was deeply touched. From that time on, this exhortation has been the guiding vision of his ministry.
On July 20, 2000, the third day after Chien-ping’s return to Spain, the headquarters of the Spanish Chinese churches assigned him to Madrid, where the church had just gone through a split. This was the second time in recent history that this church had split; its original congregation of 80-90 people was now down to 40, and most of the brothers and sisters were spiritually low and weak in faith.
Chien-ping willingly accepted this assignment, and moved his family from Barcelona to Madrid. The parting words of the former pastor of the Madrid church kept ringing in his ears, “You won’t be able to handle this either; the sheep that are left are just impossible.”
“Lord! Give me strength and faith!” Chien-ping kept praying in his heart.
It is hard to imagine someone with only two years’ of seminary training facing such a challenge upon his return. “Weren’t you afraid?” I asked.
“The pressure was huge, but I was not afraid. At that time I was often reminded of a scripture in 1 Kings Chapter 17. The widow in the story was down to a just a few drops of oil and a handful of flour, yet the prophet Elijah had asked her to make him a loaf of bread. She thought that she would die after she had done what she could with the little she had, but Elijah told her not to be afraid because God would surely provide – and so it turned out From a human point of view I had not studied a lot, but I knew that God was reminding me not to fear, because His grace would be sufficient.”
“His grace is sufficient for me!” this was Chien-ping’s conviction. With this confidence , he moved his family of five, including Xiao-may and his three kids, from their large, comfortable house in Barcelona to a small, 60 square meter apartment in Madrid. In this confidence, he went to visit the believers who had had issues with the preacher. On the first Sunday of August, 2000, the Chinese church in Madrid held their inaugural service for him. Memories of that day have stayed vividly with Chien-ping. The whole congregation, one after another, walked up Chien-ping and his wife, and embraced them. Many of them prayed, in tears, ‘O Lord! Move us with your love to love one another!’ ‘O Lord! Thank you for allowing Pastor Chien-ping and his wife to come here to pastor us; please give them Your strength!” A dedication prayer offering him as a living sacrifice to serve Him completely strengthened his commitment. Tears flowing down his cheeks, he felt bathed in a sense of sanctified mission. This was how his life as a pastor began.
He was facing a church wounded by divisions. To the people outside the church, it seemed as if “God and Jesus could not get along”; but to his congregation, they were the first Chinese church in Spain to have a full-time minister of Wen-zhou and Ching-tien background, serving Christians from that same background; in other words, they were all ‘home-town folks’. So they addressed the pastor and his wife by their first names; some people even said, ‘we’re so close to you that it’s hard to call you ‘Pastor’ or ‘Mrs. Pastor’.’ When he went out on visitation, he was often accused of ‘sheep stealing’. As well, the congregation had already become accustomed to the free-flowing, emotional preaching style of the two previous pastors, and were not used to the Chien-ping’s expositional style of preaching…
However, none of this discouraged Chien-ping. He was constantly reminded of his seminary head’s admonishment: “to tend the sheep faithfully, and to carry out your mission with prayer”. On a foundation of emphasis on God’s word, he did pastor the sheep faithfully. Later, as the numbers at meetings began to increase, and offerings grew as wel the church building became too small to hold all the people coming to worship, so the church decided to purchase a building of their own.
“From August 2000 to August 2001 was a year of sowing in tears.”
“But you have also reaped with joy”, I responded. “I understand that it’s not easy to hold on to living by faith among hometown folks; so please go on and tell us how you and your family held on to your faith.”
“For the first year I was serving full time. Although the support provided by the church was only barely adequate for the living expenses of our family of five; yet we received it with a thankful heart. Our relatives and friends in Spain and Mainland China were saying things like ‘Nowadays, Chien-ping can make money just by moving his lips’- and there were a lot of other negative comments.
“ Xiao-may shed tears many time in private about this; but every time we read the Lord’s Prayer, I would remind myself not to pay any attention.
“Whenever someone came to stay at our apartment, my 14 year old son’s bedroom would become the guest bedroom, and he would have to sleep on the couch in the living room. He would often ask, ‘Dad, when won’t I have to sleep on the couch?’ ‘Dad, when will we have a nice big house like we had in Barcelona?’ Xiao-may and I could only lead him in prayer.
“One year later, the Spanish Chinese church in Madrid had grown to be a congregation of 100, and God’s Spirit was working strongly in the hearts of His children. They offered a lot of money and purchased the first church building of their own for 30 million Spanish Peseta.
“Within one week of the dedication service for the new church building, God allowed me to sell my house in Barcelona. Then just a few weeks later, I found a reasonably priced, large house with many nice amenities; and our whole family happily moved in”.
What does Chien-ping think in the face of all this success and honor?
“There is nothing to boast about. In the last five years, I’ve sometimes thought of getting out.”
It was all about finance.. Whenever relatives or friends had a special celebration, he and Xiao-may would struggle with the cost of gifts. To give too little could make for hurt feelings, and too much threatened their bottom line. As the children grew up, their educational expenses were also becoming a factor. Some well-meaning people urged him: ‘Chien-ping, why don’t you take out a share in our company? You don’t have to provide any money, it would be enough just to have your name on our board’ ‘Chien-ping, start a company! We can help you with the investment capital.’
“Just when I was about to make a move, a servant of the Lord said to me, ‘A preacher is someone who has been burned unto ashes on His altar. Are ashes any use in this world?’ His words made me feel ashamed. Yes, how could I turn back?
“In 2003 we heard that Rev. Tang was going to be in Italy holding renewal meetings, and both Xiao-may and I wanted to attend. However, we could only afford a round-trip ticket foe one. What were we to do? So we decided to come to the Lord in one mind: ‘O Lord, unless You provide the funds for our plane tickets, then I shall feel free to start serving as a tent-maker. If Your will is for me to continue to serve full time, then please give us the money for our tickets!’
“A few days later, a check for US $ 200 came into my hands; the check signatory was an American veteran. A Christian brother told me that this veteran usually came to Spain every year for gospel outreach. This time as he was praying, the Holy Spirit prompted him to offer a sum to support a local Chinese minister. While he was having lunch in a Chinese restaurant, he asked whether there was any Chinese minister here. The restaurant owner knew this Christian brother, and so very naturally he had the check transferred to me through this brother, as I was the one and only local preacher. The sum was just enough to cover the round-trip ticket fare for both of us to attend the meeting.
“Holding the check in my hand, I could not restrain my tears of gratitude. ‘Lord, how faithful You are to us! How could I change my mind about my commitment?”
Since then, Chien-ping and Xiao-may have completely given up any thoughts of serving while working, or of starting a business.
My interview was finished. As one of his classmates I thank God for this older fellow student. His experience is echoed in the words of a hymn:
“Serving Jesus, how satisfying and joyful!
The joy of the Lord is pure and not worldly;
Abiding in the Lord is abundant grace,
Blessed is he who serves the Lord every day.
No matter what the circumstances, serving is blessing,
No matter what comes, those who are faithful are blessed,
Trusting and relying on His promises is Paradise,
Blessed is he who serves the Lord every day.
Blessed is he who serves Jesus, blessed every day,
Blessed is he in every step he takes,
Walking the narrow heavenly pathway may mean suffering,
But in His presence, the road will be blessed.
Yes, may the holy light of the Lord continually shine upon him, as he treads this blessed path of ministry.
The author is a minister from China, currently studying theology overseas