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‘This Church Never Feels Alone,’ Chinese Church of Iowa City Marks 30 Years

Members, guests, and visitors for the Chinese Church of Iowa City’s 30th anniversary gathered for a group photo. Pastor John Xu and his wife, Amy Zhu, (third row from front, center) stand to the right of founding pastor, Jason Chen, and his wife, Donna. (Amy is holding Elizabeth, daughter of Yahong and Kevin Wu.)
Photo by Harry Zhao

A church that started out as a campus ministry Bible class in the 1970s and formally organized in 1993 is still ministering to Chinese students at the University of Iowa, serving both new students and second and third generations and their multiethnic families. 

Pastor John Xu said the Chinese Church of Iowa City is a home to the Chinese population in the small university town. The vision the church aims to communicate is, “This is your home, you’re not a traveler,” Xu said.

The church recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, welcoming former pastors to a weekend reunion held Sept.1-3. 

“So many people graduated from here with so many good memories that they wanted to come back as a family to have a reunion,” Xu said. 

“This church has been steady and faithful. Many who were led here, come back,” he said, including founding pastor Jason Chen who recently reconnected with the church as recurring pulpit supply for the English service. 

Chen’s ministry in Iowa City started in 1967. Just after graduating from Calvin Theological Seminary, he took a job there with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He eventually began his own campus ministry in 1971, supported by Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Iowa City and by what was then the Home Missions agency of the CRCNA and Classis Central Plains (then called Pella). 

Chen retired 18 years ago from Geneva Campus Ministry and still lives in the area with his wife, Donna. They’re active in a small Presbyterian Church in America congregation and Chen maintains relationships with some university department chairs and community people. “I try to be a friend to everyone I meet,” he said, quoting a former InterVarsity mentor who emphasized one word in ministry: “relate, relate, relate.”

Chen said the Chinese Church of Iowa City was to have been a placeholder name, but it stuck, even after the congregation moved about 20 miles away from campus to North Liberty, Iowa. 

In a reflection he wrote for the church’s newsletter, Chen said, “I am fully convinced that it was our faithful God who called the nearly 200 students to himself (to) be baptized; the many more who became professors and heads of department in the colleges and universities in our nation; and the hundreds more who have returned to their home countries or scattered throughout these United States to serve God and his church in practically every sphere of society.” 

Xu, Chen, and all the others who gathered this month to celebrate, thank God for the generations of students who still find a home here.

Part of that welcome is in sharing meals together, Xu said, once during Friday fellowship, prepared by two different families each week, and once on Sunday afternoons, prepared by a church member who also runs a restaurant. “Because this is a church that started as a campus ministry, students love Chinese food,” he said.

He said the arrival of 15 new students this year, many of them doing PhD studies, is the largest influx in quite a while. “This church has been blessed so much. We’re increasing,” Xu said. “We’re not decreasing.”

Xu also notes that “this church is not the whole story,” saying Chen is father of another “tween church,” the Chinese Evangelical Church that meets just beside the University of Iowa campus, while the Chinese Church of Iowa City is further out.  

The Chinese Church of Iowa City is currently searching for a pastor for its English services. Former Geneva Campus Ministry chaplain Thomas Wolthuis served as an interim English pastor in 2022 and Xu said he’s grateful to Classis Central Plains for its faithful, active support in pulpit supply three times a month. 

The classis stated clerk Jonathan Spronk and regional pastor Gary Brouwers attended the celebrations, offering a benediction and prayers for the church. “This church never feels alone,” Xu said. “That’s the CRC. It gave us a very good network and resources, support over the years.”

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