View from the Wall

Bible Study Fellowship in Beijing

Where to Go from Here?


After running for three years on its globally uniform schedule, Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) International's classes, for Chinese nationals in Beijing, China, were disrupted in the fall of 2012. The opening for the BSF "Year of Genesis" has been postponed indefinitely, because the date of the national convention of the ruling political party in China is still pending (at the time of this writing). In fact, from day one, BSF's endeavors to offer its classes to local Chinese people have suffered from disruptions. The formerly designated Chinese host church withdrew its invitation after the 2008 Beijing Olympics during which U. S. president George W. Bush visited the church and talked to the press at the gate with his arm around the chief pastor. Miraculously, another host, YMCA China, popped up within a few months allowing BSF Chinese national classes to convene since September 2009, one year later than the schedule originally agreed upon and approved by the State Administration of Religious Affairs.

These anecdotal events highlight the political risk of running a spiritual business in China. It is beyond my knowledge and power to speculate about the forthcoming big picture, yet as a former member of the leadership team of BSF Beijing Men's Class, I would like to offer my two cents regarding three issues over the daily operation of BSF classes for Chinese nationals: language, location and leadership.

Language

BSF materials are in English. The sharing lectures given by the teaching leader and the discussions among class members are all conducted in English; there is only one working language for the worldwide BSF operation.. This seems to be a barrier for the Chinese national classes, especially for the men's class. Good English speakers are few, and most of them have already been chosen as group leaders to handle the discussion session at the beginning of each weekly class. Difficulty in understanding the reading materials and the questions are common. It is hard to facilitate a discussion with one person talking if almost no one else is giving meaningful feedback.

The language issue is a barrier for quite a few newcomers to the BSF Beijing Men's Class. Some of them are invited by existing members who are enthusiastic about Bible study and learning English. They are introduced to a kind of total immersion into the English language, yet their vocabulary has not reached a critical mass for them to understand and communicate with confidence and comfort.

Trying to accommodate these newcomers as well as future ones in a similar situation, the class has made a few changes at all levels. At the group level, the group leaders encourage members less capable of using English to focus on a few questions and not to try to finish everything, or to focus on only a paragraph of the reading material, one at a time. The group leaders have to add a few Chinese words to their facilitating process to try to involve everybody. The teaching leader tries to simplify his language all the time, yet with only limited success. We have to admit that insight into the Word cannot be simplified enough to hold the attention of a three-year-old for 45 minutes. At the class level, BSF allowed Beijing classes the parallel running of a Chinese language group together with other regular groups in English. This helps tremendously based on my own experience. Even a good English speaker, like me, feels more comfortable and enabled having the chance to communicate in his mother tongue.

In 2011, at the organizational level, BSF International launched a localization project to translate questions into Chinese and Spanish and to allow the use of the local language in all regular groups. For the "Year of Genesis" study in 2012, the reading materials are supposed to be ready in the two additional languages. This will enable the launch of BSF Chinese national classes in Chinese, although this is also being postponed at the moment.

I have not received these materials since the classes are pending, yet I do hope that the translators were skillful at crossing the language and cultural barriers. Enabled by this skillfulness, the BSF classes in Chinese will thrive through the ultimate conquest of language barriers, just as translations of the Book have done throughout the world.

Location

Beijing is a metropolis of over 20 million peopleover half of whom were not born here. The commute to work is at least one hour long for most, no matter whether the job is private or public. This greatly affects BSF classes.

BSF Beijing Dongdan Evening Men's Class starts at 7pm every Monday. As indicated by the name, the location of YMCA China is in Dongdan, which is close to the heart of Beijing, the famous Tiananmen Square. It is accessible via at least two subway lines and a couple of bus routes. This is a good location, but still a far way to go for most of the existing class members. I know that some of them have to take snacks to eat on the subway so as not to be late for class. Normally, it is not until eight o'clock, when the sharing lecture begins, that the trickling in of latecomers completely stops. It is never their intention to be late, but it is the careerist culture and the ruthless job market that render their time uncontrollable.

"BSF always starts on time." Our substitute teaching leader proudly announced this during one of the pilot classes in 2008. BSF commits to this rule from Day 1, which means schedules won't be adjusted for latecomers except for a few fellowship nights when classes are pushed to after a group gathering. We believe that BSF is not for everyone. Those who really care will make their way to come on time.

In my opinion, the location of a class matters. If the host is a church, the class members are likely the regular members of the church itself. The commitment to BSF study will be strengthened by the connection with the church. After all, one mission of BSF is to train leaders for the local churches. Ideally, the partnership between BSF and the host church is a mutually beneficial one, good for the development of both. The regional BSF leadership team may share this view because the new BSF classes in Beijing were planted with two locally influential churches, one surrounded by some top universities and high-tech companies in China, the other close to a traffic hub and within the reach of many migrant workers and business people. These are all wise choices and good moves. A good location means a good niche. In a city where life becomes more and more transient, people's commitment to a spiritual activity can be reaffirmed by availability and convenience for following through on it.

Leadership

If it is hard to find a good location to start a BSF class, it is even harder to find a group of good people and to keep them as leaders of the class.

As the classes are run on a weekly basis, the leaders' meetings are convened a few days earlier than the classes. Leaders are usually good people, capable of doing their jobs and responsible for church duties. So, BSF leadership responsibilities are further additions to their busy schedules. BSF involvement should be an enrichment to their lives, not a competing force for them to reprioritize their duties. I felt sorry when I had to leave the team because of additional responsibilities in other parts of my lifefamily duties and changes in my work place. Some other leaders left because of similar reasons, including studying abroad or having a baby. I remember that over half of the group leaders of BSF Hong Kong Men's Class are seniors, and this seems to be reasonable as they are more stable in their stage of life.

Above all, a man's suitability for BSF leadership depends on his having the heart of a shepherd. He will call on the phone to make sure his sheep are still there. He must be willing to lay down his life for them, or at least to make them feel warm, because the world around them is cold. Big cities in China are very fragmented in terms of human relations and the supportive sense of society. This is both the result of the destruction caused by the revolutions and the over-emphasis on economic growth. BSF leaders should be be trained in their own sense of discipleship, warming one heart at a time!

Being a teacher, I have a keen sense of the situation of children in China. The BSF children's program is designed for parents to take their children along, so that the whole family can be involved in the same mode of study. This is a nice design for the convenience of the family in the Western context, yet it could not be less suitable for the situation in Beijing, where family life in the traditional sense is a luxury. Children live with grandparents, and school age kids have much less spare time compared with their counterparts in other places.

Fortunately, Christian families are different. An increasing number of young Christian women choose to stay home with their child and choose home-schooling options to educate them. I heard that the children's program at BSF Beijing Women's Class is doing well. It is so encouraging to know that leaders of that class are making good progress. In fact, BSF Women's Class is doing better in Beijing in almost every aspect. Could it be because there are more Christian women, especially young, educated ones around?

It doesn't make much sense to discuss whether or not BSF materials are appropriate for the Chinese context if the authorities may deem the whole program inappropriate, as is the case mentioned at the beginning. Personally, I believe that the message from above is universally acceptable. When the location issue is more or less solved, priority should be given to the nurturing of a good team of leaders. It is the leaders who will take us from here to wherever God intends us to be.

Image Credit: Chinese bible by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr

Jonathan Li

Jonathan Li is a university professor in Beijing. View Full Bio