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Challenges Facing China’s Church Leaders Today

Fast-paced changes pulverizing the Chinese culture, economy and education system are having a significant effect on the church in China. The unabated steamrollering of globalization in China is displacing communities and minorities. The continuous return of those who have studied overseas, importing Christian and secular Western philosophies and values, is expanding and reshaping the Chinese worldview. The church outside of China is carving up the nation’s indigenous church structures by creating suzerain relationships that may rival those of imperial times. Thus, the typical church worker, found in either a rural or city setting, is facing unprecedented challenges.

Plugged-in Youth

In the last decade of the 20th century, electricity brought some irreversible changes into village life in China. The progression of this change is astounding in rural minority and Han Chinese villages.[1]Ten years ago, a typical night would involve a family sitting around a fire telling stories and maybe listening to a radio. However, with even the most remote village now having a fairly reliable hydroelectric power supply for at least 4-6 hours per day, the form of nightly entertainment has changed from oral traditions to media driven events.[2] The young watch television—in some rural areas that have satellite dishes there is a plethora of programming available.[3] With the widespread availability of electrical power, televisions, stereos and other imported forms of entertainment are rapidly replacing traditional forms such as story telling, singing and dancing. As a result, this rural younger generation is having its worldview shaped differently.

China has the world’s largest concentration of youth: 631 million are under the age of 24.[4] Out of this group, nearly 400 million are below the age of 18. This generation of “little emperors” are cherished and indulged by their parents who have a common goal—“a good education for my child(ren).” With the income of average Chinese families having quadrupled over the last two decades, they are destined to attain “middle income” status in the next two decades.[5] Thus, plugging in electronic entertainment devices—a trend that is not slowing—has become the norm.

After America, China has the world’s largest computer market. Urged on by the government to help transform their nation into a hi-tech society and anxious to give their children every advantage, parents are buying the latest power-hungry, speed-demon desktops for their children.

These changes have huge implications for church planters or leaders working in either rural or city settings. These changes may appear to make ministry among minorities easier—no longer will workers have to learn a minority language since the young people all tend to speak Mandarin— as trained by the media. But will this truly be effective in planting churches? Will short-circuiting the process by not learning the heart language bring a community—already divided between the young and the old—a gospel that the elderly will not accept? Might this impede any church planting effort in a minority setting where often, if the older generation accepts the gospel, the entire village will convert—indeed a possible movement may commence?

With the entertainment domain now centered on television, music and computer games, a church planter’s ministry is far different from that of his or her forebears even ten years ago. The ministry models they have seen may not work for them in a changing society. In the last two decades, economic advances combined with disillusionment with communist ideology created a keen sense of spiritual vacuum that produced openness to the gospel message. Today, however, that message is being challenged or crowded out by materialism and the ambition to succeed.

Thus, a re-tooling of approaches and strategies is in order for church planters and leaders, and the challenges confronting them are daunting. But, are they aware of this? Or, will they continue to cling to the only way they know? Not only must they make the gospel message relevant in a rapidly changing society, they must have several approaches to communicate the message to a digital crowd whose domain of entertainment drowns out the voice of the gospel.

Adults and Iron Rice Bowls

While technology and Western entertainment are colliding with traditional culture, the very ascendancy of youth in China is also challenging a social infrastructure with profound consequences. Job-for-life normalcy at state-run enterprises is giving way to digital entrepreneurs who are under thirty. Putting a premium on new skills, job available signs often impose an upper age limit of 30, displacing the aged who would have to unlearn the old economy “iron rice bowl” ways.[6]  Collective enterprises are being tossed out—the assigned jobs and living areas, promotions based on party loyalty and the untouchable reverence for age. The question for China, then, is not about their youth, but, rather, what to do about the older workers who increasingly find themselves without a place in the new economy and unable to cling to the promised “iron rice bowl—from cradle to grave” security.

Graying assemblies of middle-aged men and women along with retired employees of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are facing a bleak future. Promotions are now based on merit rather than party loyalty—leaving them out in the cold. SOEs, stuck with debts from “command economy” days, are also worrying about rising pension costs. China is seeing its citizenry live longer, with an average life span exceeding 70 years.[7] Who will support these seniors? The national development that is occurring carries with it a double edge.

Indigenous church planters, then, must complement their skills to allow them to focus not only on the youth, but also on the crowd they grew up with as well as those who are their elders. Certainly this scenario is similar to that in many parts of the world—except that in China, many of these people, if more than 30 years old, are not really wanted in the job market. How is a church planter to counsel these displaced individuals? What do they say to someone who cannot receive retraining for a new position? How do they face massive numbers of people in their late 40s and early 50s who are angry with the government and want to demonstrate against it? With limited skills and a junior high to high school education, many church planters and leaders may lose heart for their calling.

Morgan Stanley estimates that China’s entry into WTO will cost the country 40 million jobs.[8]The Chinese government estimate is 60 to 80 million unemployed in urban areas with another 80 to 100 million underemployed in rural areas. Moreover, with the central government insisting on 50 percent urbanization by the year 2010, China is moving 300 million people into the cities during this decade.[9] With the current number of cities, about 700, needing to expand in capacity, the challenge is immense. (At present, 400 cities each have about 300,000 people. The goal is to increase each city to at least one million people by the end of this decade.) Every city will be required to stretch its educational, housing, health and social services. Serving these huge numbers of city newcomers will be another challenge for church planters and leaders.

Not only are there the challenges of youth, the despairing aged and urbanizing cities, but also that of a developing middle class. This stratum of society is quickly becoming informed through debates taking place over an Internet that supplies quick feedback.[10] They would like to see China become a “normal country”—with the global norm now being democracy.

Societal forces will dictate how church planters and leaders serve. The scope and pattern of ministry will be forced upon them. Some, with less education, will not be able to serve in the major cities (or maybe not even second tier cities). Others, with more education, will be able to minister in larger cities, but if they are not willing learners, they may struggle constantly with relevancy. The fast learners, in the cities, may actually engage the digital crowd and be blessed with a niche ministry. Some who have the ability may even lead in providing holistic means of serving in cities, communities and villages.

Theology and Meaning

China is undergoing a significant rebirthing experience and is on the cusp of an economic liberation, especially when the prized entry to WTO is realized. China is no longer China. Communism as a national motivating goal and belief system has little credibility. Children of leaders are sent to the U.S. to gain new values as well as advanced degrees. Confusion, corruption, and the need for hope and loving communities are pushing people to look along religious lines. However, there is significant competition for filling the spiritual vacuum. Commercial pop culture from Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and Western secular democratic and scientific values are just a few of the many competitors.

Just as the nation is looking for a “model” to govern, the church is trying to find “ministry philosophies” and strategies to serve the people. Some in the official state church are trying to shove both “universalism” and “socialcultural gospel” down the throats of their homegrown church leaders. Thankfully, many who are in church leadership are strong enough to withstand this or dismiss it as unbiblical.

Not so fortunate is the unofficial church, as well as some registered churches that have not joined the TSPM, and some TSPM churches—all of which see themselves as part of China’s house church. They too are searching for “ministry philosophies” and strategies, but are bombarded with external theological pluralism ranging from the “ultra conservative” to the “expressive emotional crowds.” This is splitting churches across China.

While the West may look askance at church splitting in China, it is not without guilt in this matter (more on this later). Of greater interest to the body of Christ is that China is developing her own sense of “theology,” “systems,” and renewed “denominations.” There is no shame in this. The West, after all, has had two millennia to contemplate Christ, to crusade in his name—and to make their mistakes and then some. Surely a budding church in China should be encouraged to develop her expressions of faith, love, and hope in Christ without prying eyes peering unapprovingly.

Money and Tyranny

Unlike America, China does not have Christian roots underpinning the laws and constitution of the nation, and is only starting to think about the “third” sector—the not-for-profits— and certainly not in a Christian way. Hence, the care of church planters and leaders is thoroughly lacking.

Jesus’ comment, “…a prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house,” rings true throughout hamlets, villages, counties and cities in China. In fact, it is practiced extremely well within Christian circles. Many church planters and leaders can dress well because some factory boss has donated suits and shoes, but they may not have a penny in their pockets. The brothers and sisters in the congregation, not knowing this and being very human, think their leaders are well taken care of; hence, they see no further need to make improvements in the physical living conditions of their church leaders. In truth, these leaders are really living in poverty!

In China, the per capita GDP growth has been sluggish, and the gap between well-off urbanites and their countryside compatriots has continually widened, producing an inequality that is huge and very noticeable. Social tensions are producing spontaneous mass protests, riots and sabotage. Some consultancies see the urban income as an optimistic $4,000 per year for about 250,000,000 people. Compare that with the interior, where yearly average income is a maximum of $500 with many subsisting on only $100 per year. Yet, the bulk of China’s people are still in the interior. Thus, the greatest challenge is to increase rural income.

With pastoral care lacking and the cost of living rising, church planters and leaders, with an honest desire to spread the Gospel, are very human and may succumb to accepting well-intended funding. To put it forthrightly, the West has often bought off church planters and leaders; it has introduced theological differences by dangling its “dollars;” it has viciously dismantled indigenous denominations by creating its own “small k” kingdom work. The West has frequently allowed and encouraged a lack of transparency and accountability in the name of “utter secrecy.”

The West has also intensified the “house church’s” persecution by foisting the issue upon China’s government so that religious matters have become political. Why? Persecution raises funds! For whom are the funds really raised? Often, it is not for the churches in China but for the survival of the organization. A heightened publicity of persecution may increase governmental pressure on the house churches resulting in more persecution stories that can then be used for fundraising.

The consequences of these types of actions are already being felt across China. Some groups who were working to achieve “unity” are no longer united.[11] Some of the larger denominations have disintegrated into many smaller “theological,” “personality-led” kingdoms. Some house church denominations are so afraid of these matters they have overreacted and secluded themselves from all foreigners lest they become entangled in financial kingdom building.


Truly, the challenges facing church planters and leaders are immense: energetic youths (both the poor and the digitally capable); despondent adults; large numbers of angry unemployed; newly forming cities; technologies; a search for ministry philosophies and strategies; funding with conditions— the list is not exhaustive.

Those wishing to come alongside church planters and leaders in China need to reflect on the following.

  1. Are we serving the church planters and leaders, or are we hiring them? Either option necessitates that we care for them and not build kingdoms—either theirs or ours.
  2. Are we helping the witness of the church and its leadership to move forward, or are we impeding it? The plethora of complexities facing indigenous church planters and leaders are enough to sink any missions executive. We need to choose, consciously, to appreciate their God-given vision.
  3. Are we wise enough to avoid being used by the indigenous church? It is only human that undercurrents of manipulation, lack of transparency and boasting of work occur from time to time. We need to sensitively think and pray through some matters so that we are not the causes of stumbling in the body of Christ.
  4. Are we prepared to provide skills training, operational modeling and holistic introductions to the “third sector”—that of Christian not-for-profit entities—so that indigenous church planters and leaders will have the necessary tools to engage in ministry? Sometimes it is necessary to provide hands-on training to a “turn-key” operation in the “third sector.” This takes huge amounts of time, energy and resources—but this can work in China.
  5. Are we willing to hold back our theological persuasions for the benefit of a growing church in China? Can we stop “doing,” and just “be”—living out Christ day by day? Can we allow the indigenous church planters and leaders to struggle and arrive at their own expressions of love for Christ?

China and the church in China are undergoing painful and necessary change. The church outside of China must not only pray for them, but also invite the church in China, as an equal, to the global table of Kingdom servants for evangelism and mission—giving her both time and space.


  1. ^ For example, in one of the most poor, remote, and nationally recognized places in Guangxi province, roads began to be built in 1998. Now all 187 administrative villages have road infrastructure and electricity. 
  2. ^ Taken from my travels and interviews with various government officials and church leaders in China. Of good reading is Jasper Becker’s book, The Chinese, Free Press, 2000, which takes a sociological/economic approach to society. 
  3. ^ In some of the poorest areas, government officials would often boast that 80 percent of the villages have satellite dishes (personal counting often verified this claim). To achieve this the government officials would put up 50 percent of the money and the local villagers would put up the other half. The signal is distributed to the entire village (or subgroups based on geographical distribution) through a central reception site within the village. This method is one of the best ways for the subtle encouragement of learning Mandarin and ideology. 
  4. ^ Time Asia, October 2000. 
  5. ^ Various reports gives different assessments. This estimate is through Business China, “Economic Intelligence Unit” reports. The Economist, March 2001, gives the most recent figure. 
  6. ^ The Economist, December 23, 2000. 
  7. ^ Chinese newspapers and reports indicated this achievement in 1999. 
  8. ^ Various reports in South China Morning Post, Business Asia, Asia Week, The Economist and China Daily give similar and different numbers throughout 2000 and the first quarter of 2001. 
  9. ^ China Daily, throughout 2000. 
  10. ^ Two hot debates are currently “discouraged” and “promoted” in society. One, the recent firecracker blast in a school, was hotly reported, talked about in Internet chat rooms but soon “cleansed” when the government decided to “discourage” it. The other, the rising divorce rate—over 20 percent in the cities—is being actively promoted. The government hopes via this discussion to “gage the temperature of the waters,” and may actually promulgate some new laws as a result of it. Sadly, there is deafening silence when it comes to Christian views and voices on the subject. 
  11. ^ Interviews conducted with various church leaders in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Henan, Yunnan, Jiangsu, Anhui, Hunan, Sichuan, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Zhejiang.
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Samuel Chiang

Rev. Samuel Chiang was born in Taiwan, grew up and worked in Canada, and graduated from Dallas Seminary. He has started several businesses including a foreign joint venture with a local government in China and also served as the Chief Operating Officer of TWR, an international media organization. He has …View Full Bio