In the mid and late 1980s, when the outside world was reconnecting with its sister church in China, I was a young missionary just getting my feet wet and eager to discover what God’s Spirit had been doing there. I was alarmed at the extent of suffering Chinese Christians had experienced while amazed at the extent of the growth of the church and the new level of maturity in this newly resurrected church in China.
One conversation in particular left an indelible mark on my perspective toward missions and my admiration for the church in China. Speaking on behalf of many of his peers, one of China’s pastors told our delegation, “During our hardship years, this question repeatedly came to mind, ‘Why didn’t the missionaries teach us to suffer?’ And why had they not prepared us to stand on our own?”
That was in 1987. It is clearly problematic to attempt to teach someone to suffer. The practice of self-denial or a vow of poverty at least moves one in the right direction, but when it comes to preparing others to stand on their own, we need to get a better grip on this idea. Ironically, it means loosening our own grip in the process!
It is time we paused to ask ourselves this: “Have our cross-cultural efforts engaging the church in China moved them closer to standing on their own, or are we once more guilty of our sins of the past and have we pushed the church to be increasingly dependent upon our resources, our answers, our methods and our money?”
Twenty-five years ago, we were all motivated to help the church in China as quickly as possible. Urgency and speed pushed us to translate foreign material into Chinese. It was a short-cut and much easier to do than to start from scratch. Without admitting it, we were all falling into the same trapcreating a dependency on outside (foreign and Chinese) resources, guidance, and finances. Twenty-five years later, what kind of grade have we earned in terms of assisting and enabling China’s church to raise up her own writers, publishers, Bible scholars and Bible teachers? In what ways have our well intended efforts actually distracted the church from her own strengths by turning her attention to the things we like to do in the Western church?
In the mid 1990s, I was part of a new ministry. Early on we resolved to work toward putting our national staff in posts of increasing influence and authority while we foreigners stepped into self-restricted roles of coaching and eventually cheering from the stands. You may ask, “How are you doing with that idea?”
Clearly, we have made progress, but we still have far to go. Our ministry target has been serving pastors in rural churches. Going into the 21st century, this has been the most explosive area of church growth with the least amount of resources. To further complicate matters, church leaders typically have a middle school education at most and frequently express their inability to create resources of their own for pastoral training efforts.
We started our efforts at pastoral training by searching for indigenous materials. We assumed local preachers were creating their own materials and using them to train the next generation. We would simply use what was already in place that had passed the scrutiny of proven, effective, preferred materials. We would complement this with our teaching methodology and strategy for training trainers. To our disappointment, we found almost nothing, nor were there any genuine, long-term efforts to create indigenous materials for pastoral training.
As a stop-gap effort, we began to write our own material. We were working closely with two medium-sized networks of churches, each with about 180,000 believers. We had permission from their leadership to use their top evangelists and church planters as testers to sample our new material. If it was a poor fit, irrelevant, causing confusion, too alien or too Western, they gave us immediate feedback. This enabled us to correct, adjust, delete or edit it before we taught it elsewhere. They taught us how to use a Chinese rap (顺口溜), asked us to include certain topics, provided local illustrations and helped refine our applications.
During this transition time, God brought to us our own national workers. As they taught our courses, we received better feedback for future revisions. The final stage in our transition was the gathering of a field test team. When a new course reached the final draft stage, we would gather a group of 15-20 mainland pastors/teachers, plus the author(s) and editor(s), and work our way through every paragraph of the new text. We had a battery of questions to work through from identifying typos, scrutinizing theological concerns, to “Will your pastors back home be able to teach this confidently and with competence?”
At the conclusion of one field test, the consensus was, “This is an important course. No one is teaching this and we need to learn this. However it is too difficult as is. People will be discouraged and it won’t be taught.” It was sent back to the drawing board, split into two courses, and a year later the field test group approved it.
At another field test, they loved the content and were excited about its relevance but concluded that the folks back home would not be able to teach ittoo much content! More than 25% of the draft was pulled out of the main text body with most of it being retained in appendices as reference material.
As feedback became more specific and increased in quality and relevance, we felt we were ready for the next steponly to have it flatly rejected!
The First Attempt
We proposed assisting our mainland staff in writing future material. The hot topic for the church was creating a Christian home. Most of China’s Christians were first generation believers who had little concept of what a Chinese Christian home ought to be like. One of our staff men was a fourth generation evangelist. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution and recently had penned one or two short articles. He had a deep burden for the sad state of the home life of many of China’s church workers. He agreed to give it a try. Our stipulation was that he avoid reading and referencing translations from English. This was to be about the Chinese Christian home, and we wanted him to draw on his own biblical teaching, his family background and experiences and address key issues the church was facingarranged marriages, the idea of dating, single child homes, disciplining children, the pastor’s home life and so on. The task of writing became a burden, then discouraging and, eventually, overwhelming. Computers broke down, material was lost and communication with our editor was inconvenient. Finally, in order to rescue the project, our editor agreed to assist as a co-writer. Five years after the initial text was written the work was completed. Its reception has been a huge success due to its biblical basis and practical application to church leaders in China.
Having succeeded in creating our first mostly indigenous course and seeing its widespread acceptance, we thought our mainland staff would be motivated to create a second course. When we asked them to help write the next course, they responded: “We are preachers, not writers. We don’t have the skill nor the time to help write a new course.” We felt like we were back where we had started. We wondered how we could tap into this vast resource of experience and church leadership found in our own staff. Then the light dawnedwe would do it differently and work with their strengths, not their weaknesses.
Stepping back from what we assumed would be a positive reply, we asked: “What are the key factors in play here?”
The great majority of China’s church leadership has a middle school educationat least for the next decade. They have bought into the mistaken notion that they are not qualified to write original material for pastoral training because they don’t have sufficient education. However, while not highly educated, many of these people are bright, gifted in leadership, experienced in church and pastoral matters and wise. Their strengths are along verbal linesthey are excellent teachers, preachers, evangelists and leaders. It dawned on us, if we could tap into their developed gifts as preachers and address current issues in the local church, then maybe we could develop a new formula for creating pastoral training texts/tools for China’s churches.
We began in 2008 at a staff retreat. For four days, we discussed the most common church issues our mainland team repeatedly heard from church leaders. They identified 12 common topics, from handling finances, to restoring a fallen coworker, to setting up a library. We called the course Practical Church Management. It would be a tool to help pastors get a handle on some of their most common challenges. All were in complete agreement such a course was greatly needed.
Now that we had our 12 topics, what should be the specific content of each chapter? This meant hammering out an outline, chapter by chapter. What were some of the key biblical texts addressing each issue? Could they give examples of this problem and its consequences? Did they have solutions, recommendations or good examples of resolution? Together we filled out the basic ideas for the content of each chapter. Then came the hard question, who would pull together these ideas and create the first written chapter for this new course?
We proposed the following:
- The content of each chapter would come from our mainland staff since they were the hands-on experts in these areas.
- The mainland staff contributors would be free from writing. Instead, we asked them to prepare a sermon or a teaching lesson for each subject/chapter. While the chapter outlines would give guidance to the message, they could have flexibility in their choice of text, explanation, illustrations and application.
- At a future staff gathering, they would preach/teach on this assigned chapter, to be followed by about two hours of team discussion, feedback, critique on content and recommended changes.
- The preaching/teaching and discussion would all be recorded and our Hong Kong staff would then transcribe what was taught and discussed. This transcription would be edited in order to present it as a completed, written chapter.
- Finally, this proposed written chapter would pass through a field-test by our mainland staff before it became a final version.
As you may guess, the process was not without challenges and setbacks. However, we pressed on, and after three years we had a new course not only exceptionally practical and relevant to the church in China, but whose content was wholly from our mainland staff team.
While this tedious process took us three years to complete, we learned many lessons about what to do differently, more efficiently and more economically. When we presented the printed version of this 302 page book on Practical Church Management to our mainland co-authors, they were ecstatic! They had never dreamed that God could use them in such a way to serve his church in China.
The Story Continues
We are at it once again. This time we are using a book from the Bible to help the church address conflicts and tensions from within. While the process is essentially the same, it is more streamlined and efficient. We are working on an 18-20 month timetable.
Over these past two decades, the church in China has changed significantly. It has more resources of its own, the next generation of church leaders is more educated, and they are more confident they can create their own materials addressing the unique challenges facing the church in China. As a ministry, we hope to be part of the movement that continues to take calculated, intentional steps to empower the church in China to stand on her own. We have made progress, but we still have a ways to go as we continue to learn and adjust our plans to line up with what God already has in place.
Image Credit: SALT