Peoples of China

Conversation with a Migrant-Worker Church Minister

The following is an interview conducted by Dr. Mary Ma with the minister of a migrant-worker urban church. The interview begins by identifying three models of churches: rural, urban, and the “in-between” churches made up of rural migrants located in a city. A unique group, these urban churches take on characteristics that are rooted in the rural church.

Dr. Ma: How would you describe the three different church models based on demographic and geographical differences—rural, migrant-worker, and urban? What different needs and challenges does each have?

Pastor: A rural church is a gathering where local believers in the countryside meet to fellowship with each other. Most of the believers are relatively older and their education is mostly at the junior high level or below. Their theological doctrines come from the background of traditional house churches and show little evidence of a strict belief system. Very few of their ministers work full-time; even fewer are supported by the church.

A migrant-worker church is a church where the majority of people are transient workers from outside the local area. These churches are concentrated in first, second, and third tier cities. They share some characteristics with rural churches, but have less stability and a higher turnover rate. There may be some members who have bought a property in the city and have gradually settled down. Most ministers are from the countryside and lack solid theological grounding. Some may have the opportunity to receive better training to help their church function more normally. Members are mostly younger people with high school- or college-level education. They have full-time ministers who are partially supported by the church, but generally ministers need additional financial help from their families.

Rarely are urban churches made up entirely of the native population. Rather, they have mostly young and highly educated newer residents. There are also a few local, older churches in this category. Ministers in these urban churches generally have stronger theological training, and some may even have been trained in an overseas theological seminary.

As far as church constitution, almost all the churches in the three models are evangelical, but generally not too deep theologically. Few have clearly stated tenets and healthy structures.

Dr. Ma: In addition to the Bible, what other books do you usually read? Are there any books or pastors’ teachings that have impacted or helped you?

Pastor: Mostly I read books on Reformed theology. I’m also more impacted by biblical theology taught by denominational ministers. Before it was more American Baptist, but now it’s more Presbyterian.

Dr. Ma: Many members in migrant-worker churches are only living above the poverty line. How do their living conditions and economic status influence their understanding of the gospel? How does the gospel help them overcome their identity as sojourners in a strange land? What unique issues does this group face?

Pastor: Basically, their living conditions and economic status do not affect how they understand the gospel, which is solely the work of the Holy Spirit. However, migrant-worker church members do have more practical challenges that may affect their growth in the truth. They may spend less time reading the Bible and in prayer. Except for those who own a property and have settled down, born-again Christians can appreciate the temporary nature of city living which feels like a pilgrim’s progress in the world. They struggle to settle here because they do not have access to the welfare the city promises, especially when it comes to children’s schooling. They long to have their families together, but with little hope of finding work back home and the desire to buy a house, they face a lot of economic pressure.

Another great and very real problem is that couples are separated because one of them needs to stay behind in rural areas to care for their children. This difficulty often plagues a believer if he does not have a strong foundation of faith. The children’s schooling needs and the prospect of eventually returning to their hometowns can compel migrant-worker church members to leave their churches. Therefore, migrant-worker churches are badly in need of stable members for the church to develop deeper roots.

Dr. Ma: Do issues like long work hours and mobility affect the members’ church life and spiritual growth? What strategy or message do you use to overcome these problems?

Pastor: That’s for sure. For those whose faith is superficial or unclear, a job change will lead them to leave the original church. This makes consistent teaching and follow-up very difficult. Because of this, we emphatically teach the principles for choosing the right church. They shouldn’t just go to the nearest church or change churches whenever they have to change jobs, but rather they should be committed to look for jobs near the church. Or when they do change jobs, they should stay with their church even if it is now farther away. Of course it’s more important to grow and build up their knowledge of the truth and all these problems can then easily be addressed.

Dr. Ma: Believers who come into the city to work may form their own small circles based on where they’re from. Does this create challenges to building relationships in the church? How do you teach them to live out unity in the Spirit?

Pastor: It is possible that some churches may have this challenge. For example, people from Wenzhou may identify more closely with each other. However, workers from other regions don’t mind this. People from different places actually can learn from each other and about each other’s cultures and practices which facilitates interaction.

Dr. Ma: While migrant workers are brothers and sisters in the Lord, perhaps because of different education levels and income they may form different groups. How do you shepherd members with higher education and income?

Pastor: For those members with higher education and income, I would emphasize the importance of reading spiritual books. I would train them to express doctrines more accurately, and like other members of the body, they need to grow in personal devotions and relationships with other members of the body. Although they have higher incomes and education, it is not something they should brag about. Those who have been given more by God should also be held more accountable.

Dr. Ma: With regard to marriage and the education of children, what are some of the challenges you face while shepherding your congregation? What are your strategies and needs?

Pastor: There needs to be more detailed teaching on the principles of marriage. Whether it’s premarital counseling for younger people or teaching the meaning of marriage for families, it starts with a biblical perspective, keeping the wholesomeness of the marriage covenant through commitment and the love of Christ. The quality of the marriage directly affects the quality of the children’s upbringing, especially in spiritual matters.

If only one spouse is a believer, it’s usually the woman. It is very challenging to teach a sister to submit to an unbelieving husband. This requires constant building up of the sister’s faith and spiritual maturity, because it is difficult to counsel or communicate with the husband. This also involves other practical issues like the children’s education and other family matters. To a believing wife, it certainly is not easy to learn to submit without violating biblical principles. First and foremost she needs to genuinely change herself to earn her spouse’s trust and also to help with the children’s spiritual growth. A focus on family worship and helping children memorize answers to basic doctrinal questions are all simple and effective ways to help ground children in the truth.

Dr. Ma: From a theological point of view, what do you see as the benefits and challenges those of us living in the urban environment have in our understanding of the gospel or spiritual growth?

Pastor: Access to transportation and information is relatively easy in the cities. Therefore it is advantageous for receiving higher levels of theological training and quality spiritual resources. At the same time, in densely populated cities, Christians can come in contact with different groups from different social strata, from different professional fields, and from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and can share the gospel or fellowship with them. Regardless of whether or not they become believers, once they return home, they will carry what they heard with them and that will impact their communities. However, the fast-paced lifestyle can also cause indifference towards the gospel. Those who have attained a higher degree of spiritual maturity and a clearer understanding of doctrine, on their return to their hometowns, will take with them enormous help for their churches, including for the Christian leaders.

Dr. Ma: Do you or your church have any established relationships with urban churches? Do you want to build such relationships? What are the challenges?

Pastor: Our church has started to emphasize interaction with urban churches, especially among ministers with similar theological beliefs. Such fellowships already exist but need more depth and willingness to commit. We need ongoing communication which is necessary for reaching agreement in basic theology and organizational principles. This is an effective way to develop healthy unity and accountability. As ministers, we all have our own ideas. How to sacrifice oneself, be humble, and work together requires practice, mutual sharpening, and recognition. There is a long way to go.

Dr. Ma: How can we pray for you and your church?

Pastor: Please pray:

  1. That our church, from minister to congregation, will constantly make sure our theology is correct and that it will shape our belief system in practical ways.
  2. That God will prepare elders and deacons to plant churches with a more complete range of institutions.
  3. That God will build on the foundation of our existing local churches and that they would have a complete church network so that we may be committed to one another and develop into a bigger, regional church while not neglecting the growth of each individual church.
  4. That God will continue to be gracious toward the ministers and provide for their theological training. 
  5. That God will grant us wisdom and perseverance in building up Christian family worship and spiritual training for children, to build our houses on the rock of his truth.

Note: The pastor being interviewed ministers in a migrant-worker church in a Chinese city.

Translation by Alice Loh

Image credit: Workers having a break by Julien Mattei via Flickr.
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Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma (MA Li) holds a PhD in sociology from Cornell University. Currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life at Calvin University, Dr. Ma and her husband LI Jin have coauthored articles, book chapters, and are the authors of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: …View Full Bio