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Developing the Next Generation of Christian Leaders in China

The church in China is growing at a rate nearly unparalleled in the history of Christianity. The explosive growth of the church in China over the past twenty years has given rise to a critical need for developing healthy, effective leaders for China’s church. Tony Lambert, author of China’s Christian Millions, states: “The cry is heard throughout China for solid, Bible-based theological training.” Operation World, in its assessment of the situation in China, has said: “Leadership training is woefully deficient and a crisis need.”

Current leader development efforts in China, many adopted from the West, have not proven adequate either to meet the need nor to develop the kind of leader that is needed in China today. The registered church or Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) operates twelve seminaries, six Bible schools and five training centers nationwide. Over the past two decades, they have trained over 5000 graduates, but the TSPM reports that there is still only one pastor for every 7000 church members. A Chinese church leader in a major urban center recently set up a leader training program modeled after what he learned in the West. When asked how many leaders he could train in his program he said about twenty per year. When asked how many church leaders will be needed in China in the next ten years, given the church’s current growth rate, he answered, “Thousands.” A concerned look then crossed his face.

A seminary-type, resident, academic, degree-granting, leader development program may meet a need on one level, but it will not produce the quality or quantity of leaders needed for the rapidly growing church in China. Many different models will need to be developed based on non-formal approaches that develop mainly bivocational pastors in an increasingly complex urban society. Previous lines of flow of the gospel from individual to family to clan and to village are breaking down in modern China. The one-child policy has limited family and clan numerically, and, in China’s rush to modernize and urbanize, people are flocking to the city and high rise apartment buildings with locked gates on the doors. The social cohesion of village life has been lost. The more segregated dimension of urban life has given rise to the gospel spreading along relational lines that have more to do with work and hobbies rather than family and village. Fellowships of doctors and fellowships of lawyers are showing that individuals share the gospel with people who have the same interests and face the same challenges of living out a relationship with God in that context. It is going to take a new kind of leader and new approaches to leader development to meet the changing dynamic of gospel ministry in China.

A Rapidly Changing Context

The emerging realities of China include a massive rural-urban migration, moral decay and economic inequities. The new government policy envisions the Chinese population being a majority of urban dwellers by 2025. The great revival of Christianity, to this point, has been primarily an urban phenomenon. However, the challenge of urban ministry is new to many in the Chinese church. Many rural pastors lament the loss of their young people to the cities and report being intimidated by the prospect of urban ministry. They do not feel adequately equipped or sophisticated enough to handle the complexity of the urban landscape.

Paralleling this rapid urbanization is a decline in morals. Divorce has skyrocketed and so has the practice of well-off businessmen keeping concubines in multiple cities. The World Health Organization projects that there will be ten million people infected with the HIV virus by 2010, and that the trend, if left unchecked, could see the Chinese rate of infection surpass that of Africa. The gap between rich and poor is widening noticeably. The top 10% of earners account for 30% of the nation’s revenue. The resulting social unrest has led to thousands of unreported protests throughout China. The emerging generation of Christian leaders in China will need to not just navigate a more complex environment but seek ways to speak into and impact these frightening trends.

Enormous Challenges

Many pastors report being overworked and leading unbalanced lives as they attempt to work at a job, preach the gospel and shepherd believers. Pastors ask for help in establishing and running churches and have few models they can look to. Family pressures mount as the stress of overwork increases, and a lack of biblical teaching on marriage and the family hinders the development of a healthy family life. Due to a situation where great faith is expressed, but there is inadequate teaching and leadership, cults have arisen and proliferated in China. Congregations led by untrained pastors and full of recent converts are especially susceptible to cults and extremism.

Another challenge is the role of the church and the self-image of the church in society. For so long an underground church, the church in China did not engage in social issues but focused on piety and the spiritual side of life alone. Now that there is an opportunity to step into areas of society that the government is backing away from, such as health care, orphans, the elderly and AIDS victims, is the church prepared to minister in the name of Christ? The next generation of leaders in China will need to be prepared to equip others to move into the society with the life-giving gospel of Christ and minister with Christian deeds as well as Christian words.

Best Practices for Effective Leadership Training in China

An issue that continually arises from those with extensive leadership development experience in China is that leader care must be given the same level of importance as knowledge acquisition and skill development. Character development, including inner healing, emotional stability and healthy relationships, needs to be an integral part of any leader development program. Beyond a one-shot academic approach where the teacher comes and shares head knowledge, leaders in China need long-term mentoring relationships that will provide guidance, accountability and encouragement as they seek to develop effective ministry in China’s complex society. There are many heart-breaking stories of zealous pastors and itinerate preachers who have forsaken their family responsibilities to preach the gospel in far-off places. An unhealthy ministry philosophy that puts ministry before family has left mistrustful spouses and disillusioned children that want nothing to do with the God who took their parent away. Leader development in China needs to prioritize the family as a frontline witness to a culture of fractured and strained family relationships. Leadership development programs should help leaders balance ministry and family responsibilities in a way that honors God.

Another critical element in leader development in China is the practicality of training programs. Programs should take into account the educational level and technological sophistication of participants. While visiting seminary professors might dazzle students with their vast knowledge of Scripture and exegetical skills, an academic transfer of knowledge does not help equip a leader if what he has learned is not transferable to those he is shepherding. Leadership development programs should also not employ any technologies that are not already in common use in China. While many urban people in China have access to technology and use it in their work and everyday life, use of DVD material and computers is uneven around the country. A curriculum that makes heavy use of technology may not be appropriate if that technology is not widely used among the leader’s constituents, and if there has not been adequate training. A good rule of thumb is to not introduce new technologies as part of a leader development program.

Significant effort should be given to creating leader development programs that leverage existing Chinese language resources. Introducing Western materials that have been translated into Chinese are of limited value. One of the key goals of a widespread leader development effort in China would be to see an emerging generation of authors who can speak to the current culture of China in a biblically sound and creative way. Those creating China leader development programs should consider how these programs can be multiplied and expanded efficiently and effectively. Western partners in these efforts should consider themselves short-term partners in a long-term process that quickly builds multiplying models for China’s fast-growing church. Too often Westerners have entered China with good intentions and set up ongoing programs that Western agencies can use to promote fundraising. Programs that are started with Western funds and dependent on them for ongoing maintenance create an unhealthy dependency.

Leadership development programs should be adaptable and have built in evaluation and feedback mechanisms. Western leadership efforts have been notoriously lacking in this area. Often excuses of security concerns and lack of time keep organizations from evaluating the effectiveness of their programs. They are left with anecdotes and invitations to return as the only measure of success and effectiveness. If leader development programs are to be effective, adaptable and relevant, a systematic consistent element of evaluation and feedback needs to be built into the program.

The Next Great Cross-Cultural Ministry Force?

A friend recently returned from exploring ministry opportunities in Iraq and reported a conversation with two Christian Chinese men he met there. They were exploring the country for their house church network and planned to open a Chinese restaurant as a foothold for the gospel in that nation. The zeal to spread the gospel in China has lead to a resurgence of the “Back to Jerusalem” vision to see Chinese believers going back down the old Silk Road spreading the gospel through the central Asian republics and the Muslim Middle East and literally going back to Jerusalem. Much has been written about this vision which includes numbers of up to 100,000 believers eventually being involved. While this is an exciting vision, up this point there are only a couple hundred believers in China receiving cross-cultural ministry training. There is a long way to go to equip believers in China and to build up capacity for the church to send, support and care for a new wave of cross-cultural leaders. It would be wise to develop networks and partnerships between indigenous leaders and global agencies that have significant experience in ministry to Muslims.


As new realities unfold in Chinese society a new kind of Christian leader is needed to meet the challenge. Leadership development programs need to be implemented that develop the character of the leader and build healthy leaders who are spiritually deep, emotionally healthy and lead a life where ministry and family are in balance. The new Chinese Christian leader needs to be equipped to serve in the city and take advantage of the opportunities that problems like urbanization, fractured families and the threat of an HIV/AIDS pandemic will offer. With China at a crossroads in history, Chinese Christian leaders need to rise up to speak to and help shape the culture and direction of Chinese society. They need to bring Kingdom solutions to China’s chronic problems and show a willingness to serve the least of the society and demonstrate the love of Christ as they share the life-giving gospel.

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Gary Waldron

Gary Waldron, PhD is the director of the Faith Leadership Initiative and has been involved in China service for 22 years. He may be contacted at gwaldron@faithleadership.net.View Full Bio