Peoples of China

Engaging a New Generation

I was recently in Beijing meeting with several young urban professional church pastors. It was an exciting time as each of them in their own way spoke of the importance of developing leaders for the next generation and beginning to pass the baton to a younger group of pastors. They realized the vital importance of this era in church history for their country and how critical it would be to equip those who will follow them.

One of the things that encourages this leading generation is that the new leaders will be more and more second generation believers that won’t carry the same set of challenges that previous leaders faced as new believers pioneering on the front edge of a significant era of growth. This new generation comes with a stronger set of biblical background and spiritual formation having been raised in the church for a good portion of their lives.

What are these new pastors looking for when it comes to engaging with people like me—outsiders and foreigners? This is a question of paramount importance as this will be a whole new set of relationships.

From what I can tell, this is a generation that is still looking for mentors but for a different kind of mentor than their forefathers. Their predecessors were looking for spiritual fathers: seasoned, veteran pastors to guide and coach them along the way. They still frequently tell me, “Joe, we have no spiritual fathers. Please send us veteran pastors to be our mentors.”

This new generation is different. They are still looking for mentors but less of a father or uncle figure in their lives. For many of those like me and those who have gone before me as foreigners engaged with church leaders, we served in these father or uncle type roles. The younger generation pastors and leaders still want the mentoring, but they will be looking for more of a partner, friend or mutual learner in the journey. They have been raised in the church for a good portion of their lives and have disciplers and mentors in their pastors and church leaders. What they are longing for is more friends and people who will walk with them in a new season of church history.

The China they will face is different than their predecessors and it will be increasingly interdependent and global in orientation. They will be looking for fresh perspective from friends on a journey. They will still be eager for all the coaching that a Paul provided for Timothy, but it will be more in the sense of being colleagues together and not of experts or advice givers. They will look for friends that can process with them all the changing dynamics of culture and the now fairly solid church cultures in which they will be serving.

As noted briefly above, they still need seasoned veteran pastoral mentors in their lives, but this is mostly provided for them through the current leading generation of pastors (those in their 50s and late 40s). These pastors can guide them in ways that foreigners cannot—by the ways they understand the unique challenges of the church and the culture, including what is now the modern Chinese church culture.

In addition to what I perceive, I thought it helpful to interview one of the leading pastors in the country. As I interviewed him on this topic, he shared that the younger generation of pastors/leaders can benefit most from the provision of conferences and gatherings where they can learn from one another, gain insight into what God is doing more broadly than just their local church and hear from specialist teachers on topics like family, marriage, raising children, brokenness and healing. In particular, he felt this was a season where the church in China was in critical need of teaching on emotional and relational healing.

His concern for those that follow him is that they do not become myopic and focus solely on their own fellowships or congregations. He sees a huge need for pastors to think beyond their own churches to see what is happening in their cities, their regions and in the nation as a whole. Providing a place where these younger pastors can grow together, learn together, pray together and even play together is vital. In this context of collaborative learning, the walls break down and ears open up to what the Holy Spirit is doing across the spectrum of church life across the nation.

It seems clear that the most glaring need is for leadership development and the best avenue for providing this is through mentoring and community learning environments. As a foreigner involved in these efforts, it is important to keep in mind what is most critical for this next phase of church life. I knew that mentoring and collaborative learning were crucial, but I was not as aware that emotional and spiritual healing were such important topics for this hour of church life in China.

We should have “ears to hear and eyes to see” these needs of our brothers and sisters. By coming alongside in a new way of mentoring, one without agendas and without the sense that we have it all together, we can be helpful to the emerging generation of leaders in the country. We do have a lot to share, and there are topics of great interest. The key will be in a coming alongside and serving mentality rather than an expert mentality. Most important is that we become friends, partners and collaborators as we seek to engage this next generation.

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Joseph Handley

Joseph W. Handley, Ph.D., is president of Asian Access and has traveled in and out of China working with pastors since 1998. He and his wife live in California with their three, great, children. View Full Bio