Mary Li Ma (MA Li) and her husband, LI Jin, have been a part of ChinaSource for some thirteen years, contributing to the ChinaSource Quarterly and participating in conferences sponsored by ChinaSource. Mary holds a PhD in sociology from Cornell University and is currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life at Calvin College. Jin is a PhD student at Calvin Theological Seminary and previously was a PhD candidate in economic history at a Shanghai university. Together they have coauthored articles and book chapters as well as Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China. A second book, The Chinese Exodus: A Theology of Migration, Urbanism and Alienation in Contemporary China came out in September 2018. Their comments and thoughts may also be found at Caixin.com, Theology and Society, and Four Seasons Book Review.
ChinaSource recently interviewed Mary and Jin about their participation in, and thoughts about, the ChinaSource Quarterly.
ChinaSource: How did you first get involved with ChinaSource (CS)?
Mary and Jin: Mary’s first interaction with ChinaSource was through Brent Fulton at a consultation CS held for faith-based NGOs in Shanghai when she was doing her dissertation fieldwork on urban poverty. She then contributed an article about the educational needs among second-generation migrant children. (“Educational Inequality for Migrant Children Perpetuates Poverty” in the 2008 winter issue on China's Moving Population.) A few years later, Brent came to Shanghai again when Mary was teaching in a university and we were both serving in a house church there. Brent did an interview with Mary, as part of his research for his book Urban Christians in China.
ChinaSource: You have guest edited four issues of CSQ. Why do you think it is important to contribute to the Quarterly in this way?
Mary and Jin: We learned that CSQ serves as an important window for sending agencies based in North America to let them see current affairs among churches in China. We think it is important to bring out thoughtful reflections among Chinese Christians, especially that of Christian scholars who are committed to serving the needs of the church. So our very first issue for CSQ was on the theme of Chinese theology and the church. We try to encourage our peers (Chinese Christian scholars) to thoughtfully articulate their insights for understanding by an English audience. This has helped these scholars (ourselves included) to connect Chinese Christian scholarship with needs for serving China. We have felt very blessed by this fruitful collaboration.
ChinaSource: How did you decide what topics to pursue? What criteria were uppermost in your minds as you considered what would be of most value to ChinaSource Quarterly readers?
Mary and Jin: Through past networking, we are connected to a group of Chinese Christian scholars who have a passion to serve the church. We are regularly in conversations about the evolving phases of the church, local church affairs, and issues that require deeper theological understanding. So, as we planned issues of the CSQ, the topics all emerged from these regular conversations. Considering the readership of CSQ, these are probably a few criteria we used for selecting topics: (1) an issue among churches in China that has undergone changes that most scholarship in English-speaking circles has not kept up with; (2) an issue that Westerners tend to have misconceptions or lack local knowledge about; (3) an issue that has not been fruitfully discussed but is relevant to China’s ongoing mission context.
ChinaSource: Of the four issues that you have done, which do you think is the most pertinent for our readers in the current era of increasing pressure on the church in China and why?
Mary and Jin: The four issues of CSQ that we guest edited were about Chinese theology, family living, urban ministry, and denominationalism. We think the current pressure on churches in China invites deeper theological and ethical reflections on how churches live in such a changing time. For example, what does change entail for the evolving structures or institutions some churches have already built up over past decades? Given the multi-layered reality of such an evolving climate (some political pressure, but still much freedom in economic and technological realms), how should churches resist the temptation of victimization? There are many questions to ask, and even more answers to explore. We think this is a time of testing that is not mainly about the external political pressure, but rather about how churches respond and nurture an authentic community internally.
ChinaSource: Which issue did you enjoy working on the most and why?
Mary and Jin: We enjoyed working on the issues about urban ministry and denominationalism because these are cutting-edge themes that churches in China now face. Dr. Brent Fulton has, from early on, identified China’s urbanization as an important context for serving in China. Historically, churches in the West all faced great, intense problems with the process of urbanization. China is no exception. In addition, because there is a need for a Chinese theology addressing urbanization in its own right, there remains a great deal more research to be done in this regard. The issue on denominationalism remains very pertinent as churches grow and mature in their organizational capacities. So, each issue was just the beginning of a conversation, and we feel that there is so much more to say and write about each of them. We are grateful to work with CS in starting these discussions.
ChinaSource: You will be editing your fifth issue for the 2019 summer issue. What topic are you working on and what led you to choose that topic for this year?
Mary and Jin: We are putting together an issue on leadership ethics for this summer. During our conversations with Chinese pastors and scholars, we have always felt the need of leadership ethics among churches in China. As explained in our book Surviving the State, Remaking the Church, most of today’s church leaders are first-generation converts who rarely had mentors themselves. They are not equipped with the understanding of accountability and ethical boundaries. Like churches in other countries that experience growth, churches in China are also seeing a pattern of leadership that misuses power because with growth and institutionalization comes power. It is a widely observable pattern that church leaders in China enjoy greater authority than their counterparts in Chinese churches overseas. The misuse or abuse of power within the church has, in fact, created a high turnover rate—more and more people are leaving the church. While scholars mostly emphasize growth, very few pay attention to and examine why people leave the church in China. So we think leadership ethics is a very timely topic for serious discussion.
ChinaSource: If there is one thing you would like to improve in future issues of CSQ, what would that be?
Mary and Jin: We hope CSQ can bring the concerns and gifts of Chinese believers to readers. Apart from serving sending agencies based in North America, maybe CSQ can also serve as an incubator for mission-minded Chinese Christian scholarship.
ChinaSource: Thank you for your time in speaking with us and for all the time, thoughtfulness, and insights you bring as you partner with us on the CSQ.