Lead Article

Toward a New Approach to Ministry in China

China’s open door policy has been in effect now for twenty years. At the time that the door first, cautiously, creaked open, Western Christians ventured in to see the state of her church. What they found has become one of the most significant stories in church history. Despite the expulsion of missionaries, the closing of churches and persecution of Christians, the church has grown to an estimated 50 million.

Needs, however, have far outstripped the capabilities of this rapidly expanding church. The result has been a shortage of prepared leaders, inadequate training and a lack of reference materials. In addition, inadequate answers to modernity, a rise of aberrant doctrines and an unsupported, yet increasing, pastoral role for women remain unaddressed.

Over these past twenty years, there has been a great deal of ministry effort from neighboring Asian countries and the West directed at aiding this rapidly growing, but very needy, church. However, many fundraising letters and news bulletins from China have frequently focused on areas of need and persecution, creating, in some cases, an unbalanced view of the situation. Rather than accepting this viewpoint, the West needs to shift its thinking from seeing China’s church merely as a bibleless, persecuted church to that of a church which is undergoing unprecedented revival and growth and possessing enormous potential for Kingdom impact worldwide. If the church in the West is to help the church in China achieve this potential, a change in the Western ministry mindset must occur. We must stop thinking in terms of what can be exported to China and begin to consider how we might aid the Chinese in the development of their theology, training programs and mission thrust.

In attempting to aid China with her training needs, there are many threats and obstacles. The task is overwhelming since the church has grown so large so rapidly. There may be a tendency toward paralysis in the face of such great need and the knowledge that any training program will not be perfect or ideal. On the other hand, since there is such a tremendous need, there may be a response of throwing everything at China without careful thought as to its appropriateness. There is also the danger that denominational and organizational loyalties will develop that will hinder the unity of the Chinese church and harm her witness for Christ.

Many ministry efforts from the West have focused on providing Bibles and Christian literature, and more recently, leadership training. Since the attitude of ministries outside of China has frequently been, “Let’s give China what we have,” the result has been that the majority of materials going into China have been Western translations. Because Chinese Christians recognize their great lack of trained leadership and are hungry for biblical and ministry training, they welcome Western materials and methodology even though many report that the majority of it is not useful to them.

Rural house church believers, for example, have reported that training is often theologically above their comprehension, not appropriate for the Chinese context, or simply not transferable. One house church leader stated that the training done by overseas Chinese and Western Christians was only 20% useful. When asked why he bothered with such training, his response was that 20% was better than nothing and they wanted to maintain contact with the Western church and its resources. Unfortunately, the enthusiastic welcome given Westerners and their materials has kept Westerners from critically evaluating the effectiveness of what they bring. Western ministries and overseas Chinese need to take the initiative to critically evaluate their training methods and materials and begin to view their Chinese brethren as partners in the training process.

The Chinese take pride in the fact that the church has grown and now thrives without foreign dominance. They are leery that Western offers of aid and resources may translate into control. Western believers and overseas Chinese need to rid themselves of paternalistic views of their Chinese brothers and sisters.

As the church around the world responds to the increasing openness in China, many associations, denominations and global parachurch organizations are choosing to work under the authority of the established Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council. While this relationship with the government allows for certain concessions to foreign Christians, it can confine opportunities for ministry to a fairly narrow scope. The government is quite adamant about maintaining control of the church via the TSPM and preserving its Chinese qualities, ostensibly by regulating outside influence. Training opportunities are limited for foreign groups and must be organized through the CCC on a regional, county, or citywide basis. Usually there is a high degree of control over content and presentation.

Many house church movements have stopped inviting foreign trainers unless they have proven themselves through a long-term relationship. Such relationships allow Chinese believers to build more genuine rapport with foreigners and instruct them in the unique needs of the church in China. In this way, the ever-present issues of the handling of resources and of control can be diffused. All too often, financial resources are behind the methods and materials used in China, rather than their suitability.

For new partnerships between Christian organizations and Chinese church leaders to occur will require a ministry philosophy shift from supplying Chinese translations of Western materials to aiding in the development of truly indigenous materials. Rather than quickly presenting pre-packaged Western seminary-training modules, it is far more important that Westerners sit with Chinese leaders in a spirit of humility seeking to understand what God is saying and doing through them.

God has gifted the church in China with pastors and teachers; some of these are beginning to write theological and practical materials which speak to the present Chinese situation. Western Christians need to identify these gifted leaders and partner with them as equals in the work of the Lord in China.

There are some foreign groups that are providing excellent training in a Chinese manner, although these tend to be more the exception than the rule. The trainer enters a Chinese home and lives with its members for three to five weeks while providing intensive training that is culturally appropriate and theologically sound. Their teaching starts from the experience of the Chinese Christians and builds upon all that the Holy Spirit is doing in and through them. It provides a practical, theological base for understanding the Chinese experience and ministering in house church settings.

The China Christian Council has also recognized the great need for trained leadership. In addition to formal programs at the eighteen open seminaries and Bible schools, lay leadership training is provided by seminaries, or by provincial, countywide, or local church councils. These programs range in duration from one year to just a few weeks. In addition, various institutions, including Nanjing Seminary, offer correspondence courses for church workers. While the quality of the trainers and materials varies greatly, some are very practical programs with required texts and reading assignments that attempt to provide a solid grounding.

Finally, Western Christians need to see beyond China as their target for ministry and begin to view the church in China as a tremendous resource for the completion of the Great Commission. Chinese church leaders have begun to ask for assistance in communicating the gospel cross-culturally. The Chinese church is cultivating a vision to reach the unreached minorities of China as well as the nations that border China. Western believers have an important role to play, at the invitation of Chinese church leaders, in providing the kind of training that can lead to the mobilization of the church in China for effective cross-cultural outreach. This training, as well as all ministries to China, must always be done with respect to the miraculous work of God and the faith of China’s Christians.

Image credit: china 2007 244 by Stefan via Flickr.
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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