Supporting Article

Toward a Typology of Christian Leaders in China

We outside China often hear that the greatest need of the Chinese church is for trained leaders, for the rapid growth of the church has far outstripped the supply. Yet one does not need to go too far below the surface in exploring this assumption to discover that the need is not as simple as it may first appear. Much of the confusion that arises when discussing leadership development in China is due to differing but often unexplored assumptions about the kind of leaders needing to be trained. We need to make sure we are not comparing apples to oranges (or mangoes to papayas) in our discussions about materials, methodologies, goals and priorities, as this will only lead to greater misunderstanding, since we each have a different “end product” in view.

The following is an attempt to outline the distinctives of the types of leaders needed for the church in China and their particular needs. This typology is not meant to take the place of other existing church leadership taxonomies.[1] Nor does this typology necessarily correspond directly with the listing of offices within the church described in Ephesians 4:11, for it considers leaders whose roles may be either entirely within the context of a church fellowship or outside that fellowship in the community, or both. These categories, which apply across the registered/unregistered church spectrum and to leaders in both urban and rural settings (see chart below) are not meant to be exhaustive, but they do encompass the majority of church leaders in China today.

Apostolic Leader

The “archetypical” major network leader or member of a senior leadership team is responsible for overseeing church planting involving a large number of workers over a considerable geographic area. His focus is primarily rural, although he likely lives in a city, and he is struggling with how to sustain his movement (economically, spiritually, and organizationally) in the face of rapid urban migration. He is likely facing tensions in relationships with co-workers and family members. Succession within the movement is an issue, as cultural norms mitigate against his handing off authority to others while he is still in leadership. As a result, he is susceptible to overwork and burnout, and the church is susceptible to cults due to a lack of responsible leaders at various levels. Although not likely to be highly educated, he does have a deep understanding of Scripture and doctrine as understood by his particular church tradition. Coming from a pietistic tradition, he and his church emphasize personal salvation and separation from the world as opposed to engagement with the society. This tendency is exacerbated by a theology of suffering developed through years of persecution. As a result, he may not see the need for the church to get involved in meeting social needs as a means of witness, even though opportunities for such witness are increasing.[2]

This leader may have been influenced by various theological emphases from groups outside China, and some of these may have caused tension with other church networks. His challenge is to see that biblical literacy and doctrinal purity are promoted throughout the network by younger leaders in the face of false teaching by cults, and that these leaders are able to model and teach the practical application of Scripture to daily life amidst a rapidly changing culture. His primary needs are for encouragement, coaching in developing younger leaders, reflection and thinking on how to lead through change, personal refreshment and renewal, a broader understanding of church history and of the church around the world, and an understanding of how to effectively work with other leaders inside and outside China. (Note: While this description has been drawn largely from the experience of top leaders in the unregistered church, similar dynamics may exist among seasoned regional leaders within the official church.)

Evangelist Leader

She[3] or he is an experienced church planter in her 30s or 40s, responsible for dozens if not hundreds of primarily rural congregations. Often she serves under an Apostolic Leader as one of many regional leaders in a large church network. Extremely dedicated, she struggles to find balance between ministry and family (if she has one). She may also struggle with her own calling, serving out of a sense of obligation and wondering whether she is really in the right place. She is often physically tired due to long hours of travel by train, bus, or on foot. She may have suffered emotional abuse at the hands of stronger older leaders, or have been disillusioned by leaders who failed to live up to their own high standards. As urbanization drains the villages of people and resources, the viability of the church and the proven methods of evangelism that have worked in the past are called into question. The future viability of the rural churches is an issue of major concern. She may have already ventured into the city to work among migrants, but is finding it difficult to adapt to the new environment (particularly if she steps further out of her comfort zone and seeks to engage with urban youth and intellectuals).

While possessing a strong knowledge of Scripture (having been trained in a Bible school or church-based training setting, official or unofficial), she is nonetheless hard-pressed to apply biblical truths to the family and relationship issues, economic needs, and cultural challenges that she faces every day. Her primary needs are for training in understanding personal calling and vocation, apologetics, counseling, discipleship and spiritual formation, ministry to youth and children (including development and implementation of Sunday School-type curriculum) and church administration. She and those under her care may also need some sort of vocational training in order to be self-supporting. (Again, this composite is drawn from the experience of the unregistered church evangelist, but it could also apply to an evangelist/pastor within the official church.)

Grassroots Leader

These are the frontline pastors or elders in local fellowships. (“Grassroots” here does not imply a particular social status; it simply refers to a direct ministry role among a given group of believers.) If related to a larger network of churches, as in the countryside, they have received some basic training from more experienced leaders and possibly from visiting outsiders. This training may not have been very complete and may not have equipped them to handle their current ministry challenges. In the cities, their training may have been through a campus fellowship, short-term courses offered by indigenous or outside teachers, the local official church, self-study, or often a combination of these. Often bi-vocational, they need to balance the demands of a rapidly growing fellowship or fellowships with their family and work lives. They face the challenge of multiplying leaders within their fellowships to cope with continued growth. They also need to help those under their care to apply biblical truth in a rapidly changing cultural environment, particularly as it affects family relationships, moral choices, and vocation. Their primary needs are for training in discipleship and spiritual formation, hermeneutics, basic doctrine, some apologetics, counseling, church planting, and church administration. (Note that China’s rapid urbanization introduces similar issues for this leader as for the evangelist leader.)

Thought Leader

Found primarily in official seminaries and Bible schools and in the religion and philosophy departments of universities, these scholars are writing theological texts that will influence the church at the elite level.[4] They are also training an increasing number of urban intellectual church leaders (along with non-Christian scholars and government officials whose portfolios include religion).

A battle is raging over the direction of “Chinese” theology, with much of the thinking influenced by liberal European theologians who seem better positioned and better resourced than evangelicals to weigh in with finances and other types of support.[5] Within the China Christian Council seminaries, the “theological reconstruction” campaign has promoted a liberal agenda despite strong resistance from evangelicals in these institutions. Evangelical Christian scholars tend toward the Reformed view of Scripture and its application to life and ministry. One possible reason for this attraction to Reformed theology is its neat systematizing of theological concepts. Taken to an extreme this can lead to rigid systems of belief and intolerance toward other Christian groups. It may also produce an overemphasis on intellectual and social pursuits at the expense of true spiritual transformation.

The primary needs of the Christian scholar are for development of his own spiritual life, long-term mentoring by sympathetic and highly knowledgeable resource persons living in China[6] supplemented by short-term opportunities for advanced study outside; support for publishing translated evangelical works and writing new indigenous works; opportunities to network with Christian scholars internationally; training in church history and apologetics; and organizational development for seminaries and other institutions.

Community Leader

Among emerging business and cultural leaders are found an increasing number of bi-vocational pastors or elders in fellowships composed primarily of urban professionals. Many are first-generation believers who may have come to faith while studying overseas or through the witness of a foreign teacher in university. Their ranks are still small compared to the rural church, but their numbers are increasing at a significant pace, and they may be expected to assume a prominent role in the church in the future. While leading the church, they are also seeking to live out their faith in their families, workplaces, and communities.

Because of their position in society, they have access to resources, connections, and a level of influence that are not found in other segments of the church. Given the opportunities for ministry in and through their businesses, and given the continuing growth of China’s non-profit sector, these leaders are positioned to play an entrepreneurial role in extending the church’s reach into all sectors of society. At present they are found in groups scattered throughout China’s cities. While those in one group may be aware of the existence of others, there is not a high degree of networking among them. Most have little or no theological training and may lack a thorough grounding in basic Christian doctrine. They have generally been exposed to multiple theological streams and tend to pull from several of these to form their belief system. They may be struggling with how their business or professional lives relate to their faith, and particularly how Christians should treat wealth. Their primary needs are for innovative models of Christian witness and social involvement; mentoring by experienced Christian business leaders; training specific to the social needs they are seeking to address (e.g., education, HIV/AIDS, community development, family issues, the environment); and training in biblical stewardship, discipleship and spiritual formation, ministry to children and youth, and church administration.

Shepherd/Mercy Leader

A subset of the Community Leader described above is the Shepherd or Mercy Leader. In response to the broken relationships in an increasingly fragmented society, God is raising up Christians to engage in a ministry of healing and reconciliation. The current number of trained Christian counselors is small, but the needs both inside and outside the church are huge, as are the opportunities for growth in this area. Included in this area are Christians who are becoming professional counselors. God is also opening up new ways for the church to engage in meeting the needs of society and is raising up those with the gift of mercy to lead such efforts. While not engaged in prominent preaching, teaching, or evangelism roles, these leaders play an important role in enabling the church to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need. The primary needs of this leader are for training in biblical counseling, mentoring by counselors who are experienced in the Chinese context, training in how to develop lay counselors, and training for specific types of mercy or service ministries.

Missionary Leader

While the “Back to Jerusalem” vision of China’s church is, at this stage, primarily still a vision, the missionary impulse of the church along with China’s continued integration into the global community will likely mean more Chinese being thrust into cross-cultural ministry contexts. Since the missionary leader in China does not currently exist, the primary need would appear to be a long-term commitment to the training and mentoring of individuals who have a proven ministry track record and an aptitude for cross-cultural service. These individuals would eventually be able to train others. Such training should include cross-cultural communication, comparative religions, apologetics, chronological storying and other evangelistic methods, team dynamics, and language and survival skills (including vocational training) relevant to the target area. Given the lack of indigenous models, this is one area where input from outside China is especially helpful.

This framework is offered as a starting point for understanding the unique needs of various types of leaders emerging in China today. The author welcomes comments and suggestions on this typology from those who serve alongside these leaders.


  1. ^ See for example Elliston’s five levels of leadership described in Gailyn Van Rheenen Missions: Biblical Foundations & Contemporary Strategies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996,) excerpted in tasks/trainingleaders.htm.
  2. ^ It should be noted that this trend is gradually changing, with more churches, both official and unofficial, engaging in education, healthcare, poverty alleviation and other areas of social need.
  3. ^ Many converts in the rural revivals of the 1980s were teen-aged girls who subsequently committed themselves to full-time Christian work; thus, the preponderance of female leaders, particularly among rural church planters.
  4. ^ To date, about 30 Christian studies centers have been started on Chinese university campuses, and there are 20 official seminaries or Bible schools under the China Christian Council.
  5. ^ One factor here is reluctance of many Western evangelicals to engage with the official church in China and their desire to instead work only with the unofficial church.
  6. ^ Either Chinese or expatriates with considerable China experience and, preferably, Chinese language ability. These might be visiting scholars or lecturers who return to China on a regular basis, spending a semester each time.

Image credit: Arnold Arboretum, 18 May 2010: Steps up to Bussey Hill by Chris Devers, on Flickr.

Share to Social Media
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio