Over the past thirty years, overseas sending organizations have earnestly studied the lessons gleaned through the experiences of modern day workers in China. These organizations have subsequently modified their methods and, in turn, have seen better results. At the same time, however, China has been constantly changing. The environment and conditions for service today are vastly different than those in the past. The pace of this shift is often not understood by Christians overseas. Therefore, sharing the gospel in China today requires both eyes to be openone eye toward lessons learned from the past and one eye on the churches’ needs in the present.
Small and Mid-Sized Cities: Focus of Future Church Growth
After thirty years of open reform, the Chinese economy has expanded rapidly. One indicator of this expansion is the rate of urbanization. Government reports show that in the year 2008 fifty-nine percent of the Chinese population resided in towns and cities. This percentage will continue to grow to seventy or seventy-five percent within the next ten years. With this urban population increase, the urban church should grow as well.
In early 2009, Chinese house churches held their fourth urban conference. House church leaders from all parts of the country convened to discuss church growth. Participants acknowledged that the focus of Chinese house churches has shifted from rural villages to cities, and urban churches will see the most growth. In fact, attendance at rural churches has been very low. Most young and middle-aged adults have jobs in the cities; only the elderly, disabled and children stay in the villages. The evangelistic emphasis has definitely shifted to the cities. However, the discussion around cities should not be confined to mega-cities such as Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen. There are far more small and mid-sized cities with populations between 100,000 and 500,000 which attract more of the vast, rural, labor force. The majority of these smaller cities are often overlooked by overseas agencies. In fact, these cities, including some larger ones in central and western China, have almost no workers from overseas. These smaller cities of China are the weak links that require fortification.
Theological Education: Short-Term Seminars to Systematic Training
Because of its social makeup, the Chinese church had been in survival mode for a long time. Church leaders were unlikely to have any formal theological instruction or even any type of schooling. This lack of training was very common in rural churches.
In urban churches today, leaders, as well as members, are much more likely to have received higher education including some who have returned to China after studying abroad. This higher level of literacy and culture among church members demands leaders with comprehensive and systematic theological training. As a result, having preachers with inferior qualifications, or having no preacher at all, is a challenge many house churches face. The vast majority of church leaders are not seminary-trained. This lack of qualified leaders is a reflection of how quickly churches in China have grown; it is also indicative of the practical attitude Chinese churches have toward formal theological training. It is not that the theological training is unavailable but that most training is geared toward meeting the needs of the moment. Today, it is more urgent to raise the theological qualification of existing church leaders than to strategically train the next generation of pastors.
Inadequate resources limit current training to a condensed format: a few speakers address a quickly as-sembled group from the area. Students have little time to digest what they have learned before heading back to their hectic ministries. This utilitarian style of “catch-up” effort is a kind of last resort given the bigger political climate and similar to the earlier “learn now and apply now” approach during the Cultural Revolution. This pat-chwork method is unworkable in the hope of developing a new generation of excellent Christian leaders.
For now, within the entire country, the Chinese government has generally suspended all active offensive action against house churches. Other than a few specific locations and individual incidents, the two sides are at a trucehouse churches are still not recognized by the government but are not restricted by it either. This changeover is actually a tremendous opportunity for strategic growth in the house churches. Rather than focusing on increasing attendance, they should put their efforts into raising the quality of their leaders. If every local house church were led by a formally trained pastor or minister, the entire house church movement would have a very different outlook.
Overseas agencies should no longer conduct brief training sessions in China but should instead invest in solid, long-term theological education in order to develop gifted leaders who are sought after in every urban church. Short-term seminars and retreats are useful for church members who should in turn make sure the right pastors can receive either two or four-year advanced degrees in theology. It is difficult to gauge the exact number of seminaries needed throughout China, but each province should have at least three and a minimum of 100 nation-wide. Every provincial city with a population over 500,000 should have a campus, totaling 1,000 campuses in the entire country, similar to the military school campuses set up by both the Communist Party and Kuomintang during the Sino-Japanese War.
The process can be divided into two main stages. First, identify a select group of church ministers and leaders in each province with a certain level of education and ministry experience and then send them to North America, Korea, the Philippines or Singapore for two years of training. After receiving diplomas, they would become the teaching staff in future seminaries in China. Second, local churches should register education and training centers in their own cities and recruit students to learn from the formally trained faculties. Students should be selected by local churches and should commit to full-time study for at least fifty percent of the duration of the training. If it is possible to form a coalition accreditation board with members from seminaries inside and outside China, the graduates would receive degrees recognized both domestically and internationally. Pooling resources together to invest in seminaries in China should be the goal of every Christian organization overseas. Otherwise, if and when the Chinese government relaxes further its policies and legitimizes house churches, churches throughout the nation will find themselves in a quandary of not having adequate pastors, in both quantity and quality. Now is the time to invest in the future.
Church Administration: Standardized Structure and Contents
In the past, external pressure forced house churches in China to be cloaked in secrecy. A church’s leader, for security reasons, often made decisions unilaterally. Under more normal circumstances, particularly in cities, this authoritarian style of leadership cannot bring about healthy church growth. Many house churches, especially the larger ones in the cities, have begun to put internal structures, guidelines and by-laws in place. This is not only a sign of maturity for the house churches but a necessity to ensure growth. Nevertheless, the social environment in China is very complex and varies widely from city to city. As far as internal church administration, in terms of both the essentials and the discretionary, there are no set patterns to follow. In addition, church denominations do not exist in China. It is still not clear what administrative model should be adopted by a particular church or if a standardized system for all house churches is even needed. Most churches are experimenting with different approaches according to the leader’s understanding.
Many factors impact the way a church is governed, including social geographic location (city verses countryside), physical geographic location (coastal versus inland), and member demographics. Other unique issues such as real estate ownership can also potentially affect church dynamics and relationships within the body. Overseas Christians can help churches in China recognize the importance of their internal systems, the significance of democracy, transparency and openness, and the principles and diversity for governing a body of believers. Also, Christians from overseas should be cautioned against over-emphasis on any specific de-nomination or its traditions lest churches in China again follow blindly one set of sectarianism.
Mission: Power for Church Development
For a Christian, the foremost mission is to evangelize. A church without missions is dead. However, when the authorities loosen their grasp on churches many churches become too comfortable. Some white-collar churches in the cities become like country clubs or social gathering places for their members. Rather than spreading the gospel, they spend their time talking about themselves and their family problems. China can never be changed by overseas workers alone without active sharing of the gospel by Chinese believers. Overseas workers should aim to advance the competence of witnessing among Chinese churches. Once a church enthusiastically participates in outreach, it will be transformed from the inside out, and as it tries to equip others, it will discover its own weaknesses. To help each church in China to begin its own missions work and to regard missions as an imperative, responsibility should be the goal of each and every Christian worker to China.
Another caution is to note that sharing the gospel is about glorifying God, not putting on a show for others to see. Often times when a person considers missions, returning to Jerusalem or traveling through foreign lands come to mind. They have big ambitions and big plans in faraway places but overlook the people around them. This is the deception of human vanity. Where is the mission field? Right where we are! Chinese churches have tasted God’s goodness and are now ready to share with their own people. Overseas Christians should make sure believers and churches inside China understand this.
Social Services: A Light on a Lamp Stand before All People
Traditionally, Western churches are a source of social services and charity work. This is one aspect the churches in China are lacking. Of course, the recognition of Christianity and the legitimacy of house churches have played a big role in the church’s social standing. As countless volunteers from house churches joined the relief effort after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, local government and residents began to notice and applaud Christians’ social services. However, opportunities of this nature are rare and unique. Without long-term and deliberate planning, churches and social services do not readily merge. Most churches are busy with their own affairs, worrying about whether exposing their identities is agreeable with the authorities.
Will too much charity work impact the church negatively? Very few even consider service part of church survival or growth. Social work is just not part of what a church is about. The reality is that there are too many social ills in China today. The government does not and cannot do anything for those who are subsisting on the margins of society. Therefore, local officials are willing and happy to see volunteers provide for the needy. As long as a church is recognized in the community, it should proactively provide social services, concretely demonstrating Christ’s love to its neighbors, being a light on a lamp stand for God. Overseas churches have rich experience in the area of social service and thus have much to offer. What is more, if churches in China can shine in their social service work, it could one day very well lead to full acceptance by the government.
Translated by Alice Loh.
Image credit: A Journey of Water (3) by Laurence & Annie, on Flickr