G. Wright Doyle, a historian and long-time friend and contributor to ChinaSource publications, is the director of Global China Center, editor of Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, and co-editor of Studies in Chinese Christianity, published by Wipf and Stock.
In thinking through church growth in terms of the Chinese church, I posed 3 questions to Dr. Doyle.
1. You have had the opportunity over the years to observe church developments both in Taiwan and in mainland China. How would you compare the growth of the urban church in these two environments?
Church growth in Taiwan’s cities has been very slow, though perhaps increasing gradually in recent years, in contrast to the explosive growth of congregations in mainland China.
The right to own property in the name of the church has enabled Taiwan Christians to build buildings for many decades now, so they have a lot of experience in managing property, etc.
Church growth in China takes place in the midst of an unfriendly, and sometimes hostile, political and social environment, and so involves more people who, at least to some degree, “count the cost” before identifying themselves as Christians (though this has been changing), with the result that there is probably a much higher level of courage and commitment among churchgoers in China.
The collapse of morals in China, coupled with dramatic economic growth and rapid changes in every sector of society, has helped to foster a spiritual hunger that is palpable, and notably absent in Taiwan.
In Taiwan, a few very large congregations or networks of them, dominate the growth sector; this appears to be less true in urban China, where there seem to be many more dynamic, growing smaller congregations.
The theologically liberal Taiwan Presbyterian Church, though bearing some similarities to the TSPM, probably has far fewer committed Christians than does the TSPM.
2. Does the urban church in Taiwan perhaps provide a glimpse of the shape of things to come in China’s cities? Why or why not?
In several respects, yes, the church in Taiwan may presage the future urban church in China.
- Building-based congregations will lose the closeness and familiarity of smaller gatherings, and so they may try various means of emphasizing small group Bible studies or even home meetings. This will require a huge amount of commitment and organization, with ongoing maintenance, and may not succeed.
- Buildings in cities cost a great deal of money, which will divert funds from evangelism, pastoral staff, care for widows and other needy people in the congregation; it will also involve building programs that divert attention from essential core functions of a biblical church.
- Increasing organization will make churches look more like business enterprises, with the head pastor as CEO; this will concentrate power in the hands of one person, or a few people, with increasing distance from ordinary Christians.
- “Successful” congregations will attract people who want to avoid commitment and who will confine their church life to time spent in the building.
- As we see happening already, rising standards of living will suck many, perhaps most Christians, into a materialistic lifestyle that bears little resemblance to biblical Christianity.
- Urban loneliness and isolation will not be addressed in large building-based churches.
On the other hand, the growing maturity of Christians and congregations will bring increased sophistication in the leaders and in the services that churches can offer to members and society.
Of course, there will be differences, which reflect the vastly different political structures between the two places, at least as long as Taiwan enjoys de facto autonomy.
3. As a historian you have often encouraged those involved in China to take a long view. What is one lesson from history that you believe is particularly apt for today?
At least since the 4th century, when church attendance in the Roman Empire became legal and even fashionable, church leaders have tended to emphasize bigness—big numbers of people meeting in big buildings, with big budgets, run by big bosses (“bishops” then, now “senior pastors”) who seek to make a big—and highly visible—impact on society. These congregations and their leaders inevitably begin to attract the attention of political rulers, who either try to suppress or control them or, when that becomes too costly, learn how to co-opt them. As big leaders organize into bigger networks, they almost inevitably become deeply involved in politics, with the ineluctable consequence of a loss of spiritual vitality.
The “salt and light” impact of transformed individual lives, families, and loving Christian communities is diluted, as organized, costly, and visible social programs increasingly occupy the time, attention, and money of Christians. What begins as well-intentioned attempts to meet pressing social needs turns into a loss of theological clarity, pastoral care, and evangelistic zeal on the part of leaders and people alike. A very laudable, and biblical, concern to influence all of society and culture through prayer, persuasion of the superior goodness and value of Christian values, and performance of good deeds by Christians in all walks of life collapses into organized, public, and inevitably professionally-run programs, with “lay” involvement limited to giving money.
It seems that some elements of the church in China, with the proper conviction that the faith must be shown to have relevance to all domains and aspects of society, is forgetting that cultural change takes place slowly, through the gradual transformation of individuals and institutions through the permeation of Christian ideas, coupled with the example of believers, and changes in paradigms and worldviews.
Image credit: 濟南教會 (Chinan Church) by Tidus Lin via Flickr.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio