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A Brief Look at Leadership Structure in Urban Registered Churches

With this topic we enter a labyrinth.[1] After 12 years of working with churches, some of this still remains a mystery to me. But Chinese registered church organization is not completely opaque. One fact stands out: there is no doubt that the senior pastor occupies a prominent place. Although their power does not match that of the senior pastor in many Korean churches (or that of American televangelists), it is still significant. But we will see that there are limits.

The larger churches have a number of pastors and chuandaoren. Chuandaoren, or evangelists, as they are normally called, are those who have graduated from seminary but are not yet ordained as pastors. Before being ordained they usually spend three years in an internship. The number of pastors and chuandaoren is not always evenly spread from one church to another. In two similarly sized churches in Beijing, one has nine pastors and several chuandaoren while the other has three pastors and four chuandaoren. When I asked the reason for this inequality, I was told that churches are free to recruit and employ their pastors. It is something like the “calling” process of some American churches. So if a church has the funds, they can increase their pastoral staff.

Before going too much farther, we need to look at the process of becoming ordained. This process starts before seminary. Applicants to seminary must pass a battery of tests. They must also have experience in the church and a recommendation from their home church.  If all this is in order, they can enroll in seminary.[2]

There are roughly 25 registered seminaries and Bible schools in China. Some can only enroll students from their own province, some can be attended by students from several provinces, and one, Jingling Seminary in Nanjing, can accept students from the whole country.

Seminaries are not allowed to give out degrees that are recognized in the Chinese academic world. Their area of instruction precludes that. The program leading to ordination is typically four years long. During that time, students take many of the same sorts of classes as their US counterparts, with some additions. They are, for example, also required to take courses on Chinese history, socialism with Chinese characteristics, and whatever new political developments are occurring.[3] These classes try to teach them that “patriotism is more fundamental than religious faith.”[4] This force feeding of a nationalist agenda likely grows out of the government’s fear of religion.[5] So there is this attempt at “re-education” by the government. But the vast majority of students regard these classes as a joke or a nuisance. It is one of the more onerous things that needs to be tolerated if one is to do church legally in China.

When one graduates from seminary, how does he/she find a church in which to serve? There are different answers to this question. One pastor said that it is an expectation, if not a rule, that the seminarians return to their home churches to serve there. Another said that they will be placed where they are most needed. It was not clear whether the seminary or the Lianghui did the placing. Yet another said that both seminarians and churches are free to look for good matches. It seems there is no standard procedure.

Upon finding a church, the seminary graduate becomes a chuandaoren. As noted above, the chuandaoren are essentially interns. They perform all pastoral functions except for the sacraments, weddings, and the benediction. They normally serve as interns for about three years, but sometimes much longer. I know of chuandaoren who have been in that position for eight or nine years. They do not want to be pastors. Apparently it is okay to remain at this position, although some pastors do not appreciate this.

In order to be ordained, the intern needs to be deemed ready for ministry by church leadership. First, this means that he/she needs the recommendation of the senior pastor. There are also more tests and interviews. And they need to earn the approval of the informal leadership—often a group of elderly women who have much influence in all church decisions. Finally, aspiring pastors need to want to take this step themselves. Having made it through all this, the aspiring pastor’s name and credentials are given to the Lianghui for final approval. This step is normally a rubber stamp.

Upon being ordained, the new pastors take on a pastoral role that is similar to what we are used to in the West. They preach, teach, attend meetings, and do pastoral care. I have heard people say that the pastors must attend regular political training sessions.  Pastors I talked with say this is only the case when there is a specific reason. Senior pastors do attend occasional meetings with government officials, but these are usually for more practical purposes such as meeting new officials, being informed of changes in government rules or practices, etc. So, for example, when the new religious regulations came out in 2017, all pastors had to attend training sessions put on by the Lianghui and the Religious Affairs Bureau. But the pastors I have had contact with generally agree that whatever pressure they have experienced from the government has been administrative or programmatic, not a pressure to change any of their beliefs.

In general, the senior pastor makes all the important decisions. This includes decisions about worship, programs, and assigning the various duties of the other pastors and chuandaoren. Typically, each staff member has a specific area or ministry of which they are in charge. So one pastor or chuandaoren will be in charge of youth ministry, one of the prayer meetings, one of Bible studies, and so on. They rotate preaching. When not preaching at the main church, they often preach at various meeting points.

It seems that few churches in the north have the formal offices of elders and deacons. Many more churches in the south do, with deacons being somewhat more common than elders. Since many churches prior to the revolution had one or both of these offices, it is a bit of a puzzle as to why they no longer do. At any rate, the functions of these positions seem to have been taken over by pastors, shared sometimes with an informal leadership group.

Yigong, or volunteers, play an important role in the structure and functioning of the church. The role of the yigong might be compared to that of committees in Western churches.  But the requirements are a bit more stringent and the scope of involvement may be somewhat broader.

There are groups of yigong whose ministry is ushering, others help with sound, others with running the bookstore, others with serving and preaching at the various meeting points, others with teaching Sunday School, and others with translation (if that is offered). They are in effect functional small groups.

Some of these small groups meet as well for prayer, Bible study, and support. Sometimes they also meet together as a whole for training. For example, I have led training for yigong in preaching, apologetics, and various Bible books.

The number of yigong is quite impressive. The church we attended has about 300.

So, although authority in registered churches is generally top down, one can see that there is involvement by many other people as well

Next time: The Role of the Lianghui (the two committees).


  1. ^ See Mark McLeister, “A Three-Self Protestant Church, the Local State and Religious Policy Implementation in a Coastal Chinese City” in Francis Khek Gee Lim, ed., Christianity in Contemporary China (New York: Routledge, 2013), p. 234-46, for another study of the organization of a registered church and its relation to the government. On pages 234-36 he also includes a brief summary of works dealing with churches and their relationship with the government.
  2. ^ Carsten Vala (2018) contends that the Three Self Committee and the Religious Affairs Bureau control the ordination process and conduct detailed background checks on candidates (p. 70). But in my interviews and experience, there was no sign of that.
  3. ^ Vala (2018), p. 64.
  4. ^ Carsten Vala, “Protestant Reactions to the Nationalism Agenda in Contemporary China” in Francis Khek Gee Lim, Christianity in Contemporary China (Routledge, 2013), p. 63.
  5. ^ John Powers, “China’s Religion Problem: Why the Chinese Communist Party Views Religious Belief as a Threat” The Asia 2019/10/17.
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Wayne Ten Harmsel

Wayne Ten Harmsel is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church who lived for a dozen or so years in Beijing, working with Chinese churches and pastors.View Full Bio

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