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A Chinese Model of Theological Education?

Theological education has always been the lifeline of the churches in different contexts. Without a robust theological education ranging from lay leadership training to graduate studies, it is impossible to sustain and grow churches for a long time. This is true in China just as in other countries.

Assessing China’s Theological Education of the Past 40 Years

From the 1980s to the early decades of the twenty-first century, theological education was always one of the engines driving church revival and expansion in China. As the country opened up and the so-called “Christian fever” swept across the society, theological education and Christian scholarship blossomed. If the registered church was largely the leading force in theological education by late twentieth century, the unregistered church has overtaken it, especially in urban areas, by the early twenty-first century. In the meantime, a large number of young believers went to theological schools especially in North America, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. The results are indeed very impressive: two or three generations of church leaders and workers have been trained either within or outside the country, and a significant group of influential Chinese theological elites have been produced.

However, the flaws and inadequacies of theological education of those decades are also undeniable. An obvious fact is that the Chinese church’s theological education has heavily depended upon the support of theological educational establishments abroad. The dependence is not limited to financial resources, and the majority of registered and unregistered theological schools, especially in urban areas, are profoundly shaped and dominated by the classical model of theological education in the West in their educational philosophy, pedagogy, curricular design, and accreditation. The large number of Chinese graduates from overseas seminaries have re-enforced this pattern. One can even argue that most of the programs and institutions of Chinese theological education in the early twenty-first century more or less replicate mainstream theological education in the West.

Without minimizing the huge contributions of global churches to the Chinese church’s leadership training, it is also necessary for us to face its negative consequences. Let me just point out a couple of them. First, a highly Westernized theological education has served to Westernize the theological outlook of Chinese church’s leadership and their theologizing a significant extent, which is fairly detached from China’s cultural and societal contexts. This reality consequentially impacts the church’s internal life and external image. Second, many Chinese theological graduates and returnees have had hard time adapting to grassroots church life and functioning well in local communities in their own country. Of course, “brain drain” has always been a challenge for the church in China.

Is the Time Ripe for a Genuinely Chinese Model of Theological Education?

As the Chinese church begins to cope with its minority and diaspora status under the new social normal within and outside China, its theological education may soon enter a new era, too. In my opinion, the time is becoming ripe for the Chinese church to critically re-think the current model of theological training and to explore a genuinely Chinese way of theological education.

It is a well-known fact that the classical model of theological education is deeply in crisis even in the West due to such ecclesial and socio-cultural changes as the rise of digital education and post-Christian society. Its symptoms are everywhere: many theological schools across the West and other parts of the world are struggling in meeting their financial needs and finding their relevance in the twenty-first century. In addition, given the unprecedented magnitude and complexity of the challenges the Chinese church is facing, the existing theological educational establishment in the West is ill equipped to provide answers, and its capacity to help the Chinese theological education has very much reached the ceiling. In other words, the church in China can no longer depend on its supporters in the West as much as before. The time has come for Chinese Christians to take the responsibility of leadership in trail-blazing their own path of theological training for the future.

Is the Chinese church ready for this? In terms of human and financial resources, I do think so. First, over the past several decades, God has prepared a couple of generations of Chinese theological educators who are well trained and richly experienced with theological teaching domestically and internationally. Second, a significant number of younger Chinese theologians who just earned or will soon earn their PhDs abroad constitute a strategic pool of the talent for future theological education in the Chinese context. Thirdly, the Christian community from mainland China has indeed become very resourceful. As a result of the recent waves of emigration, a great deal of the Chinese church’s ministries and their resources have relocated outside the country and thus become more available. It is not an overstatement to say that a supporting infrastructure for Chinese theological education is already in place. What is needed is a shifting in mindset and re-casting of vision.

What Can We Anticipate Next?

In fact, there are signs that this is beginning to happen. New vision and consensus are being formed, ideas are being shared, and projects are being initiated among a group of theological educators, pastors, and Christian intellectuals primarily associated with the church in mainland China. Based on their discussions, this new Chinese model of theological education seems to bear following features:

  1. This model is firmly grounded in the Scriptures, historical orthodoxy, and evangelical tradition from Chinese as well as global church contexts.
  2. The Chinese theological education in the future should primarily be led and supported by Chinese Christians, while the collaboration with the global churches continues.
  3. This model will be fully contextual and innovative in its pedagogy and curriculum. To humbly learn from global churches and their own rich heritage of theological training before 1949, Chinese theological educators should think out of box and re-imagine theological education in light of their ecclesial and social realities of the twenty-first century.
  4. This model has no interest in building more academic ivory towers but always aims at working intimately with the church and raising pastor-theologians for the church in a wholistic way.

As this exploration is starting to gain momentum, these four aspects can at least give us a glimpse into what an emerging Chinese model of theological education might look like. As the missionaries and theological educators from the Western world are searching for new ways to collaborate with our Chinese brothers and sisters, it would be a mistake to downplay or even ignore the strategic necessity of theological education for a sustainable future of the Chinese church. Furthermore, it would be equally counter-productive to simply resume the old approach to theological education in a changed China. The evidence suggests our brothers and sisters from China have plenty of passion and new inspiration for theological training, and their passion and energy are about to burst. When a new, Chinese way of doing theological training is coming on the horizon, are you there to cheer Chinese Christians on and walk with them shoulder to shoulder?

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Image credit: Chris Liu via UnSplash.
Kevin Xiyi Yao

Kevin Xiyi Yao

An expert on the history of Christianity in China, Kevin Yao, ThD, is Associate Professor of World Christianity and Asian Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.    View Full Bio

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