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Beyond Theological Education


In a recent post, Tabor Laughlin traced the development of contemporary theological education in China.

Sounding a hopeful note, Laughlin looked forward to the day when Chinese theologians themselves will take the lead:

One further improvement will be when theologically trained Chinese believers teach all the needed courses, rather than having foreigners teach any of it. Foreigners may help lay the groundwork, but Chinese theologians will increasingly take over the responsibility. Over time, Chinese believers will step up as theologians and write doctrinally-sound books in Chinese—eliminating the need for translation—out of a Chinese mindset rather than from a western worldview.

Advances in theological education over the past 35 years have gone a long way toward satisfying the church’s still urgent need for trained leaders. It is increasingly common, especially in China’s cities, to find pastors who have received formal graduate-level theological training, including many who have studied overseas.

At the same time, as I suggest in China’s Urban Christians: A Light that Cannot be Hidden, the increasing professionalization of church leadership in China is not without its pitfalls. Some question whether the drive toward accreditation and credentialing may end up emphasizing knowledge at the expense of personal spiritual development. Pastors are certainly more educated and more capable in terms of skills, but have they perhaps lost something of the zeal and simple dependence on God that was a hallmark of the previous generation of leaders?

In the words of one experienced trainer: “Many church leaders, whether TSPM or house church, want degrees just to get the title. This is trendy . . . Knowledge is good if you get it step by step, but the gap between leaders and congregations becomes wider as the pastor learns more. Seminary training doesn’t help you become a good pastor.”

Along with formal theological training there is a need for the kind of deep spiritual formation that can only come through extended personal encounters with the Lord. Recognizing this essential component in leadership development, many who have been walking with church leaders in China for decades have begun more intentionally working on this aspect through coaching, mentoring, and spiritual retreats. Their experiences, along with recommendations for future leader development, may be found in several resources compiled by ChinaSource during the past year.

“Mentoring in a Chinese Context” examines how Jesus approached the task of mentoring his disciples and applies these lessons specifically to the China situation.

In “Coaching, Mentoring, and Spiritual Formation,” Dr. D. Michael Crow provides a framework for how leaders can be developed through mentoring.

“Into the Deep” looks at the experience of one overseas Chinese woman in discipling three Christian women in China. 

In “Five Profound Mentoring Needs in China” Eric Lee analyzes needs of leaders that stem from a lack of positive influences in their lives.

In a series of podcasts featuring conversations with Chinese Christians and experienced expatriate Christian workers engaged in leader development we explore:

Additional resources include:

While affirming the importance of systematic theological equipping for pastors, we would encourage those engaged in training to recognize as well the importance of the leader’s inner journey. Addressing hidden wounds, issues of character, and the development of spiritual disciplines as the leader is brought deeper into a life-giving relationship with Christ are all essential in nurturing China’s next generation of church leaders.

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

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