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Changing Ministry in the New Normal


It had been an engaging but exhausting two days. Pastors and ministry leaders from all across China had gathered with a smaller number of expatriate China workers to reflect together on some of the key trends in the mainland Chinese church. The meeting was conducted almost entirely in Chinese, and the range of topics addressed was dizzying, but also encouraging: indigenous mission and sending agencies, social engagement, theological education, Christian schooling, global partnership—in all these areas interest is high and progress encouraging. Of course, there are still plenty of areas for concern: insufficient training and member care for indigenous missionaries, the cultural and political nature of Chinese presence overseas, changing government regulations for religious affairs, denominational conflicts, and differing models for theological training—these are matters where significant work remains to be done.

These ideas and more were swirling around in my mind as I headed back towards my room at the end of a long day. Moving through the lobby I saw two groups of mainland attendees engaged in heated discussions.

The first group was composed of pastors from several Chinese provinces, and they were discussing the rise of Reformed Christianity in China. Specifically, they were sharing their personal stories. From earlier in the day I knew that many attending pastors had experienced sheep stealing from their congregations, despite the fact that they themselves also subscribed to the Reformed theological viewpoint. The problem was that they apparently were not deemed Reformed enough. Aggressive “all or nothing” messages from other fellowships had led many people to break, creating divisions where before there had been cooperation.

The second group was talking about theological education. They were particularly concerned with the advantages and disadvantages of study overseas, and the viability of developing local alternatives. I knew from earlier in the conference that many pastors had experience with overseas theological students either not returning, or returning to find there was no suitable role for them in the local Christian community. At the same time, urban church workers in particular felt the need for formal credentials, as they tried to relate to educated professionals in their communities.

Overhearing these conversations, I was drawn to engage. These were two topics where I had a lot of experience, and they were issues where I felt I could helpfully offer explanations and clarification—whether on the nature of overseas theological education or the North American experience during the mini revival of Reformed theology in the 1990s. I very much wanted to join in, to hear their concerns, and offer assistance as best I could.

And five or certainly ten years ago I would have done so. But this time, I held back.

First of all, these Chinese church leaders were enjoying a rare opportunity to fellowship with their brothers and sisters in an environment where they were free from the complications of their local relationship networks. Moreover, they were sharing experiences with peers from all across the country—yet another rare opportunity. It would be a shame to interrupt.

But I was primarily constrained by a more fundamental concern. In the last few years I feel something has shifted. This is now the age of the Chinese church, and not the age of the foreign cross-cultural worker. As I stood there observing from across the room, it occurred to me that it was no longer my place to decide which conversations I would or should be a part of; on the contrary, these two conversations were theirs. Of course, should they choose to ask me to join in I would happily do so; but that choice has to be theirs—not mine.

And so I turned and walked away. It was an odd sensation, disappointment as I felt my own pride shrivel (“I have so many helpful answers!”). There was also fear (“Now what am I supposed to do?”). But there was also a deeper sense of gratitude. God is answering prayers, and raising up the Chinese church, preparing them for witness in today’s China and all the way to the ends of the earth. That ministry is theirs, not mine. As the evening closed I prayed that God would show me how to serve the Chinese church faithfully in this New Normal.

Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China. View Full Bio