Last week I had two meetings in as many days regarding two proposed leadership training efforts aimed at Christians in China. Both were well thought through and grew out of decades of China experience.
As we looked at the various offerings already available to church leaders in China, the question that emerged in both cases was, "Is this really needed?"
One may argue that, particularly in China's major cities, the field appears to be getting rather crowded. Options include a proliferation of local Bible schools and training centers, whether run by the unofficial church or under the auspices of the TSPM, online courses and even entire degree programs from various schools and organizations around the world, itinerating professors from overseas, and opportunities to go abroad for studies.
On the other hand one still does not have to look too far to find examples of struggling congregations with under-equipped leaders. Given the massive growth of China's church and the many obstacles to providing training, there will always be more Christian leaders needing further equipping. Even where training has been provided, there can be a huge mismatch between the curriculum and the practical needs of leaders, particularly given the rapidly changing ministry context of China.
Perhaps the better question to ask is, "What is our niche, or, what will be our unique contribution in this environment where, paradoxically, training opportunities seem to be multiplying yet properly equipped leaders are still in short supply?"
Coming out of my recent conversations and some further reflection in the days since, here are a few suggestions on how to approach this question:
Start with relationships. Simply put, who do you already know that needs equipping? What are their felt needs? Targeting a specific group, taking the time to understand their unique challenges, and staying with them over the long haul is more fruitful than attempting to "train leaders for China" through a scattergun approach.
Serve the underserved. In spite of greater freedom to travel and the availability of resources online, training opportunities in China are still not equally distributed. Rather than seeking out "top leaders" (as more than a few organizations have done,) how about looking for the most vulnerable leaders in the most difficult situations? These could be defined regionally, looking at some of China's more out-of-the way or difficult to reach areas; or one could focus on traditionally marginalized groups such as urban migrants, the church among people with disabilities, the elderly, or women in ministry.
Bring something new. Basic Bible, theology, and ministry skills were the mainstay of training in the 1980s and 1990s, but the church today is much better equipped to meet its own needs in these areas. Leaders are facing new challenges as the church launches into areas such as family ministry, counseling, education, social engagement, serving children and youth, and cross-cultural ministry.
Go deep. Knowledge- and skills-based training falls short when it fails to address the heart issues of leaders. Among well-trained, outwardly successfully pastors can be found some of the loneliest and most desperate servants of God in China. Mentoring and coaching can address the deeper spiritual, relational and character qualities that ultimately make or break a leader.
Is it needed? Taking the time to clearly define what it is and who it is for will go a long way toward ensuring that one is truly meeting a need.
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