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Generations of Church Leadership in China

In a recent post on Chinese Church Voices, a college professor who is a Christian contrasted his own life in China with that experienced by his father. His portrait of these two generations finds interesting parallels in the leadership of China’s church.

The descriptions of his father’s early decades, set amidst the aftermath of the Communist Revolution, conjure up stark images cast in hues of grey. Meant to be an exciting era of forging a new future for China, its “can-do” spirit of self-sacrifice was marked by the violence and austerity of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. In the words of this young professor, this era witnessed “a collectivist uniformity in the strictest term and an absolute annihilation of personal interest or individual will.”

Contrast this with the Deng Xiaoping era, particularly the hopeful 1980s, when individualism and materialism returned with a vengeance and a new generation again knew what it felt like to embrace a common destiny. New ideas flooded into China, whether through the classroom or through pop culture from the rest of Asia or the West, colliding with a seemingly unchanging political culture that had room only for ideas that furthered its economic agenda.

The recent history of China’s church somewhat mirrors these two eras. The courageous evangelists at the heart of China’s budding house church movement and subsequent revival also demonstrated a spirit of self-sacrifice and a sense of collective identity. Theirs was a “go anywhere, do anything” mentality as they zealously traveled China with the Gospel, their paths crisscrossing with those of the “sent down” youth who were seeking to find their way home in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. They, too, knew violence and deprivation. Not a few suffered dearly for their faith during the Mao era.

Under Deng and subsequent leaders a new generation of pastors emerged, whose pragmatism, openness to new ideas, and individual drive reflected similar characteristics in the evolving culture at large. They, too, are testing the limits of the regime as their vision for the church bumps up against a rigid political culture. They play a major role both in advancing the church’s witness in society and in training up more leaders for the church. Some would see these leaders, who are primarily urban, as the vanguard of a new kind of church in China.

There is, of course, another generation coming behind them. Talking with church leaders in their thirties and forties recently, I have been somewhat surprised to hear them refer to the current generation of urban leaders as lao yi dai or the “older generation.” It is perhaps too early to speculate about differences between this up and coming generation and those currently in leadership (who are obviously not planning to go into retirement any time soon). However, as these younger leaders prepare to receive the torch we can anticipate the opening of a new and colorful chapter in the unfolding story of China’s church.

Image credit: Joann Pittman