An editor from Christian Times recently had an extended conversation with a rural pastor (born in the 1980s) about his thoughts regarding the current situation of China’s rural church. They talked about the problems and potential, particularly as they relate to the need for training. What follows is a translation of the article. Due to the length of the article, we will publish it in two parts. This is part one.
Conversation with a Countryside Preacher
How can the rural church be innovative in training in light of training context and context of a new era?
The rural church is an important topic in Chinese Christianity. Although more and more new churches are being established in cities due to China's current urbanization, the majority of churches in China are still rural. The large number of believers in these churches cannot be ignored.
What is the current situation of the rural church? What kinds of challenges does the rural church face? What sort of potential does it have? This article is an account of an interview by the Christian Times editor with a post-1980s-born rural church preacher from south-central China named Chen.
Chen was born and raised in the countryside and comes from a family of countryside preachers. He received training at a rural church seminary. He also has experience in urban ministry. He's encountered churches from various theological backgrounds. In recent years he has been serving in a rural area in south-central China. At the same time, through the Internet, he has interacted with new churches and fellowships all over the country.
Because of his background, Chen understands rather well the traditions and realities of the rural church. He belongs to a younger generation and has considerable contact with the outside world. Also, because of his fondness for observation and reflection, he benefits from his modern and broad point of view to assess the rural church.
This article was written based on recorded material because the writer discovered in the course of the dialogue how especially stimulating many of this rural preacher's reflections are. Particularly stimulating are his comments about the unnoticed potential of the rural church and how it can be transformed into a positive force for China's social modernization process. Actually, it is quite an illuminating viewpoint.
Of course, we recognize that Chen does not necessarily have a comprehensive view of the rural church. His reflections also are not necessarily fully mature. But, this website is convinced that the illumination brought out during the course of our dialogue can provide valuable awareness, inspiration, and reflection. And this not only pertains to the rural church, but also to Chinese Christianity and Chinese society.
We've followed the original order of the dialogue as much as possible, and we hope readers will feel the spark and illumination of the dialogue.
Christian Times: You've been part of the rural church for many years and have served the rural church for many years. From what you see, what is the picture of the rural church?
Chen: At present, because of urbanization, the rural church is draining away. The rural church has become mainly a church of elderly people. In my opinion, this should be seen as very natural. Against the larger backdrop of urbanization and modernization, the rural church will naturally experience losses.
In the current context, if the church wants to win the future it will be a natural action to turn towards the city's middle class. This is the perspective that I believe today's Chinese church should have. Moreover, attracting young people will be a huge challenge for the Chinese church, especially the rural churches.
Christian Times: Why do you say that?
Chen: Because young people are naturally reflective; they like to think about faith and life. For example, they say things like, "I am a Christian. Can I go to karaoke?" Also, I've observed some young people discussing things using a kind of cultural approach.
But, the church discourages young people from developing independent thinking and young people don't adapt well to this (authoritarian) style. Traditional churches tend to repress human nature. Many old-fashioned ideas and ways of life gradually make people feel like they don't resemble modern man. I often have contact online with Christian brothers and sisters from around the country. There is a common observation that people in our churches today tend to be more backward than those in society. The church often doesn't know what is going on in society. The church also cannot come up with responses to society. For example, this year I saw that many Christians were still discussing April Fool's Day in the West. That topic has been around for years!
Also, we must remember that young people really enjoy using social media. It's because of the Internet that our generation of young preachers can communicate across the country in spite of geographical barriers. For example, even though I'm in the countryside, the reach of the Internet allows me to be aware of social and theological developments.
Christian Times: What are the needs of the rural church?
Chen: The greatest need for people in the rural church is that they comprehend faith and understand faith for themselves. But, this is also what the old generation finds most distasteful.
CT: Can you explain more specifically what you mean by that?
Chen: The older generation also feels like they are being treated unfairly because of the criticisms directed at them. They admit that we must understand truth and understand the gospel. But, when you actually try to speak on these things, they fall asleep. They are stuck in a relatively backward era. What they most hope to see are some things that resemble folk superstitions. For example, they want to see signs and miracles, or some other supernatural things. The church leaders want to see financial assistance from outsiders to help them build a church.
Christian Times: Right now, the urban church is also very mindful of the rural church. How do you think the urban church can aid the rural church?
Chen: The main problem is that the urban church can’t really understand the rural church. For example, they say believers need to understand the gospel and to understand the particulars of the Christian faith. So, they come to speak about it, and they speak very profoundly. Unfortunately, they don’t think about the extent to which peasants can understand what they are talking about.
I know a ministry team that comes every year to do training. This team has trained many young people in the rural church. They have been coming for many years and have trained many students each year. But, basically all the students [they trained] haven’t remained [in the rural church]. Either they left to earn money or they went to the urban church. They ask me about it and I say, "Don't worry about whether they stay or not. The ones you should be training are the 40-year-olds, the ones who are already settled in the church and who won't go somewhere else. They are very stable and they will remain stable in the church. Moreover, they understand rural church believers, they know what rural church believers can understand and what they can't understand." Later, the ministry team changed their training program.
Christian Times: So, do you mean that the rural church does not always need to think about training the youth, but should train and hold onto the middle-aged?
Chen: Yes, and when you train these people you need to be selective. Don't look for someone who has been preaching for 10 or 20 years because their models and way of thinking are already set. No matter how you train them there won't be any results.
Every year in my area there is a short-term theological training course for nearby novice rural church workers. Among the trainers are several well-known local preachers. This training takes place every year and every year when I go I see the same familiar faces. There are no big changes.
Some years ago a big city preacher came to give us two weeks of computer training. Many people couldn't learn it because they were too old.
Christian Times: So, what kind of group do you think should be trained?
Chen: The church has a number of people in their 30s and 40s who graduated from high school and who have some cultured background. They are willing to adopt new, more modern ways and are willing to serve. Choose from people in this age group.
If you are looking for new people, these people will be a big help to older people. Moreover, this coexistence of new and old will be quite good for the believers and there will be good cooperation.
The problem is that nowadays there are very few places with this type of training. In addition, it can only happen if the high ranking leaders of the local church, like the senior pastors, are willing to step up and do this kind of training themselves. If these pastors do not step up to do it, it doesn't matter if you come out to train. They won't use it.
The current situation, as I see it, is that there are a lot of training programs aimed at young people. Even if the young people come out for training, and even if they remain in the rural church, the church won't use them. If you want to serve in the local area, you need to get their approval first or they will not use you.
Many young people also want reform and are fed up with the previous models. But, they often adopt a combative posture against the traditional church, so they face suppression from the traditional church. Even if what they say has merit, it won't amount to anything.
Rural church innovation needs to be built on a peaceable foundation. I feel that being peaceable is quite effective. For example, even though I don't see eye-to-eye with the older generation in my church, when we talk we can talk about faith because our relationship is good. Even though our views are different, we can talk and debate with each other, and gradually influence one another. We've built a foundation upon which we can have a discussion. Without that, there will only be problems.
I have a classmate who just encountered the Reformed faith. He said we should only sing psalms and that we can't use any musical instruments. He returned to his own church and started talking about this at church. Not long after he started talking, he was dragged away from the podium.
There are very few young people who serve in the rural church because young people aren't stable and it's very likely they will leave. For example, some places are not willing to send their young women to study theology because they are afraid that after their training the women will get married and leave. All your training efforts come to naught.
In rural areas it's uncommon to see young male preachers. Basically, they are all older male preachers. The other most prevalent people ministering in the church are some (stay-at-home) mothers whose families are relatively stable. They don't need to worry much about finances and have nothing to do at home, so they are doing ministry.
It's hard to find educated people among rural house church workers. It's already impressive to find middle-aged preachers who have graduated from middle school. As if that's not rare enough, it's even more uncommon to come across a high school educated preacher.
The people who can truly bring aid to the rural church are those people who can stand up for themselves. Even though they are traditional preachers, they can accept new things and they can turn into thoughtful types.
If the rural church doesn't stand up for itself and only accepts aid from the urban church, then there's no hope. They stand at two extremes: the countryside doesn't understand the city, and the city doesn't understand the countryside.
Original article: 与农村传道人对话系列一】农村教会培训现状和新时代背景下到底如何革新培训？(Christian Times) (Translated, edited, and posted with permission)
Image credit: by V.T. Polywoda, via Flickr.
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