Last week we posted the first part of an interview with a rural pastor that was published on the mainland site Christian Times. The topic of the conversation was models for training in rural churches. This week we post the rest of the interview.
Conversation with a Countryside Preacher (Continued)
How can the rural church be innovative in training in light of training context and context of a new era?
Christian Times: So, the most important thing is for the rural church to be able to stand up for itself. What challenges do they face in achieving this? You just stressed that the rural church needs to stand up on its own, but the premise is that it must want to stand up on its own. It must have this kind of spontaneous desire and will. From what you see, does the rural church itself want to stand up?
Chen: That's a difficult question. First of all, one problem is that the rural church is isolated; they've closed themselves off. But now they face a transition period. The older generation is stepping back and middle-aged leaders are stepping up. They've already realized that there are many problems because they find themselves in a period of church decline. They are witnessing a decline in the church. Most of the co-laborers and leaders with whom I've come into contact nowadays are different than the older generation.
It’s important for these middle-aged co-laborers to stand up. At the very least they've realized that they will inherit the church, and that they don’t want to be like the older generation.
Christian Times: You also mentioned that it's no use for the urban church to directly aid the rural church, that the middle-aged co-laborers need to rise up. So then how do we help this generation of co-laborers to stand up?
Chen: To help this generation you can equip them to use the Internet. You can use the Internet to help them access more resources.
You can also give them access to training courses. As of right now, there are no organizations that specialize in training this group of people. All training programs are set up to directly target young people and the more highly educated among them. There are no training programs for the middle-aged group. And even if there are training programs, they only provide training in how to preach, or more accurately how to "regurgitate" sermons. Trainings for this group are all very shallow.
Christian Times: If you want to develop training for this group of people, what key content is needed?
Chen: First, there has to be teaching about modern tools, such as computers and the Internet.
You also need to help them develop a posture of learning, or to help them better understand what things they need to be doing in the church. They’ve really only learned two things from the previous generation: the importance of preventing believers from leaving the countryside for work, and trying to build a bigger building. This generation is very confused and they don't know what they should be doing.
I also think that it is important for the rural church to understand the cultural contexts of the rural church. Even though they themselves are part of it, they lack awareness of the cultural context, such as the blending of church life with folk superstitions.
Furthermore, they lack awareness of basic knowledge about the Bible and theology.
Christian Times: Isn't it also important for these co-laborers to visit other churches outside their communities to broaden their horizons?
Chen: I think the benefit of this isn't that great because they don't see the intrinsic nature of the church. What they often see is simply how big a church is, or how many cars there are, or how many people are there, and how much money there is. Some churches do this, but visits are more like taking a tour.
Christian Times: You mentioned before that outsiders often do not understand the rural church; probably not much of what they talk about can be understood. On the other hand, there also needs to be training for rural church workers. There is a big gap between the two. So, how should we overcome this gap to better aid workers?
Chen: First, I think trainers need to study the countryside and the rural church. In addition, they need to understand rural preachers and build relationships with them. The training needs to become a kind of social interaction. The method needs to be an exchange rather than an instruction
Christian Times: You continuously bring up how trainers must understand the countryside and the current situation. So, is it important when you invite pastoral trainers to conduct training that you also invite some sociologists?
Chen: Yes, because even if the church is holding a pastoral training, no matter how open-minded the pastor is, he will still continue with his previous methods because that was what he has studied. It's very difficult for pastoral training to become a social interaction because they all use an instructional style. Moreover, although they can lecture on the Bible, they know very little about the social sciences.
I've also come into contact with some pastors (including urban church pastors) who say they are more open, but they actually repeatedly talk in circles.
I think it's good to look for those third parties who are not in the church system but who also understand the church and can give them training. This will open up a window for them. But in reality there aren't many of these kinds of people.
However, I think we can develop college graduates who come out of the rural church as trainers. They have a better understanding of the countryside because that’s where they come from. But they also left the countryside to study at university and saw many things while participating in various fellowship groups. They are also not insiders in the current church system. Their own knowledge base is enough for the rural church. For example, some philosophy and sociology students can give some foundational training.
Christian college students can become resources. In fact, at the moment we have not been good at using them. I'm not saying that college students need to become a specialized training force. Rather, we could enlist volunteers, for example, to conduct fundamental awareness training for preachers and believers during vacations. They would not teach about the Bible, but about a specialized field. This is actually very important for the rural church.
Of course, there are some college students who have come out of traditional churches, and even though they are college students they are still very closed off and conservative. I've seen students like this who, because of the influence of their home churches, can only talk in spiritual terms and emphasize spiritual poverty. They don't even dare to buy name brand clothing. Conversely, there are those who end up being rebellious, saying they are Christians but not wanting to attend church. This is one of the weaknesses of the traditional church.
Another important issue for the rural church is the diversity. Most training programs emphasize a unified approach. However, the rural church is actually quite diverse; it looks different in each area. Most people aren’t aware of this diversity. They all say it's the same rural church and will go so far as to say that one rural church isn't that different from another. It's very rare for people to gather information [about the church].
Christian Times: What thoughts do you have in regards to training methods?
Chen: Many house church training programs nowadays cover theological courses for young people and recruit young people. In order to have a steady supply of students there are basically zero requirements. With zero requirements, you can imagine the quality of the education. Also, encouraging young people to drop out of formal education and teaching them to think that the Bible alone is enough will make it very difficult for young people to receive a basic cultural education. This mindset is detrimental to their long-term development.
So, I think the style of theological training needs to change. I think that full time theology courses aren’t applicable. They need to be broken up into short-term training units. We should encourage young people to attend regular schools, and train during the summer and winter holiday breaks. Offering full theology courses means students have to drop out of their formal education programs. Training programs aimed at middle-aged workers should be the same, especially in areas that depend on farming. People there do not have long periods of time they can be away for training. Trainers must take the initiative to bring peasants along in learning. If they don't take the initiative to bring them along in learning, the peasants will passively receive [training]. In the end they will not be changed.
Christian Times: In regards to trainings, what are some other things you think need to change? Could you go further in promoting change in the rural church?
Chen: Here's what I think needs to be noted: The group of migrant workers and college students who came out of the rural church can become the primary force [for change]. I just mentioned how college students can come to the rural church to do some generalized training.
An even more important group is migrant workers. If we can get migrant workers into the rural church then the number of people in the rural church will definitely increase. During Chinese New Year, the number of people in the rural church increases two to three times. If migrant workers are counted into the urban church, then the urban church has more people. For the rural church, the working population in particular has an immediate impact.
Migrant workers can become a channel to convey certain concepts. Even though it's still difficult to impact migrant worker communities, workers were originally influenced by the traditional house church. And, because they left and saw many new things in the urban church there is an obvious change when they return home—they can help their local rural church know how pastoring and things are done in the urban church.
New concepts can be effective if they are delivered to the rural church like this. For example, we have someone here who used to work in Shenzhen. When he came back he managed the church choir. He wasn't intent on bringing ideas of reform to the church. Rather, the good things he saw in Shenzhen he naturally brought back with him to use.
Moreover, there are a number of preachers and seminary students among the migrant workers. There are some accomplished workers who can impact the atmosphere and the ways of the church. They can indirectly make effective changes in the rural church. After all, every year during Chinese New Year [the rural church] will increase two to three times. Think about how one church can change with so many people—the church atmosphere will completely change.
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 and edited with permission.
Image credit: by V.T. Polywoda, via Flickr.
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