Chinese Church VoicesChurch Life

Concerns of a Three-Self Pastor for 2020

. . . before the Covid-19 Crisis

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.


Before news of COVID-19 broke into their lives, what were Chinese Christians concerned about? What were the top issues to monitor going into 2020? In this article, Chen Shengfeng, a Three-Self pastor, gives 20 concerns facing the Chinese church.

Because of the length of this article we have split it into two parts. This is part one.

20 Internal Concerns in the Chinese Church

The year 2019 is almost over, and everyone seems to be going about life as usual, preparing to enter 2020. But as a pastor who works in historical research, I am experiencing faint melancholy for two reasons. First, we are not just going from one year to the next year, but from one era to the next era. We have clearly ended the teens of the 21st century, and are about to enter the 20s. Second, the end of a decade not only signifies that we are each a year older, but that we are each entering the next decade of life. For example, people born in the 1970s are entering their 40s and 50s. Those born in the 1960s are entering their 50s and 60s, and are also entering retirement.

As a pastor, I also wonder, what will my church be like as we enter the 2020s? As I think of some of the problems faced by churches I am in touch with, I will share some of my personal reflections. But perhaps my title “Chinese church” is too broad? Should that be left to the reflections of higher up leadership? Sure, that could be. But, as a grassroots pastor, I believe I can voice my opinions from the bottom up. These types of “grassroots” voices can perhaps serve as reference for higher up leadership.

In this article, I compare “have” and “lack.” This is not an absolute division. Even when we “have” we might not be entirely problem free. And if we “lack” it does not mean we have absolutely nothing or are completely without anything good. I merely hope that readers can reflect on what they “lack” from the foundation of what they “have.” My purpose in writing is not heartless accusation, but self-reflection. Because I myself am in the middle of this, and if I ever feel that I am aloof from it, then I only make a fool of myself.

Once a Christian comes to the Lord, he knows the meaning of reflection and introspection, because no one can claim any good before God. Similarly, we ought not go along with the false mantra of “don’t air the church’s dirty laundry.” Only reflection can help us face reality and face problems, so that we do not have the chance to sing our own praises, talk about good news without the bad, or cover up reality. Through reflection, we are prompted to take a step toward repentance.

Many people might think that they do not have any of the above problems, and so are not worried if it’s an accurate description. But, I think we can follow the principle of “if applicable, change. If not, be exhorted.” Of course, I hope that readers might admit it if the description fits, humble themselves and rely on the Lord for change.

As a grassroots preacher who lives by the written word, it is challenging and unpopular to write this type of article. So, I am not expecting this to be popular, but I hope that it can be a warning to the church.

 1. Having Pastors, but Lacking Pastoring

According to statistics by the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China (TSPM) and the China Christian Council (CCC), there are about 60,000 church buildings, over 14,000 clergy (pastors, teachers, and elders), and about 22,000 fulltime preachers. In terms of development, although the number of pastoral staff has clearly increased, yet in terms of the church’s needs, the problem is still severe.

We have no way of calculating the number of members and pastors of house churches, but even just looking at churches under the TSPM and the CCC, when 12,000 clergy and 22,000 fulltime preachers are responsible for pastoring 40,000,000 Christians, on average each person needs to pastor over a thousand people. Of course, in extreme helplessness, some say that there are far more voluntary preachers at church (“volunteers” for short) than pastors, and much of the pastoral work is accomplished by volunteers. But last month, a pastor I was chatting with mentioned a reality well worth paying attention to: in many rural churches, the volunteers preaching at the pulpit have completed elementary or middle school, whereas those listening at the foot of the pulpit are often graduates of high school or colleges. How then can we achieve ideal pastoring? The pastor added, too many young people are leaving traditional churches. This is a reality that cannot be denied, and a problem that we cannot avoid facing.

 2. Having Pulpits, but Lacking Provision

Continuing with the above problem, over 60,000 pulpits (according to official numbers) need at least double the number of pastors to pastor. But, the number of pastors in churches is far from enough, and the quick development of the church brings an even greater crisis. Currently there are only 22 seminaries under the TSPM and CCC, and less than a thousand people graduate each year. Many of the preachers currently have elementary or middle school levels of education, have not experienced much foundational Bible training, much less organized theological training. Therefore, at many pulpits, the messages given by preachers vary greatly; Christians are not receiving the spiritual provision they need, which results in many churchless Christians.

In recent years, the “blessing gospel” which is built upon prosperity theology has become popular among coastal churches. We find that the “blessing gospel” is simply the more focused and more extreme expression, while prosperity theology is fairly common in many pulpits.

We can be sure that under the influence of secularization, and the push of materialism, many Christians will forget the teaching of “take up the cross to follow Christ,” thinking that as long as they believe in Jesus they will experience peace, health, wealth, and all will go well. Thus, the pulpit has lost the preaching of basic truths, and the spiritual lives of Christians lack provision of the truth. What is built is simply a construction of sand.

3. Having Degrees, but Lacking Knowledge

From the 1980s onwards, Chinese churches began resuming worship, and gradually resumed written ministries, theological education, and other [ministries]. In terms of theological education, only the national Nanjing Union Theological Seminary has a doctoral program, while the rest give out bachelor’s degrees or three-year degrees.

And of the channels for studying abroad through the TSPM and CCC, it is a one in ten thousand chance. Pastors who are able to study abroad are fewer than few. So, let us consider, if the 30,000-some pastors in China (including both clergy and fulltime preachers) all graduate from seminaries or Bible schools under the TSPM and CCC, then most of them headed to the mission field of the church with two to four years of education, and only hold a professional theology degree or a bachelor’s, and very few have the opportunity for further study.

We must also mention that seminary degrees are not recognized by universities under the Ministry of Education system, thus they cannot join the list of nationally recognized educational institutes, and leave very little room for further study and education. We cannot deny the reality that most pastors have only a basic education, and have often received only the most basic biblical training. Whether or not they will be able to pastor believers born in the 80s and 90s, who commonly receive higher education, is an important question.

4. Having Regulations, but Lacking Discipline

Here, we cannot help but admire the church leaders who were responsible for churches across the country in the 80s. Although they had experienced decades of unfair treatment, they made great contributions towards building up churches that had resumed. In addition to resuming church worship, settling church property, building theological seminaries, publishing Bibles and hymnals, they also started from scratch and wrote church regulations for post-denominational churches with no foundation.

The first wave of church regulations were established about 1985, and basically were completed in the 1990s. This resulted in churches everywhere taking the Apostles’ Creed as their basis, abandoning denominational ideas, and establishing a unified system of regulations. In terms of basic faith, order of worship, administrations, ordination of clergy, financial management, etc., there were rules to be followed. But we must also point out that because of the influence of the Cultural Revolution, there is a “missing generation” in the pastoral legacy, and its effects are felt even today.

When the Chinese church was searching for the way forward, the pastoral leaders born in the 60s were the pride of the leadership in the 80s. After several decades of working their way up, they are now the main people in charge at churches at all levels. But at the same time, we see great risk. Pastors who are used to being in charge have been influenced by the world of politics, forgetting their identity of “servant,” and thinking of themselves as “leaders.”

At the same time, some areas have seen the phenomena of pastoral bullying, hereditary pastoral positions, and even problems of “religious warlords.” The phenomena of “covering the heaven with a single hand,” “one’s word as law” are everywhere. Many young preachers have nowhere to go with their complaints, and either suffer silently, or leave the work and seek their own careers. This causes pastors to no longer be like pastors, and nobody to pastor the believers in the church.

5. Having History, but Lacking Historical Documents

As a historical researcher, I have a particular worry that today’s church is developing quickly, but not leaving behind any historical information we can research. We can be certain that since the Liberation, Chinese churches must have testimonies that cause tears and songs, and we could say that such church development has not been seen throughout history. But it is a shame that Chinese churches, whether under the TSPM and CCC system, or house churches, have not organized and managed documents, much less managed archives. Even without speaking of the special history between 1958 and 1978, even from the resumption of worship to this day, we basically cannot find detailed written historical information.

Of course, we might be making unreasonable demands of pastors born in the 60s, who rarely have sufficient education, are not skilled in writing, and have not received any archival training. But I believe that church leaders born in the 60s can completely hand over this work to pastors born in the 70s and 80s, to make up for what was once lacking. I am very worried that it is basically impossible to find detailed information even about what happened in the church in the 80s. It is a shocking crisis, that Chinese church history is not only a blank during the Cultural Revolution, but that in a few years we will mourn even the blank left by churches in the 80s.

6. Having Seminars, but Lacking Theology

As for theological seminars, one can say that “seminars” have become a fad since 1998. Up to the national level of the TSPM and CCC and down to some counties, theological seminars on various topics are held every couple of years. Twenty years ago, it was theological ideological construction. Ten years ago, it was deepening theological ideological construction. Then five or six years ago it started being the “Sinicization of Christianity.” We seem to see fruitful results of theological seminars in churches all over China, and theological thesis are published one after another. There is a sense of “the situation is wonderful.”

However, please allow me, an “outsider” to theology, to make some inappropriate criticisms. After so many years of theological ideological construction, where is the Theological Outline, or the Systematic Theology, that summarizes, refines, and truly belongs to the Chinese church? At the same time, while we talk up the strengths of the post-denominational church, can we provide a theology “with Chinese characteristics” to the world church as reference or as a model? In the five or six years since the slogan “Sinicization of Christianity,” do we have a basic model of a “Sinicized church”? In the institutes of higher education that we call “theological” seminaries, there is still no textbook of “systematic theology” that truly belongs to the Chinese church. Then who guards the “theology” that students study? Who sets the standard?

We say the old must make way for the new. Since the united worship of the post-denominational Chinese church in 1958, 60-some years have passed, and we have still not been able to establish a post-denominational Chinese theology. Is this not a tragedy?

7. Having Messages, but Lacking Morals

For pastors of the Chinese church, “preaching messages” is our natural duty, one might even say, our “profession.” But, we also observe that messages preached from the pulpit often favor certain topics while neglecting others. For example, we favor talking about morals and ethics, but neglect to preach the basic faith. Of course, perhaps talking about morals gains more agreement, and messages about the basic faith might seem boring or unable to garner interest.

What causes us further worry, and what has caused an even greater impact in the church, is that the church has seen a select few preachers who are morally fallen. Because of their stumbling in the face of wealth, power, or lust, they have lost their spiritual authority. At the same time, they become a stumbling block for people within and without the church. Many Christians fall because of this, becoming disgusted with religion, and their faith cooling. What is even more heart wrenching is that because of incomplete relevant regulations in churches, as well as the influence of people and connections, there are cases where the guilty are protected, which causes believers to lose faith in church leadership, and leave the church.

8. Having Talent, but Lacking a Platform

Although seminaries of the Chinese churches do not give out higher degrees, that does not mean that there is no talent. Rather, over the past 40 years of history, we can say that there have been talented people in every generation. But the question is, where do these talented people appear? Of course, a group of them are currently in their leadership positions, because they were the talent of that generation. But, I believe that the church not only has talented people displaying their ability in current positions, but also has many talented people who have been lost, or who have not been utilized well.

Grouping by type, talent in the church can be grouped into the management type (administration), scholar type, pastoral type, ministry type, etc. But looking at people in office in the current church, most are the management or pastoral type positions.

In the first place we can see that many pastors who return to church enter into pastoring positions, whether or not they are suitable, and whether or not they are willing. Secondly, if pastors want to be promoted, the only method is to break into management circles, and become an administrator. Furthermore, some ministry-type talent are only able to find their proper position through finding a ministry opportunity in their pastoral service. Otherwise they can only minimally sustain positions not suited for them. As for the scholarly talent, aside from the lucky few who make it into seminary and gain a teaching position, most can only dream of scholarship, and the lack of a platform is their eternal thorn.

In reality, even for scholar types who have a teaching position in seminary, aside from meeting their daily teaching necessities, church leadership rarely set aside specified funds to motivate them to engage in scholarly research and publish their results. In the Chinese church that “values talent,” “the brain follows the butt,” and bureaucracy is particularly problematic. Only the talent recognized by “leadership” is considered talent, and everyone else is inferior. So where is the way out for talented people? I have not been able to find an answer with my limited intelligence.

9. Having the Bible, but Lacking the Truth

2019 is the hundred-year anniversary of the publication of the Chinese Union Version. This translation is actually one of many translations of the Bible, but it has practically become the only Bible among Christians in the Chinese church. In the eyes of Chinese Christians, the Lu Zhenzhong translation is not the Bible. The Chinese New Version is not the Bible. The Chinese Contemporary Version is not the Bible. Only the Union Version is the Bible. In fact, passages memorized by every Christian come from the Union Version, and not even a word can be changed. If one mis-memorizes a single word, it is a sin. Among pastors, they also take pride in familiarity with the Union Version. Some pastors even memorize entire books of the Bible, and quote liberally when preaching, causing wonder among brothers and sisters in Christ.

But we know that familiarity with the Bible does not represent an understanding of truth. Being able to speak about the Bible does not mean preaching the truth. There are too many deviations from the truth in the church today, with some veering into heresy. It is not that people do not understand the Bible, but that they misread the Bible, and do not understand the truth. It is a pity that many believers are beguiled by extreme teaching or cults, and many of them say of these false teachings and cults that “they also talk about the Bible,” or “their pastors are very familiar with the Bible.”

10. Having Numbers, but Lacking Quality

In 2018, official numbers claimed that there are 40,000, 000 Christians in the country. Not considering larger estimates for the moment, this official number already represents a revival previously unseen in the Chinese church. For grassroot churches, they often happily tell visitors their church numbers. And some pastors who highly regard numbers will even talk about how important numbers are to church development.

Of course, I partially agree with the importance of numbers, but I believe that we should not only look to numbers for church development. Let us not forget what Jesus said, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). What the Lord Jesus values more is that those who are called become true disciples; that they do not simply follow the crowd, calling out “Lord, Lord,” but they actually obey the Lord’s word. Neither does he want to see supporters who only came to “eat a good meal.”

I once made a rough study of the church in my home town. Typically, the number of attendees is about a third of the member list (sometimes even a fourth). As for passionate Christians (that are involved in various classes and service in church), it is about a third of the attendees. For a church with 1,000 people, only about 300 attend, and the passionate Christians make up only about 100. Therefore, if we apply this number to the 40,000,000 Christians in the country, then truly passionate Christians are only about a tenth of the total. Even without talking about the knowledge levels of the passionate Christians, we can already see the crisis of the church from the above ratios.

Watch for part two on March 31.

Original Article: 【跨年代反思】中国教会的20个内忧by 丰盛“书”房

Image Credit: aytalina from Pixabay

ChinaSource Team

Written by members of the ChinaSource staff.  View Full Bio


Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.

Donate