Chinese Church Voices

Left-behind Children and the Rural Church

Chinese Church Voices is an occasional 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.

As China develops and urbanization accelerates, so does the number of Christians flowing out of the countryside. This has left many rural churches with shrinking numbers and aging congregations. This article from the Christian Times highlights some of the pressing issues facing the rural church in China, including the children who have been left behind there.

The Rural Church in Front of the Left-Behind Children Is Heart-Wrenching and Helpless: Where Is the Way Out?

A friend who studies theology visited the rural church in a province of northern China and came back to write an article about the current status of the rural church. He told an accompanying rural pastor that in the future, when you want to hold a Christian funeral in the countryside, you will need to have a few buses pick up the Christians in the city and bring them to the funeral.

The implication is that, in the foreseeable future, rural Christian churches will be absent of any believers.

Although my friend was just making a joke, it explains the current status of the rural church in China very accurately.

How did the rural church get to this point? Where has the former glory of the rural church gone? Once, in some areas, the local church was the activity center for villagers who were not part of the village’s communist committee. Now that scene is all but gone.

With China's accession to the WTO in 2000, urban development has advanced by leaps and bounds, and a tide of migrant workers has swept across the country. As young and middle-aged rural laborers flow into cities, rural churches have gradually lost their past glory. With the increase of the urban population, the rural population has decreased. The rural church is slowly withering away.

Because the majority of young people have migrated to the city, the rural areas are basically left with elderly people and children. Therefore, a declining rural church is unable to come up with new ways to continue the development of new disciples.

Elderly people usually need to take care of the children and take care of the fields. They really have no free time to participate in the rural church services.

Rural churches cannot respond to the needs of the rural society because of their lack of young people, and the backwardness of their theology and church structure. Today's rural churches need to be updated in their theological ideas in order to respond to the rural social needs.

I will use left-behind children as an example to explain the difficulties encountered by rural churches.

Of course, this is not only a predicament of rural churches, but also a dilemma common to all traditional churches.

As young people go to work in the cities, the higher cost of urban living and the many restrictions on rural children's school enrollment have forced a large number of rural children to be separated from their parents, being left behind in the countryside with their grandparents. For children who lack parental care all year long, the annual Spring Festival may be their happiest times because parents usually return to their hometown during the Spring Festival.

When parents return to their hometown, they often buy electronic devices, such as smartphones, for their children. This is to help them connect better with their children and to relieve parents when they miss their children. On the other hand, this is also a need of the children.

In my area, almost all the left-behind, school-age children have smartphones. It can be said that smart phones have become one of their most used tools to pass the time, even more popular than television and video game places in the town center.

In my village, there used to be a large church. In its prime, there were hundreds of people attending a Sunday worship. Now in its decline, fewer people (several dozen) attend the service, and most of them are elderly people.

A typical worship service looks like this: elderly people attend the church service with children playing on their phones outside the church. 

Facing this kind of situation, I once asked the church leader how we might help these left-behind children.

The church leader is an elderly sister in her 60s. Talking about the left-behind children, she looked very embarrassed and sighed heavily.

She told me that many years ago, when the church had many young people, she sent some of them to Wenzhou to learn how to run Sunday schools. At that time, Sunday schools in Wenzhou were very large, and the number of students attending Sunday schools reached hundreds of thousands. The students were organized according to their grade. Everything, from administration to teaching materials, was run by trained staff in specialized departments.

When the young people returned from Wenzhou, they started Sunday school according to the Wenzhou model. Christian parents were willing to send their children, but the good times did not last long. The children began to be unwilling to attend Sunday school. They said that what they learned at Sunday school was all biblical and religious, and was boring and unattractive to them. Gradually, there were fewer and fewer children willing to come and participate.

The elderly people said, "We are not Wenzhou. We don’t have money. We can't bargain with the children. Parents in Wenzhou sponsor their children to go to Sunday school and summer camp. We can't afford to do that!"

Later, the young people left their hometowns for work. The elderly people were left to teach the children, but they could not really meet their needs due to lack of energy and fresh educational concepts.

The elderly sister pointed out that the society at large has now corrupted the children who know nothing but playing games all day, not knowing the Lord at all, not knowing God. Their hearts are just as hard as those of the Egyptians.

After talking with her, I can feel her anxiety about having to face the issues surrounding the left-behind children. She has no way to respond to the needs of these children. After the Wenzhou Sunday school method fades out, the rural church is faced with the same old children’s problem. Their response remains the same, rooted in the classic generation gap, that is, the inability to change with the times, and the inability to communicate across generations.

Traditional churches as a whole face this problem. In essence, it is a problem of a conceptual conflict between traditional churches and modern society.

Based on their own traditional theological concepts, the churches face the various phenomena and problems of modern society by blindly rejecting the development of modern society. They evaluate modern problems with traditional church theologies and ideas that were formed in a different time. This creates a gap between traditional churches and modern societies, which do not understand each other, and cannot communicate with one another.

In modern society, the concepts of traditional church are old and deficient. It wants to communicate, but is unable to communicate because there is no basis for communication. For traditional churches, modern society is more personal. The church’s ideas about filial piety and marriage fidelity are completely destroyed. So, this is a corrupted era that cannot be changed, or even need not be changed.

Facing the problems of the left-behind children, the traditional church's thinking is still Sunday school thinking. In their eyes, children are the hope for the future of the church. They believe that the urgent priority should be training the children in Biblical knowledge, because this is the fastest way to know the Lord.

Religious knowledge may have an immediate effect on making these children religious on the outside, but I am afraid it does not really help them to grow into true believers in their hearts.

Someone has conducted a survey of 100 college students who came to Sunday school in Wenzhou. There are only three of them that have ended up believing in Jesus. The reason is that religious education has caused a resistance in their minds from an early age, rather than establishing relevant Christian values.

Also, Sunday school education is out of touch with society, which makes them unable to deal with relational and family issues when they move on into their future.

The most urgent priority for rural churches is to change traditional ideas, understand modern society, and understand children's needs. At the same time, young people need to return to the countryside to respond to their children's needs in an enthusiastic way. For example, helping with their homework, playing games with them, etc.

Rural churches can only demonstrate God's love and foster the seed of faith in the next generation by responding effectively to the social needs of the countryside.

Original Article: 留守儿童面前的农村教会令人扎心而无奈,出路在哪里? Christian Times
Translated, edited and reposted with permission.

Image Credit: Dutong, little children by Arian Zwegers via Flickr.
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