What difficulties do youth in China face today? How do Chinese pastors tackle this difficult ministry challenge? What are some behind-the-scenes frustrations for pastors today who work with youth?
In this article from Christian Times, Pastor Xiao Bin shares his own personal experiences pastoring youth. This article primarily refers to what in the West we might call “youth pastors.” As a pastor, the author is working mostly with teenagers. He uncovers some of the brutal realities of pastoring in China today and he expresses frustration with the current situation. At the same time, he offers an honest and heartfelt plea for improving the situation for those ministering to youth.
The Plight of Pastoring Post-90s Christians
While this article talks about the post-90s generation, it refers even more specifically to those born after 1995. Today’s students are very different from earlier students, and that does not mean just that they wear different styles of clothing. There is a marked difference in their entire lifestyle compared to previous generations.
We have a saying in our little fellowship: brothers and sisters flow by like water; and leaders remain like unshakeable iron. Our fellowship’s membership has turned over five or six times, all while I have served as the leader of the fellowship. Faced with this immediate pastoral plight, I often wonder if I should leave, too. Is it because of me that our fellowship has not developed?
I have come into contact with many fellowships, and in years past everybody would go on and on about their own pastoral experience, the structuring of their fellowships, their ministry programs, etc. In recent years, though, the sound of the conversation has changed. Everyone is asking how on earth we are supposed to pastor our fellowships, and how we can have a breakthrough in our current plight. When the question falls to me, I feel truly helpless. There was a time when our fellowship had so many members that there was standing room only, and I mistakenly thought that my leadership style and hard work had produced these results. I exaggerated my own abilities and went everywhere proclaiming our fellowship’s success. Now it all seems comical.
I have pastoral experience, but during these past few years I have had no real effect. Perhaps this plight is a common one. We cannot move forward without first having a unified understanding of the dilemma, which may be of some benefit to finding a way out. Below, using my own fellowship as an example, I describe the current environment we face.
1. Schools are rigorous in their teaching and discipline, so students do not have time to come to gatherings.
For college students, it used to be like they had a holiday every day: they had few classes, tests were easy, they did not need to study late at night, and weekends were free. As a result, brothers and sisters had a lot of time to gather together for food and fun, Bible study, and prayer. Today it is a whole different story. First of all, in many schools freshmen and sophomores (although not upperclassmen) have to study in the evenings. There is no such thing as a weekend anymore as classes are arranged without consideration for the weekend—in fact, weekends have piles of classes. In addition, students in junior colleges are busy testing for undergraduate colleges, while undergraduates are busy testing into grad school. Everyone is terribly busy.
In the province where I live, academic credentials are king—this is simply the reality. So even if students carve out the time to gather, they do it hurriedly—they come in haste and leave in haste, with no time to actually be with each other. This is so prevalent that, to put it bluntly, when brothers and sisters graduate they may not have spoken a word to over half of the other people there.
2. Finding a shared time to meet is very difficult.
Because of the first difficulty, our fellowship simply cannot find a reasonable meeting time when everybody is free, whether at night or during the day. No matter what time we set, somebody will be left out. Of course, the most rational time would be to have fellowship on Sunday, but our little fellowship has the special difficulty of belonging to a larger local church. We’re not independent, and the church requires that our fellowship join the larger congregation’s combined worship on Sunday. The problem is, each week there are eight hundred people, and over six hundred of them are elderly. The sermons from the pulpit have to be geared toward an elderly audience. Moreover, some pastors still preach in the local dialect, and outsiders can’t understand what is being said. So arranging a time for fellowship is all the more challenging because we cannot meet independently at the most reasonable time available—this is a major difficulty.
1. If freedom goes unchecked, it can cause disaster.
“Since you are free, just do what your heart desires.”
The majority of stable churches do not actually talk about freedom, perhaps because they are afraid, or perhaps because they do not approve of such talk. They just have varying degrees of religious restrictions. But to today’s young people, religious restrictions have no effect and, of course, in our teaching we don’t want to lead people that way because it does not conform to the spirit of Christ. We have always wanted to create an atmosphere of freedom, but now we are reaping the side-effects. The members are too free, coming when they want to and not coming when they don’t. The fellowship has no real discipline to speak of. A lot of ministry has simply not developed. Because of freedom, people promise one thing, and then flake the next second. For the most part, freedom has become an excuse for avoidance and evasion.
2. Pastors lack necessary specialized training.
Here I am not talking about theological training although, of course, this area is also lacking. But in light of the present day’s growing level of information exchange, theological training is not so difficult. What’s more, it goes without saying that the church itself is well-adept to provide theological training. What we lack is training in how to shepherd a student fellowship—either there is no training, or the training is ineffective.
Here is an example. We cooperated once with a large student ministry organization. They claimed to have twenty years of experience pastoring fellowships, so during the training they spoke with great confidence, massive vision, and a sense of boundless possibilities. Yet in reality when I asked if somewhere there was an outstanding fellowship that could serve as a model, they were at a loss for words. These big, joint fellowships are “scams” that set up their ministry on a large scale, making the outside world think they are doing very well—many churches think this way, that big means good. However, when you examine each constituent fellowship on its own, you realize it is nothing special. There is nothing remarkable about it.
Moreover, training of student fellowship pastors is very amateurish. It might be that I have only seen a small sample size, but in my humble opinion, this so-called training is ridiculous. The majority of the trainers do not have experience pastoring students, or they have experience with a generation from years ago that did not even have iPhones. Is it me, or are these just armchair strategists trying to fight on paper? For example, they often say, “Don’t look at current students’ beautiful clothing and broad smiles—on the inside, they are actually very lonely and starved of love.” This is a classic brainless comment, or just a plain outdated way of thinking. This sweeping generalization says nothing about how today’s young people are actually lonely, or where they actually lack love. And if you ask today’s students, you will realize that their lives are richer and more blessed then we imagine. They disdain our misplaced, out-of-touch concern.
3. Pastors’ salaries are too low and life wears down their will to fight.
Most fellowship pastors’ so-called “plight” is not there from the start. It is when pastors enter a period of fatigue and weakness that the difficulties erupt all at once. In reality, difficulties are always there, but many people are willing to stand and bear the responsibility of pastoring others. When they first start they have high spirits, a clear vision, and great ambitions for the unfolding of God’s kingdom. But with the passing of time, students come and go, and they feel like they are back at square one, having accomplished nothing. And now housing and commodity prices have multiplied many times, but pastors’ salaries have not grown accordingly.
To use myself as an example, the fellowship pays a 2000 RMB monthly salary, a number that has not changed in three years. The fellowship covers no insurance or housing. With today’s prices, that is enough to eat, but I cannot afford to get sick, let alone raise a family. So as soon as most young fellowship pastors marry and have children, they leave their original student fellowships. Of course, there are exceptions. One exception is those who have good living conditions, and the other exception is those who simply bring their wives and children along to suffer together.
Everything written above describes what I have encountered so far in the plight of pastoring post-90s Christians. Students come and students go in a pastoral cycle of three to four years. Each cycle brings distinct people and significant differences. You cannot lure today’s students by simply providing free food. Waiting for an all-powerful ministry model to come along is a pipe dream, and this is undoubtedly a major challenge for pastors. I hope that we can face up to these real difficulties and, by the Lord’s grace, find a breakthrough.
Original Article: 90后牧者谈：90后基督徒的牧养困境, (基督时报, Christian Times)
Translated, edited and reposted with permission.
Image credit: Rex Pe, via Flickr.
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