Chinese Church Voices

The Increasing Role of the Laity

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.

For decades, the church in China has relied on lay people to shoulder the brunt of grassroots ministry. Some would say this is an ideal situation in the church. Others would say that the phenomenon points to deeper problems within the Chinese church. To be sure, the pros and cons of the rise of laypeople are debated within the Chinese church. This article from Gospel Times sheds light on why there are so many lay people taking on ministry in the church.

Behind the Rise of Laypeople in the Church

A pastor has told me that current church structure is changing; laypeople are playing an increasingly prominent role to the extent of replacing the work of pastors in some areas. This new phenomenon in Chinese churches is a matter of concern.

From what I have experienced, this phenomenon is indeed becoming increasingly common, with many laypeople, excluding elders and deacons, holding important serving positions in the church and possessing a certain degree of teaching authority. They are no less knowledgeable than pastors and elders in theology and ministry experience. They have become an emerging force in the current church. So, what has caused this phenomenon to occur?

In Protestantism, an emphasis is placed on “the priesthood of all believers,” and on the personal relationship between God and believers directly in lieu of a relationship through the clergy. This has weakened the authority of the pastors to some extent.

During the special years in the history of Chinese churches, the established churches were hard pressed, and local churches (small “flocks”) of “congregational” colors became the choice of believers. Laypeople began to play a key role in the church and contributed to the survival and development of the church during this special time. This history has objectively sharpened laypeople and is an important reason for the “rise” of laypeople.

Certainly, the “rise” of lay people is closely related to the circumstances of Chinese churches. As we all know, “many sheep with few shepherds” is characteristic of Chinese churches, and the ratio of pastors to believers is very disproportionate; in some cases, only one pastor preaches to several thousand believers.

Having to cope with such pressure, pastors must delegate some of the work to laypeople. For instances, many church fellowships and Bible studies are led by laypeople because pastors simply do not have the energy to take on these ministries. This is an important factor in the growing voice of laypeople in the church.

Furthermore, greater accessibility in education and information has also narrowed the gap in theological knowledge between pastors and laypeople. Nowadays, many laypeople have received higher education and have learned theological knowledge from publications and the internet, and their understanding of the Bible is already as good as the pastors’, if not better.

For example, a pastor was given a set of theology books, then he passed them on to a brother after some time, asking for his help with some questions he had after reading. From this incident, we can see that some laypeople can achieve a certain level of theological knowledge through self-education.

Another factor to consider: many seminaries are now only getting mediocre students; those members who are willing to take up seminarian training are not too highly educated or academically inclined; they choose to study theology only because the church needs it.

Therefore, these seminarians cannot guarantee quality sermons when they take up teaching in church. Hence the increasing cases of lay members building up brothers and sisters through their sharing in Bible studies.

People prefer to listen to their small group leaders rather than the preaching of pastors. This has led to a stronger voice from laypeople.

A pastor even joked to two brothers who were well-grounded in the truth that “If there were more people like you in the church, we would lose our jobs.”

Among the laypeople, there are many social elites exerting some influence in academia, business, and entertainment, and their influence often spills over into the church.

For example, scholars can enrich the theological and cultural construction of the church; businessmen can provide funding for the church, and celebrities can draw much attention from other believers, and some of them can even sway value judgments.

These Christian elites have divided the teaching authority of the pastors to some extent and made a great impact on believers. They are a very important force among laypeople. The popularity of celebrity Huang’s concert in the Bird’s Nest shows that influence.

The rise of lay people in Chinese churches has become an indisputable fact. The pros and cons remain to be tested over time. However, it will certainly bring changes to traditional pastoral care and even theological construction, and this deserves deeper consideration by pastors, co-workers, scholars, etc.

Original article: 平信徒在教会中崛起的原因 by 福音时代 (WeChat ID: gospeltimes).
Translated, edited, and reposted with permission.

Image Credit: Allen LI via Flickr.
ChinaSource Team

ChinaSource Team

Written or edited 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.