Chinese Church Voices

Why the Urban Church Needs to Care for Migrant Workers

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.


China’s economic boom has turned the country seemingly overnight from a largely rural based population into a majority urban-based society. Migrant workers from the countryside, including many Christian migrants, have flocked to urban areas in search of better economic prospects. Urban populations have swelled, but so have tensions. Migrants lack access to public services and are often regarded by city residents as inferior. Yet, most city residents acknowledge city life would largely come to a halt without migrant labor.

As ChinaSource’s Brent Fulton has recently noted, China’s economic development and its resulting urbanization will continue to transform Chinese society, including the church. The article below from the Gospel Times is a helpful peek into how the church can respond to China’s urbanization.

Rev. Hong Shuyong, a CCC/TSPM pastor in Jiangxi province, writes of the need for Christians to care for migrant workers in the city. He describes the unnoticed lives many migrants live and argues that this lack of attention is not a healthy situation for the church. Hong notes how urbanization has brought new challenges to the church, but also new opportunities.

A Glance into Pastoring Urbanizing Churches

By Rev. Hong Shuyong

In China's vast countryside, there are a large number of people who live like "migratory birds." They are the main group of people involved in the annual transportation crunch around Chinese New Year. Before the end of the lunar new year, they return home to the countryside from the city to celebrate the spring festival. And afterward they flock back into the cities again. A vast majority of rural churches lack young people and able-bodies during the year. But, during Chinese New Year, they return home and are busy celebrating and visiting friends and relatives. When this large number of migratory Christians visit the rural church they are not able to share ideas and concepts from the urban church. At the same time, the urban church does not accept and use them while they are in the city throughout the year. At best, they are a population group that fills the urban churches outside of the holiday season. They do not come to understand their positive use in the church.

This is not a healthy situation for the life of the church in an urbanizing China.

For China, urbanization is not just the entry of the rural population into the city. But, it is also about how to settle this group of people into the city so that they can enjoy the same public services as urban residents. China continues to urbanize quickly. This means the city must accept a large number of rural migrants. But, it also must continue to physically expand, turning agricultural land into land for urban use.

In 2013, the State Council advisory office reported that the national urbanization rate was 52%. People who work in a city for more than six months out of the year are now counted as urban residents. This method of calculation made about 200 million migrant workers into urbanites. But in reality, the overwhelming majority of migrant laborers do not receive equal treatment. China’s rate of urbanization was about 35%. It is too difficult for the city to all of the sudden accept and bear the burden of a huge population of migrants. How to solve their daily living needs, including housing, medical insurance, and children’s education is an issue. It’s feared that this inequality in public services will become the biggest issue in China’s process of urbanization.

I believe that Christians should do more to serve and pastor these migrants in this situation. 

Preachers Must Have a Clear Understanding of the Needs Related to Rapid Social Development 

Migrant workers need a great deal of care because of conditions such as their stress at work, the dullness of their downtime, and their emotional needs, indeed more so than urban residents. The urban church ought to take the initiative to care for their faith, care for their lives, and for their living conditions in order to help them truly integrate into modern, urban life.

The fast-paced life and fierce competition between people often make them feel physically and mentally tired and nervous. With the gap between the rich and the poor widening and strong material temptations, people may lose a proper balance in their lives and engage in extreme behaviors. Christian perspectives on sexual sins and the longing for the renewal of individuals offer true comfort and hope to those under heavy psychological stress. Therefore, the Christian church especially carries a sense of responsibility to share the pure gospel. The right aim of preaching is related to whether or not people can turn from meaningless lives to positive and hopeful lives.

Churches in China’s Midwest Must Emphasize Pastoral Training

Although their land has been “urbanized,” the material benefit for those rural Chinese has not reached the same levels for urban residents.  In the 1950s, the rural population was restricted from freely moving into urban areas and peasants were forced to stay on their land in order to guard against public accumulation of wealth. Through strict enforcement policies, agricultural products were kept at low prices in the cities and citizens were prevented from retaining surplus earnings. This policy restricting population movement remained in place up until the late 1980s, creating two solidified opposites: the city residents and the rural residents.  In the 80s, the economy grew, food markets opened up, numerous public services and infrastructure projects came to the cities. The only job prospects and higher salaries in the cities for peasants were for migrant labor. But most migrant workers did not enjoy equal access to public services.

The new migrant workers who were born in the 80s have never really known the farming life. Soon after they were born their parents brought them to the city. They don’t know what rural life is like. There is no longer any natural connection between that generation and the countryside.

Because of this, in churches in China’s midwest and in rural churches it is common to have many women, many elderly people, and many “left behind” children. But there are few young people and the education level is often very low. Church worship is quite simple. Aside from Sunday worship when everyone is gathered together, other church activities are rare. It is difficult for a rural church preacher to be able to count on a year’s worth of Sunday preaching, let alone develop any extra fellowship activities.

Most county-level CCC/Three-Self staff are concentrated in county towns. It is common for these churches centered in the county town to shoulder the work of outlying churches in that county. I personally believe that county-level CCC/Three-Self churches should take full advantage of this platform to organize set times for training staff from these county fellowships. Standardize their sermons and sermon writing abilities. As much as possible go out to their countryside churches to investigate and help solve their problems.

The Urban Church Must Pay Attention to the Pastoral and Mentoring Needs of Migrant Workers

Urban churches have also undergone change. The scope of the church has rapidly expanded. The number of believers has grown, and a large number of them are migrant workers in the city. Even though they are in an urban church, many of them are not valued. They are marginalized in the church. It is very difficult for them to integrate into the urban church and it is hard for them to positively contribute to church life.

It’s precisely this similar type of unequal access to public services in their employment that causes many parents to leave their children behind to be raised in their hometown in the countryside; it also causes married couples to live apart. A child’s upbringing, education, and long-term future expectations will influence how the parents think about their prospects in the city. Their string of socio-economic decisions is forced by the unequal access to public services.

The urban church should pay more attention to the pastoral care and appropriate mentoring needs of migrant workers in the city. Pastors should try to better understand their housing and living conditions. They should call on urban Christians to visibly seek out and call on them. They should take the initiative to care for and rid migrant workers of their sense of inferiority and loneliness. Pastors should also give timely aid to meet their needs. As appropriate, they should develop activities to help build friendships. For example, churches can take advantage of laborers’ free weekends to organize parent-child outings, such as taking their children to the park and to the zoo. Create fun Bible competitions to get them more interested in the Bible and to help them better understand how to read the Bible. Try as much as possible at worship to meet their needs. Serve them in all capacities and lighten their burden of unequal access to public services.

Along with the unrelenting urbanization of China, we need to break through many layers of fundamental contradictions and problems in Reform policies and problems developing from growing inequality. In terms of inequality, China’s sub-provincial level cities and higher have a moral responsibility. In fact, the solution is pretty simple: any city that opens up a long-term, inherent demand for jobs should assume social responsibilities for those workers.

The deep, underlying sticking point with urbanization is that construction and economic development is lagging behind in the middle- to small-sized cities and small towns. There are historical factors for where cities rank in China today. But, more important are the political factors and the interest groups who benefit the city.

[Edited here for brevity]

China’s sub-provincial level and higher cities are growing the most economically. Every year they produce the bulk of jobs. These are the cities in which migrant workers are most concentrated and where they most desire to go. Migrant workers participate in the construction and development of these cities, but they also are an integral piece around which the regular life of the city revolves. Most of the tiring, grueling, and filthy jobs in the city—restaurant work, housekeeping, sanitation, and wet markets—need migrant workers to operate. This issue of migrant workers is very thorny for city governments and residents. They complain that there are too many migrants and that the city is oversaturated and crowded.

Migrant workers, on the other hand, realize that they are outsiders in the city. They do not plan on putting down roots there, but intend on returning back to their villages. But the second generation of migrant workers have enjoyed their new life and new ideas that the Reform and Opening Up policies have brought. They do not want to follow in the footsteps of their parents and do the tiring, grueling, filthy work despised by city residents. But, if the migrant workers really left, city life would probably become paralyzed. However a city deals with the fundamental growing inequality between large, medium, and small cities will be a test of its level of civilization.

There will be new issues that come up in the future. We Christians must propel the urban church to care for migrant workers in the city. We must also push the rural church to care for the mental and faith needs of the left-behind children and the elderly. The church today needs to continually free itself from selfish thinking. It needs fresh ideas, new ways of thinking, and a better sense of awareness. The church also needs to respond to practical issues and challenges with a contextualized theological perspective in order to promote the healthy development of the Chinese church.

About the Author: Rev. Hong Shuyong is a pastor serving the Jiangxi Provincial Christian Council.

Edited and reposted with permission from:

Original Article: 微探城市化进程中的教会牧养 (Gospel Times)
Translation and adaption into English: “A Probe into Shepherding and Christianity's Role in China's Urbanization, Urban Church Pastor” (China Christian Daily)

Image credit: by David Leo Veksler via Flickr.

ChinaSource Team

Written by members of the ChinaSource staff.  View Full Bio


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