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Birthing a Community-oriented, Mission-minded Body of Believers

by V. J. D-Davidson

How one Bible/ministry training program empowered
Christians in rural China to become a fully-functioning
body of believers without dependence on foreign input.

From 1997 onward, my non-Chinese colleague and I were involved in the operation of a government-approved medical training facility1 in an unreached part of rural China. While living in the village, we began a Bible/ministry training program as the number of Christians in the village grew.

With foreigners acting as facilitators, the aim of the program was two-fold: (1) to aid the spiritual growth of the local Christians and (2) to assist in their understanding of the Bible so as to avoid error or heresy and access its truth for themselves and their setting. We tried to deal with the problem that “house churches lack training and are prey to cults” (Chao and Lambert 1992, D-156) and that “the overwhelming majority of [house church leaders] do not go to seminaries and are seldom trained theologically [so that] no wonder old-time sects as well as newly arisen [heretical] movements are ever more prominent” (Deng 2005, 439).

The long-term aim of the training was to empower the locals so that we could leave a fully-functioning body of believers with no dependence on foreign input. This was largely achieved in the first six years and monitored for another four years.

Content, Aims, and Application
We began by teaching the basics of the Christian faith and moved to principles for understanding the Bible. We had a number of goals in reference to this: (1) be culturally sensitive so that understanding the Bible would have practical application to the learners; (2) encourage discovery and ownership of the central truths of Christianity; (3) encourage students in how to live and teach these truths in their own setting; and (4) promote spiritual development and ministerial formation.

We taught certain aspects of church history and tradition in order to avoid any recurring error. We also raised historical and contemporary issues which didn’t necessarily fit with Christian and biblical tradition, but which encouraged believers to resolve certain issues in culturally appropriate ways. A similar approach was taken for issues related to church management, as well as outreach and evangelism in the wider community.

The practical and theological development and the exercise of power and authority of local churches were left in the hands of local Christians. Participants were also empowered to not only learn for themselves, but to teach others along the lines of 2 Timothy 2:2.

Training was given in Mandarin Chinese in one genre of the Bible at a time (i.e., teaching texts, narrative, poetry, law, and texts from prophetic books and passages). Then, principles were applied to specific passages of that genre until each participant had several opportunities to preach/teach. Each person first discussed the preaching content with the facilitators. Through this systematic approach participants became accustomed to preaching from both the Old and New Testaments.

As the trainees grew in confidence in interpreting texts, they took turns teaching the rest of the group at the Christian worship services. This also provided opportunities for participants to hone their skills in leading, teaching, and preaching.
Participants were encouraged to: (1) develop a relationship with God through faith in Christ, (2) grow in Christ-likeness in cooperation with the indwelling Holy Spirit, and (3) live so as to let the overflow of God’s love, through the leading of the Spirit, touch lives around them.

Regular study of the Bible; times of personal prayer; and meeting together for worship, prayer, and teaching were encouraged. Eventually, participants led these weekly times without the facilitators present.
 
Engagement with Cultural Norms and Adult Education Theory
Passive learning has long been the norm in China. David Greenlee and James Stück report:

…the Confucian concept of education—a process based on memorizing endless books and then taking examinations over the contents…has created…passive Chinese students…with an incredible mastery of the memorization process but without the richness of application, internalization, or [the potential for] in-class dialogue. (2004, 499)

From the early days of the training, it became clear that participants were neither willing nor able to take initiative in the teaching and learning process. Cultural conditioning had accustomed them to be passive recipients of education.

To counter this mentality, we had participants learn in a modular fashion and apply their learning immediately to a real-life setting of Christian ministry. The training began where the participants were at (i.e., accustomed to the lecture style of teaching and passive in the way they receive information) before bringing them into a more interactive style of teaching and learning.

The training also involved one-on-one mentoring, which sought to ensure that each individual could function appropriately with what he or she learned. Following the group training sessions, each participant was given a Bible text and asked to prepare a sermon. The details of the preparation would then be discussed in the mentoring sessions.
The mentoring process freed the participant from the difficulty and potential embarrassment of presenting ideas in front of peers, and liberated him or her to think for him or herself.

As participants grew in confidence—having tried out their ideas on the facilitators in private, and followed the peer-tutoring practice from adult education theory (Topping 1997, 117)—they were able to take turns teaching the rest of group at the Christian worship services. Since they also took on responsibility for groups of newer believers, they developed evangelistic and pastoral ministry skills and learned to minister interdependently. 

The mentoring aspect of the teaching and learning process followed the rural China cultural pattern in which skills such as farming, raising animals, and managing the harvest are taught and learned in a one-on-one fashion. New learning and experience was built on previous learning and experience. The mentoring time was also a means to engage with and encourage each participant concerning his or her spiritual condition and/or involvement in ministerial responsibilities.
This helped engage the students in the action-reflection process urged by adult education theory (Kolb 1984).

Theological training has also been shown to be benefited by increasing engagement in ministry involvement while learning. (e.g., Kinsler 1981, 18; Ott 2001, 224-234). The students began with peer teaching, and as confidence increased, participants discipled younger believers and eventually led the groups and church-like bodies which emerged.

Community-consciousness and Mission-mindedness
While use of terminology such as “leader,” “teacher,” and “pastor” were included in later seminars, these terms were not applied to the facilitators or trainees. Neither was the term “church” used until later in the training. Rather, trainees were urged to consider themselves as part of the worldwide Body of Christ which met in that particular village.

Local Christians were encouraged to “be” and “do” church in ways they felt were most appropriate. As a result, some notable aspects of their spirituality emerged. One was the view that development of Christian faith is community-related. Another was that one’s faith should be expressed and visibly lived out within the wider community. In the Chinese community-oriented culture, this is perhaps not surprising, and hence might be seen to give greater credibility to the claim that emerging churches were “being” and “doing” church in what they believed were appropriate ways.
One way this community-consciousness was worked out was seen in how believers met for worship in different locations with joyful spontaneity. Wherever the service was chosen to take place, whoever else happened to be in the house or courtyard (whether resident or visitor) was invited to join the group having the service. This provided opportunities for relaxed sharing of the Christian faith as a normal aspect of Christian life and was the initiative of the trainees.

A similar practice prevailed for fellowship activities, family celebrations, and Bible/ministry training sessions. For instance, community-consciousness led the believers to delay the start of Bible/ministry training sessions until they had all completed whatever aspect of agricultural work was required in the courtyard where the training session was held. Typically, villagers from neighboring courtyards would join together in completing the agricultural work. For the believers, the goal was not merely to complete a task, but to seize opportunities for evangelism in the midst of the community’s agricultural norms. 

Despite challenges this practice provoked for facilitators, the importance of local believers taking responsibility for their own spiritual development, the organization of the spiritual community, and the decision concerning culturally appropriate means of evangelism could not be underemphasized. This served to confirm both the importance of the interdependence of the believers involved in the different groups and the importance of working together for the good of the wider community.

In the years following, two more groups emerged under the initiative and leadership of the trainees. Team leadership emerged and no single individual had sole responsibility for a group. All acted as peer mentors, learning and working collaboratively in order to bless their communities. They were encouraged to work out the practicalities of church management according to the needs and particular situations of whichever group in which they were involved.     

While the first and second groups were purposefully begun by the facilitators, the third and fourth were initiatives of local Christian trainees in recognition of wider community needs. The third group came about as a discipleship group for young men in the village and eventually included other family members and friends in the wider community. The fourth group began at the suggestion of one of the original trainees as a planned outreach to medical students on the edge of town. It developed into a larger gathering of friends and family members of those who attended the services. A fifth group was also begun by trainees in another village in the wider area.

Church Management and the Place of Authority and Power
The paradox of the servanthood of Christian believers was highlighted and participants were encouraged that they did not need a leader’s title to play their part in the body. Lay involvement in ministry (e.g., Patterson 1969, 148-49; Barrow 2002, 8) and the concept of shared responsibility were taught as the norm. God-ordained ministry was recognized as that which sees the Christian playing his or her part in God’s plan in a responsible manner with an eye for fruit in both the immediate church group and the wider community.

Exercise of power was seen as cooperation with the Holy Spirit in the context of God playing his part and Christians playing their part in the church community whose function was seen as leavening the wider community.
Leaders of the groups met regularly. This provided a platform for mutual accountability and encouragement and Bible teaching at a more mature level. Decisions affecting the leaders’ groups were made by consensus.

Local believers were taught that dealing with difficult personalities and/or opinions that came from outside their rural setting were best handled in prayer and fellowship together and in ways most appropriate to their setting. They were also encouraged to assign value to different issues in the light of eternal perspectives. Occasionally, the facilitators were approached to help with difficulties, but the believers were continually encouraged to find their own way of resolving problems.

Insights for Christian Missions     
As teachers, the facilitators also needed to become learners. There are at least two reasons for this:

1. Learning required an awareness of cultural norms to which trainees were accustomed. For these rural, Chinese Christians, moving from passive to interactive learning was helped through mentoring. This mirrored how they had learned agricultural and other rural life skills. Being given the opportunity to express and explore ideas and reflect on ministry practice while away from the larger group provided confidence which enabled peer teaching and teaching and pastoring of newer groups of Christians. Hence, the cultural norms of teaching and learning were identified and harnessed in a beneficial way.

2. Facilitators engaged in a learning process which local Chinese Christians also saw as appropriate for “being and doing church” in their own setting. Balance was needed in providing information and tools for spiritual development and mission activity, without being overly prescriptive in how activities should look in practice. What resulted was a community-oriented, mission-minded body of believers being and doing church on their own terms.
These insights might be fruitfully applied in other settings, both rural and non-rural, inside and outside China, wherever outreach or church-planting situations have overlapping or similar characteristics.

Endnote
1. The facility is first referred to in print in the context of its contribution to medical mission and holistic community development in D-Davidson (2011). Edited excerpts used with permission.

References
Barrow, Simon. 2002. Presence and Prophecy: A Heart for Mission in Theological Education. Study Guide. London: Church House Publishing.

Chao, Jonathan and Tony Lambert. 1992. “Future Prospects for China Ministry—A Dialogue.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. rev. ed. Eds. Ralph Winter and Steve Hawthorne, D-154-D161. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library. 

D-Davidson, V. J. 2011. “Empowering Transformation: A Contemporary Medical Mission Case Study from Rural China.” Transformation 28(2):138-148.

Deng, Zhaoming. 2005. “Indigenous Chinese Pentecostal Denominations.” In Asian and Pentecostal: The Charismatic Face of Christianity in Asia. Eds. Allan Anderson and Edmond Tang, 437-466. Oxford: Regnum.

Greenlee, David and James Stück. 2004. “Individualist Educators in a Collectivist Society: Insights from a Cross-Cultural Model Applied to China.” Missiology 32(4):491-504.

Kinsler, F. Ross. 1981. The Extension Movement in Theological Education: A Call to the Renewal of Ministry. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Kolb, David A. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Ott, Bernard. 2001. Beyond Fragmentation. Oxford: Regnum.

Patterson, George N. 1969. Christianity in Communist China. Waco, Tex.: Word Books.

Topping, Keith. 1997. “Peer Tutoring for Flexible and Effective Adult Learning.” In Adult Learning: A Reader. Ed. Peter Sutherland, 106-120. London: Kogan Page Ltd.

….

Dr. V. J. D-Davidson (davidsonarticles@gmail.com) has a PhD from Birmingham University and began working in rural community health work and theological education in Northeast Asia in 1994. Dr. D-Davidson has been teaching in the Philippines since 2008 and is a guest lecturer and extension faculty member of Asia Pacific Theological Seminary in Baguio, Philippines, and guest lecturer with Ecclesia Bible College in Hong Kong.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 226-231. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

 

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