by Samuel E. Chiang
How do individuals, churches, or organizations assist, serve and partner with the church in China?
China’s turbo-charged economy of the last decade is sputtering to a roaring halt. Rural income is hit hard. There are, literally, millions of workers who are not paid. On top of that, an estimated 130 million form a "floating" population trying to seek jobs in the cities. Education spending as a percentage of GNP continues to slide. Many university graduates are being asked to pay for their education, and they are not able to find jobs.
With some thirty million job seekers in 2000, China must achieve an annual growth rate of approximately eight percent to keep up with new entries into the labor market. Even with that, there are only fourteen million new positions created in this slowing economy. This leaves almost sixteen million people who will be unable to find a job. In fact, reforming the State Operated Enterprises (SOEs), combined with layoffs, has economists in China forecasting an annual unemployment rate of ten percent in the cities for the next fifteen years.
Finally, high unemployment ratios contribute to and increase in the crime statistics. Over the last ten years, crime cases have doubled, with over one million new cases annually. With criminal cases up and many judgments rendering ten years minimum sentencing, prisons are feeling the strain of a population displaced by a fast-changing economy.
Citizens of China have come a long way from three decades ago. The cultural-revolution generation, officially dubbed as the "lost generation," went, from dismay, disbelief, insecurity, fear, tragedy, disaster and finally to acceptance. The two decades of economic opening helped them to feel somewhat secure, to bury fear and to develop the will-power to express and create. Now with the abolition of the "cradle to grave" system, people are filled with fear and anger. Outward expression results in rioting, bombings and other criminal activities. There is no other way to vent their feelings of abandonment.
The "one-child" generation from two decades ago is doing better. Better educated, they all have jobs and they represent the genetic coding of a new China. When their parents talk fondly for the days of Chairman Mao when everyone was equal and there was a sense of law and order, the one-child generation does not understand. Their struggle for acquiring a foreign language, becoming technologically savvy and working for a non-SOE drives them away from the "lost generation."
For the last 50 years, the government managed compliant people. Now they must understand and manage two diverging people groups who are different in productivity, welfare and needs.
Similarly, for the last 20 years, the church has tried to meet the needs of the believers. With few trained leaders, the church of China is ill-equipped to address and manage the millions of seekers who are actively searching and the millions of disciples who are maturing. China has 20 Bible seminaries, with approximately 550 graduates per year (actually, with attrition, it is less than this). With only one or two-years of formal training, the number of trained are still not able to meet the congregational needs. Let us, for hyperbole sake, argue that there are in all 15,000 (formally and non-formally trained) leaders for an estimated 15 million believers. This puts one leader in charge of 1,000 people. In reality, the ratio is one trained leader for at least 3,500 believers. Officials often would quote an even greater ratio of one to 5,000 or 7,000. It would appear there is lots of room for cults and new personality sects to proliferate.
The church in China is in a state of paradox. While many house churches are still holding firm to the tradition of not joining the Three-Self churches, often house churches have now registered with the government. Many of the Three-Self churches which previously kept a distance and now warm towards the house churches. A growing middle ground has been created by the central government who allows churches to register with the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB).
Thus, the once sharp dichotomy now has house churches who are registered with the Three-Self or the RAB and Three-Self churches which are openly helping and working with the house churches.
How does the church deal with two very distinct generations, or manage migration paths of two very different congregations, or face a Central government that is suspicious about a gathering of any group of people? Christianity is particularly virulent in the mind of the government, because the church not only gathers, but has an active, coherent, well-laid out strategy to convert people. How do individuals, churches, or organizations assist, serve and partner with the church in China? Perhaps it is best to define these challenges in three broader categories: (1) The advancing attack of the cults; (2) The need for systematic training; and (3) The capabilities to deal with changing an agrarian society into an industrial economy.
THE ADVANCING ATTACK OF THE CULTS
The West has had to deal with various cults which developed over the last 200 years. But imagine compressing that 200 years and unleashing an attack of new cults in a span of only four years (1992-1996). Some of the cults have disappeared, but many have taken root.
In fact, one of the cults, "dongfongshandian" (Lightning from the East), is extremely insidious. Interviews with church leaders indicate this group has often resorted to a number of tactics. They attend a local church masquerading as a worshiper for a period of time to gather understanding of the church. They teach biblically sound materials initially to gain the trust of congregational members. They memorize and quote Scriptures more than church leadership to win the respect of church co-workers. In some places, they have stayed hidden for over 24 months. During this time, they also visit and understand the other local churches and leadership. From time to time they will visit homes of members of the congregation and church leadership and leave their thick, well-bounded, doctrinal book. Then, unexpectedly, they spring into action, taking over the whole church and often an entire network of churches.
The church in China is growing, but the exodus to cults is just as rampant as the church’s growth. One key problem is content. The shepherd in the pulpit often lacks solid, systematic, biblical content to teach the congregation. The sheep, not fed, will wander out the backdoor trying to find better spiritual food. It is at these moments that the cults come and, by filling a void, lead them astray.
What is a possible solution to assist the church In China? Identify the leaders and segment the geographical and spiritual realities. The first step is to identify the geographical leaders in each province and sort them into categories based on size, geographical location, church hierarchical format, level of sophistication, spiritual knowledge and the multiplication potential.
Many church leaders are well-versed in Scripture and have committed much to memory. Very few outside of China can quote chapter and verse like the brothers and sisters in China. Nevertheless, quoting Scripture does not represent understanding of spiritual knowledge. The foundation of knowing "salvation" is often misunderstood. Building blocks of ministry are also often missing.
Moreover, jealousy and strife is not unknown among church leaders. A whisper here about one leader and a disapproving look about another leader will often lock in ministry investment and involvement with a specific local leader. We must be prepared to spend the time to assess and identify the geographical and spiritual realities on the local level.
THE NEED FOR SYSTEMATIC TRAINING
The West, especially among Asians, desires to serve the church in China. They come, they send their pastors, they send those who have "a burden" and they train. However, the steady diet of the book of Ephesians, more of the book of Ephesians, "here is what you need to know," "here is what I think you need to know" and complete knowledge overload, serve only to cripple the church in China.
What is the possible solution? Define the local needs. A church network in Xi’an that encompasses the country side has different needs than an urban city church network in Shanghai or an intellectual church gathering in Beijing.
Currently, there is a lack of willingness among the believers in the West to examine local needs. There are two primary sources of contention in comprehension and thinking. On a micro-level we, in the West, tend to think that what the local church leaders request will define the local need. We often fail to uncover larger felt-needs and systematic needs.
On the macro level, we tend to think along the lines of "one-size-fits-all" strategy, of training, ministering and serving. Once we reveal a curriculum to the local leaders, they wholeheartedly agree with it, whatever they really feel. This compounds the errors of assumptions twice over. The local church leaders are often so willing for outsiders to come and help, for whatever motivations, that they are willing to adjust their felt-needs to what the outsider’s perception. Thus, the speed of invitation and the speed of commitment by both parties often brings regret. Further, each province in China alone can be counted as a country. The economic, linguistic and cultural nuances challenge even the indigenous leadership. However, could outsiders find it so easy to determine what the local needs are?
The Western church (and Asian churches) can serve the church in China better by finding out where they are in terms of knowledge. By taking a long-term view, they can put together systematic training programs to assist individual churches and networks. The Asian Church can go back to the systematic teaching that had been provided in their church for the last ten years by transcribing some expository content to help the leaders and the shepherds in China.
Systematic training, properly implemented, is having a dramatic impact in China. In some cases, after the shepherds have been trained, they will go into areas where the local churches have been infected by cults and the congregation will turn and listen to the voice of the "true" shepherd once again.
Assess the Leadership capabilities.Effective and meaningful relationship with the church in China requires assessment on several different levels. Before investing both human and financial resources, certain basic variables should be examined. Maximum integrity and minimal standard levels of financial soundness are necessary. Other capabilities and capacities of delivery and multiplication should be observed for what they can potentially become.
THE CAPABILITIES TO DEAL WITH AN AGRARIAN SOCIETY CHANGING INTO AN INDUSTRIAL ECONOMY
Rapid industrialization has displaced individuals, families and clan structure. Clan structure and protection is reduced to economic expedience; family values are replaced with material gain; individual insecurity is projected through anger.
The church must face not only confronting the cults, but also confronting the anger from among both congregational members and non-Christians at large. The shepherds are ill-equipped to deal with this. The traditional Chinese way is to internalize feelings, even the very explosive emotion of anger. That is not to say anger is not vented. There are many ways to release anger including slander, lying, psychological torture and societal positional/clan warfare. But today, emotions are coming out in the open. Often, the shepherds lack the tools and the will to reflect properly on a biblical perspective and teach how to release anger in a constructive way.
Moreover, the church leaders need to address difficult social issues, such as how to care for the old, how to assist members who are out of work and how to provide biblical counseling and teaching on a range of issues from dating, divorce and remarriage, to tithing, micro-loans and cross-cultural missionary training.
HOW CAN OUTSIDE CHURCHES PARTNER WITH THE CHURCH IN CHINA?
Identify and cost out the ministry partnership, service and multiplication options. The most crucial variables are network size, type and costs. Costing out meaningful projects must include how much the Chinese are able to raise locally. Considerations should also be given to appropriate technological growth so that they can increase effectiveness with an appropriate level of technology transferred to them.
The West, especially the overseas Chinese, would like more direct involvement with the church in China. There is much knowledge that can be offered but considerations should be given to how to serve over the long term. Teaching and transformation is not an overnight, short term option. Due consideration for systematic and gradual approach as will ensure growth and "enduring knowledge" of the Word. Traditional education often tests knowledge that is "worth" knowing, and focuses on "being familiar" with biblical knowledge. In China, most incidents and engagements with church networks will require non-traditional education. This form of education focuses more on what is "important" to know and do, and what is "enduring understanding." Non-formal education in China necessitates a "backward design" in curriculum.
Often, ministry philosophy is not well thought through in China. With imminent and continual demand of seekers, church leaders have very little time to reflect on this subject. The Asian church (overseas, in China or in the USA) can provide some bite-sized concepts for developing a healthy blue-print for a ministry philosophy.
Pick the best strategy far each church network. Vast regional differences dictate that there is no on-size-fits-all partnership and multiplication solution. Successful partnerships adapt their methods to each church network, rather than trying to create a single system that will work everywhere.
We in the West tend to work with neat "black and white" models; there is an enormous number of unpalatable shades of gray in China. We demand, and should have, high levels of transparency in working with the church in China (open or house churches); but, sometimes by necessity, even the "open and registered" churches, for security considerations, must tolerate a lower level of transparency. We want to serve the church in China with fervor, but various circumstances may lead us to toss many cautions to the wind.
Now that we have crossed the millennium, the West, especially the Asian churches, have the resources to leverage, the capacity to execute and the near culture gateway to launch into China. We must prayerfully consider the opportunities, fully view the challenges and come as learners to partner with a growing but needy church in China.
Samuel Chiang is area director, East Asia with Partners International, San Jose, Calif. He was born in Taiwan.
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