What is the biggest difficulty facing young rural ministers? When this is mentioned, Sister Zuo summarizes it into three points:
1. Young preachers generally have less or no wages.
2. The church congregation model is fixed, stale and difficult to transform.
3. Among middle-aged and old-age believers, it is difficult for young preachers to have a say.
Being a post-80s preacher, Zuo Xiaomei is the youngest co-worker in the local church ministry. Talking about her faith, she thinks that everything is led by God. But when it comes to the challenges and predicaments facing the church, she still has a worried look.
The story of Sister Zuo:
Because of my father's death, I blame God.
I am the second generation of a Christian family. I have been following my mother to the church since I was a child. Back then I didn't understand the pastor's sermons. I just thought that the church was very busy and there were lots of kids there, so I didn't resist going to church. When I graduated from high school, my father became gravely ill which eventually exhausted all of our family's financial resources. Due to the financial burden, my siblings and I faced the dilemma of having to quit school. In fact, I was extremely eager to go to school at that time, but our family's awkward situation forced me to drop out. What has always surprised me, however, is that my mother's faith has always remained strong. After my father became ill, my mother often prayed and asked the church people to pray for him as well. In short, whatever the faith could do to help my Dad's heath, my mother would do it. However, Dad's condition did not improve and my mother also asked me to pray for him. When my father was ill, I had repeatedly cried out to God, and eventually, he too believed in the Lord. Afterward, I left home to make money and got sick as well. After I recovered, my father was taken home to be with the Lord. After coming home to attend my father's funeral, I went back to the factory to work, but by then I already had an inextricable complaint and disappointment towards God, and I became more indifferent towards the faith.
Relying on reciting prayers and barely falling asleep
One day, I don't remember if I was too tired or too depressed while lying on my bed, I clearly heard people walking and talking in the factory dormitory, but my body couldn't move. I could hear the conversations of my roommates. I was very conscious but I just couldn't wake up. In a panic, the Lord's Prayer suddenly came into my mind, and I began to recite it in my heart. Soon after I awoke. Nevertheless, I never thought that I would be troubled by this condition for a long time, but Lord's Prayer has become less and less effective. Poor sleep leads to all kinds of health problems. Within the next three years, I had switched jobs and worked in three different factories, but they closed due to a decline in revenue and this ended my working career. My mom persuaded me to come home and so I obeyed.
God told me that He would take care of me.
Then, after a period of time, there was a short-term piano training class in my county, and my mother recommended I try it. So I did. Thanks to my strong learning ability, I grasped it very quickly. However, when it came to reading the Bible and praying, I resisted. However because everyone else was still doing them, I had to pretend. I never wanted to gain anything from prayer, but the wonderful thing was that my sleep was getting better and my gastritis disappeared. At that time, I didn't think that this was God's protection, but my body and mind were very relaxed and I felt quite comfortable. Later, I took part in a short-term music theory course, and I prayed for a long time every day. Such a state of ignorance in the faith has stayed with me for some time. One day while I was listening to a foreign gospel radio station in my classroom, I heard a pastor say: "It's not that God does not listen to your prayers. Sometimes you are eager to pray for the people and things you love, and hope to keep them, but God does not answer. God does not answer, not because He does not love you or does not hear you, but because He knows the things that prevent you from approaching Him." When I heard these words, my first feeling was that God was talking to me. In my heart, for many years I had not let go of the issue of my Dad's death. However, God had told me through the mouth of this pastor why He did not listen to my prayers. From that time on, I made up my mind to follow God and became determined to begin serious training in theology. Since then, for all these years, both in life and in service, I have truly experienced God. I think the sky has brightened up again. God is protecting me, caring for me, and loving me.
Interview with Sister Zuo
Christian Times: When did you start your service in the church?
Sister Zuo: I started to work full-time in the church in 2012. Actually, I lived a hard life in the early days. I was jealous of those who worked outside the church and wanted to have a part-time job to earn extra money because for me, a young person, there were many different expenses and my parents couldn't always support me. My mother advised me to ask God regarding the decision. Then I knew that it was not God's plan. I was clear that God, not wanting me to love the world, had spoken through my mother's words. So I didn't look for a part-time job and only focused on God, committing my life to Him. Until now, I have not worked outside the church or gotten paid, but thank God for supplying me through various kinds of people.
Christian Times: Do you receive any financial allowance or benefits from your church?
Sister Zuo: I receive some non-regular financial support. For example, there are some designated offerings and also reimbursement for larger expenses.
Christian Times: Why did you want to stay in the countryside instead of other places since there are many seniors and you are so young?
Sister Zuo: I haven't made up my mind to go to a certain place. In fact, I want to serve young people, but I experienced God who is real and knows everything I do and every thought in my heart. If I want to leave here, I must be clear that God makes a way for me. It is also related to my character because I am particularly terrified of failure. I don't dare to go somewhere else if there is no decided direction and goal. I need very, very clear guidance from God.
Christian Times: Only a few young pastors and no successors to the senior pastors would seem to indicate a failure on the part of the rural church to have the necessary staff. How do you view this?
Sister Zuo: First, young people think differently than older folks. I once served in my friend's church. I feel that today's churches are living an illusion: they seem to be reviving and full of life, but in reality are stuck in religious forms.
Another aspect is dealing with troubles. After joining a church, young man would like some help to solve his problems. However, he finds that things don't improve. It is the same here and anywhere else. The church fails to attract him and provide him with help. So I feel that many churches walk in religion rather than in Christ.
Christian Times: What is the state of churches where young pastors work?
Sister Zuo: There are few young people in the church. As a matter of fact, I'm in an embarrassing position in the church. You need to give encouraging, comforting, and not harsh messages. Otherwise, they think that you are not qualified to judge and instruct them with lesser experience and just knowledge in your head.
They politely call you "teacher" in your or other church, but the name just shows their respect, not esteem even though through preaching, the church often exhorts one not to judge a person by his or her appearance. Today's church only sees with its eyes but does not hear with its ears nor feel with its heart.
Christian Times: What is the status quo of the entire rural church? What are its dilemmas and challenges?
Sister Zuo: There are too few young people. Many Christians live under religion. They pray by following a form rather than living it out with their life. Their words are different from what they do, which fails to be a witness for their children who are not interested in their faith.
Many older people teach their children from the Bible but are unable themselves to live out the Bible's teaching. For instance, a mother taught her child to get along with the classmates, but she initiated an intense conflict with her neighbor just because of a brick or a tree. Seeing this, her child didn't see any difference between non-Christians and Christians and therefore thought that churches were only entertainment venues for the elderly.
Failing to become what Christians ought to be, the rural church has turned out to be a "religion". That is one major reason for its marginalization.
Christian Times: How do you think rural churches should be transformed?
Sister Zuo: Many churches are like this: little attention is paid to a newcomer when he enters and leaves the church. There is no care in the church. Though the church preaches about love, people live to themselves.
However, before the Chinese New Year, I saw cell groups in my friend's church that care about everybody by pastoring at different levels.
Christian Times: Do you plan to advocate cell groups in your church?
Sister Zuo: I thought of this, but it is hard to do. It's hard to change the fixed church model that has run for decades. I mention this occasionally, but it is not taken seriously after being said too often.
My teacher recommended trying the "poking sweet potatoes" method. You pierce a sweet potato being boiled every now and then with chopsticks to check if it is cooked. If not, pierce it later until it is cooked thoroughly. The method is also applicable today. A good method can't be comprehended all at once. You need to talk about it little by little so that it can penetrate people's hearts.
With regards to the promotion measures, the church should flow with love and change its pastoring pattern. Currently, the rural church just preaches a sermon on Sundays and there are no other activities during the week. Moreover, Sunday sermons are very stereotypical.
Christian Times: What are your personal difficulties in your church service?
Sister Zuo: It is still a matter of "young workers having no say".
When the church head retires at around 50, the person least subordinate to him, aged around 40, succeeds to the position. Normally, it takes ten years to change the leadership team. A young worker has to wait until that age to take charge of the church.
"Waiting" doesn't only require perseverance. In contrast to the "position", getting recognition from the congregation often makes you more helpless.
Indeed, age test the heart. In the first two years of my ministry, I was high-spirited and vigorous, eager to make a career in the church. However, those motivations were gone within two years. Now many things are just in my thoughts. Despite communicating with my friends outside the church, I no longer desire to implement them in the church.
Besides making you older, the church is also a place where your ambitions wear away. I don't fear to wait, to wait for five or ten years. What I fear is whether I can still have the motivation to do it for the Lord after five or ten years.
- Translated by Jake Jason and Karen Luo