Interview: Pastor's Experience, Reflections on Pastoral Transformation From Rural Churches to Urban Churches

A rural church in Henan.
A rural church in Henan.
By Steve Sun July 28th, 2022

Editor's Note: Pastor L (pseudonym) has a pastoral experience of nearly 30 years. It was in rural churches that he accepted and worshiped Christ, then devoted himself to God. Later, he was sent by the Lord to do pastoral ministry in a city. At that time, he confessed, "I don't want to grow an urban church in rural church style." His meaningful words embodied his persistence and insistence on the proper function and positioning of the church.

Specifically, what kind of persistence and insistence is this? The Christian Times, an online Chinese Christian newspaper, interviewed L to share the similarities and differences between rural churches and urban churches.

Christian Times: In your opinion, what are the similarities and differences between rural churches and urban churches?

Pastor L: My hometown is in a rural area where both my grandparents and my parents grew up in a rural church. I also grew up in the countryside. Since 1996, I have spent three years preaching in the rural areas of Northeast China. Then, a month after I got married in 2005, my wife and I came to pastor in a southern city where I found that the difference between urban churches and rural churches is not a matter of environment or geography, but of different pastoral philosophies.

Differences Between Rural Churches and Urban Churches

I have summarized some of the characteristics of rural gatherings based on my personal experience. Firstly, during gatherings, it’s a prominent phenomenon that believers come late and leave early for rural Christians lack the concept of time. Secondly, the environment of the meeting venue is not very pleasant. Some would meet in a huge shed. Believers with a rural background are used to this kind of environment. When praying together, they don’t even have a cushion to kneel on.

During the holy communion, in rural churches, all believers drink grape juice from the same cup, which is very unhygienic. It's also hard to know for sure how much one should drink.

In addition, in the management of donations, the elders of rural churches and the host families don’t strictly supervise expenditures. There should be two or three people responsible for financial management. The style of the rural church is that people trust each other. Sometimes, there is no more money left when it is time to pay bills. But no one clearly knows how the money has been spent. I think this management model of only relying on trust among people is not right.

Another notable phenomenon in rural churches is that rural pastors generally do not study, do not read books, and even have nothing to do with theology, for they believe that knowledge makes one arrogant. Once, I was invited to preach. Unfortunately, I said I was not prepared, so I couldn't do it. However, the pastor said to me, "The Bible says: don't worry, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say. (Luke 12:12)" Many rural pastors have personally experienced much God’s power and miracles, so they rely on this to serve all the year round, and they are not willing to continue to grow or know more about God Himself.

Here is another example. In rural churches, I find that some pastors preach well, but have problems with the interpretation of the Bible. Many of them handwrite the Bible and preach as much as they have written. When I was young, I heard a pastor read the Acts (of Apostles) as "Acts of the Stones." Some believers asked, how could the stones be able to do the Acts? The rural pastor replied, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26). When hearing them recite Acts 1:8, I didn't even understand what they were saying at all. For example, when they said “burning Mary”, it was actually burning Samaria. These pastors do not understand the literal meaning of the scriptures, let alone the spirit of the scriptures. Rural pastors need to improve their personal qualities in culture and theology.

First, in general, rural pastors have a low literacy level. Second, they are not equipped to study. Third, a large percentage of rural pastors are actually opposed to studying theology but emphasize more on personal experience. I believe that theology is the foundation of serving. However, many church staff who serve passionately in rural areas cannot sit down and be willing to study humbly, and even fall asleep listening to sermons. Many of them lack the learning ability.

This is my summary of the characteristics of rural churches.

Since arriving in the city, I have been facing groups of very different characteristics in the cultural and social status and background from before. If we don't grow and change, it will be difficult for us to influence people with high social status, good knowledge, and powerful position. One pastor from my hometown started serving in a city. In an apartment rented as the church venue, he collected wooden boards at a construction site to make blackboards with black paint, and many stools of various shapes. Although he lived in an urban building, it still felt like a rural gathering venue. He would rather save money than invest in important hardware.

Another church rented a very small venue, just because it was cheap. It was not a rectangular-shaped apartment. The living room had an oblique angle. When I knelt down on the concrete floor together with a senior female believer to pray, I felt my knees were really hurting. But this elder believer thought it was impious to pray with a cushion. I said to her: "You need to change your perception. On the one hand, it is clean and hygienic to pray with a cushion under the knees, on the other hand, it is more comfortable so that those who participate in prayers don't have to pray for you hoping you will end the prayer meeting sooner." Following my suggestion, she changed the gathering venue and bought cushions for praying on her knees. Such small matters were in fact the concept in one’s heart about how to serve the church.

In my opinion, regarding the hardware of the church, it is necessary to have chairs of the same design, excellent lighting for meetings, and screen projection from mobile phones or computers. Although our church is not very large, it makes the churchgoers who attend gatherings feel that it is a church and a formal meeting venue where they are taken seriously.

The church has an invisible soft asset which is the pastors.

Pastors' education level and hospitality manners make the first impression on the church. Pastors who have little knowledge can easily be despised by believers. A pastor needs to have basic common sense and read many various types of books. If a Buddhist finds out you know more than he does as a pastor, he will slowly feel interested in you, so that you become a bridge.

When it comes to preaching and pastoring, the first thing to pay attention to is that some people will not accept the faith you preach because they cannot accept you as a person. Second, knowing that your cultural knowledge and values are wrong, they can’t embrace your faith either. I think that pastors need to improve in both areas.

Being settled in the city, I focused on developing the gathering environment and facilities, for which I spent much money on renting and decorating a whole floor with no separations, buying good equipment, building a reception room, a library, etc. Such a venue makes people feel they are treated seriously. I always teach that you should be ashamed if your home is better than God's home. We rent office buildings for some meeting points, which are public places and more convenient for gatherings. Some believers are afraid of gatherings in private homes and feel safe going to office buildings.

Christian Times: How can your church grow under the pandemic?

Pastor L: We are very focused on relational outreach in difficult circumstances. There will be a love feast after our church services. We invite churchgoers and their friends and relatives to mountain hiking together, to have meetings on the mountain, tug-of-war competitions, and parent-child activities, etc. With such opportunities, we can influence those parents so that they will have a good impression of the church. In the city, a relationship is very important. We need to build a relationship first, then talk about faith. Hanging out and dining together, we start a relationship with which they begin to accept us. Then, we can visit their homes, counsel and help them with real marriage and family problems, and parent-child problems. At these moments, they naturally want to get close to the church and God. Then we introduce the faith, teach the Bible, help them run their own marriages and families, and teach them how to tutor their children better.

Christian Times: Currently, how do you train the co-workers and group leaders in the church?

Pastor L: Our church has always kept doing the discipleship ministry. Believers who eat the loaves and have their fill have no burden or offering to the church. Co-workers always come early and leave late working on the ministries needed by the church. It’s very important to develop disciples. The Lord Jesus spent most of his time with his disciples during his stay on earth which lasted more than three years. My disciple-making method has four stages. "You observe how I do it. Then, you do it with me. Later, I observe how you do it. Finally, they observe how you do it." Paul taught Timothy so that Timothy could teach others who continued teaching the next generation. We call this the four-generation model.

During the holidays, we gathered the brothers and sisters who were thirsting for the truth, and also had had adequate education, to train for 3-4 days. After the gathering, they went home and studied a course, so as to equip themselves. After the Sunday services, we asked them to stay for an hour for the discipleship course after which they left after having lunch together. Over the years, we had been practicing this. Later we also added group discipleship training on Wednesdays during which I provided those believers with some lessons to learn.

Afterward, I set up a WeChat group in which I distributed the course materials. Following each lesson, there would be ten questions to be answered. Participants must study the courses, read the lecture notes, do the homework, and think for themselves. I wouldn’t know if they had learned the materials even if they showed good interest. But I could supervise their answers which they couldn’t give without reading all materials well.

In terms of the truth, after finishing the online study, we also teach courses about pastoral service, how to practice preaching, and how to lead people to the Lord. In pastoral studies, we teach how to pray, how to read the Bible and equip them with basic teachings. I have been running this course for more than three years. There are more than 100 students in three classes at the same time. They are divided into different classes according to their educational level, ministry engagement time, and experience. After achieving passing grades and graduating, I will issue them certificates, and keep supervising and motivating them. Later, whenever I see some young people, I will encourage them to be leaders, leading the Bible reading and the worship. I will also let them join the ministry in the church, such as preaching the gospel to others or practicing preaching in small groups with my speech notes. Later I will set up deacons, elders, and assistant pastors in the church, who would be responsible for different groups.

Assistant pastors and elders participate in leading the holy communion. I can also bring co-workers of the preaching ministry together to do preaching exercises during which we will grade them on the courage and content of the preaching. I'll give them important advice such as making eye contact during preaching. We will discover the gifts of different people and make them group leaders, and entrust them with positions and missions.

Christian Times: At this stage, what problems do you encounter in pastoral care?

Pastor L: There are five aspects to these problems.

1. Pastors need to grow themselves by learning, including myself who aim for constant improvement. We must ensure that there is always fresh blood in pastoral staff so that we need to keep reading and making disciples.

2. Believers often have to work overtime in factories. Sometimes, it is difficult for the whole congregation to attend gatherings.

3. There are many urban churches. Some believers cannot commit themselves to one church but run around to several churches. We will encourage believers to notice the importance of being committed to one church, and not go back and forth with gossip.

4. Regarding the marriage of believers in cities, there are long-distance marriages, many single mothers with one child in divorced single-parent families, and older single believers who cannot find suitable partners. The disproportion between men and women in the church is also serious.

5. There are many single brothers but few unmarried sisters in our church. A few older brothers remain single with no access to suitable partners.

- Translated by Shuya Wang

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