"Tradition, Modernity, and Mainstream," Three Dimensions in Church Growth in Eastern China

A cross  on the Bible.
A cross on the Bible.
By Wang QuqiApril 26th, 2021

China's urbanization has accelerated since the reform and opening-up especially in the last two decades. The urbanization rate reached 50% in 2010 from 18% in 1978, and 60% by 2020. That is to say, China is now a country dominated by an urban population.

As a famous historical and cultural city, City-A is at the forefront of the reform and opening-up in eastern China, and its urbanization level is at the forefront of the whole country. Thanks to the city's profound historical and cultural heritage and rapid economic and social development, its churches have also developed rapidly in the past ten years. At present, there are 67 registered churches (including gathering venues), 105 full-time pastors, and about 120,000 regular churchgoers in the city. There are 11 churches that are directly under the Municipal Christian Council & Three-Self Patriotic Movement (CC&TSPM) with about 50,000 believers and 26 full-time pastors. It is roughly estimated that the ratio of pastors to believers is 1:1500 (the ratio in the province where City-A is located is about 1:3000). The present situations of its churches are that the pews and pastors are outnumbered by believers, and the growth of believers is far quicker than the graduation of trained pastors - the urgency of demand is still increasing.

For more than ten years, Christianity in City-A has made great efforts to pursue the healthy development of the church and put forward four modes of church development, namely, the transformation of worship, management, pastoral care, and missionary mode.

In my opinion, at present, for the development of Chinese urban churches, especially for church groups in southeast coastal cities like City-A, three dimensions or aspects need to be considered and solved at the same time.

Firstly, the same old problems have always troubled the development of Chinese churches: plenty of believers with much fewer pastors, many people with fewer gathering venues, many private gathering places with constant heretical interruptions, utilitarian beliefs, faith with a strong sense of superstition, overly simple understanding of the faith, far insufficient contacts with the society, as well as high barriers and too many huge differences with the society.

Secondly, with the development of the economy and society, a new personnel group, new challenges, and new crises have emerged in urban churches. The new personnel group refers to the increasing presence of youth, students, white-collars, overseas returnees, entrepreneurs, professionals, and foreigners in churches. They are highly educated, have high economic and social status, and have a high demand for the quality of belief in contrast to the more traditional church images of the old, the sick, and the dominant number of females. However, the existing churches generally fail to effectively meet their needs, resulting in certain waste of resources and leaving of personnel.

The new challenges refer to the aging of the population, uneven regional distribution of migration, and floating population leaving cities. The new crisis refers to the fast pace of society, the developed digital information technology of social networking such as the Internet and new media, the fierce competition in the spiritual field, and the situation in which little fishes eat big fishes and fast fishes eat slow fishes, etc.

Thirdly, the great transformation of national ideology and strategic policy has a far-reaching impact on the development of the church. The impact requires the church to conform to the historical trend of this era, make great efforts to promote the Sinicization of Christianity and realize the complete renewal of the political stand, theological thought, value concept, worship etiquette, belief life, and other aspects of Chinese Christianity.

In short, the urban churches need to grasp the above three dimensions: tradition, modernity and mainstream, and make up for the gaps, strengthen the foundation and bring forth the new.

First of all, in view of the tradition of the church, we know that the church is ultimately a spiritual group and a holy and public place. The most basic and fundamental activity we need to carry out is the traditional ministry of the church, that is, to shape a correct, godly and committed belief life and build an appropriate church management system.

On the other hand, most people in a church still recognize a series of activities, such as worship, prayer meetings, spiritual meetings, sermons and Bible study, which are considered to be the most traditional; and they still accept the norm that only pastors (backbone volunteers) give sermons while they quietly listen.

People's faith demands always stay at the shallowest level. For instance, they will ask or pay attention to the following questions repeatedly: How can I be saved (understood as whether I can go to Heaven in future)? What do I rely on to be justified? Can I be saved once and forever? What is God's will (generally referring to what the questioner should do and should not do)? Where is God when I am ill or have an accident? In addition, the activities and participants are obviously repetitive, with outdated concepts, even with the traditional agricultural, social, and cultural value of 'being rich is safe'. There is the utilitarian color of folk religious beliefs, which are the performance characteristics.

The above description and analysis reflect the problem of the construction of faith foundation, which involves the core basic essence of the Christian faith. In this respect, the church must establish and improve the belief growth mechanism of its believers. In church tradition, we call it disciple training.

The church should form a belief growth mechanism from scratch and from shallowness to depth. Generally speaking, we can have a step-by-step curriculum system of "elementary-intermediate-advanced" (believer-disciple-apostle). The primary level can be for seekers, which solves the problem of establishing basic beliefs. There may also be a stage of introducing the aims, values, organization and management, believers' life and activities of the church to which they belong. In this way, we get believers who are committed to Christ and the church.

Secondly, believers should enter the stage where belief life and spiritual needs are created, which is commonly known as the stage of herding. At this stage, the church should offer thematic courses, such as prayer and spirituality, teaching and evangelism, service and witness, family life, children's education, workplace work, and other important aspects, to help believers establish Christian faith practice in line with the Bible.

In addition, we should ensure that believers have committed fellowship and spiritual partners or team members who trust and support each other. For more than 10 years, the church in the urban area of City-A has devoted itself to the group work of hierarchical pastoral care. The believers have registered to join the family group established after being inspected and recognized according to the principle of proximity under the arrangement of each church, and have regular meetings to try their best to make sure every believer cares and is cared for.

At the same time, the church has a long-term vision of its own development and human resources. Accordingly, it has also established a systematic hierarchical volunteer training system, and established an investigation and selection mechanism to discover and explore the talents of volunteers.

Secondly, the modernity of urban churches is also the most remarkable new problem. At the beginning of the 20th century, Reinhold was still a pastor in a church in Detroit, a newly-developed industrial city. His five-year pastoral career was a moment when the United States was advancing by leaps and bounds. The process of industrialization was changing with each passing day and the social transformation was rapid. At that time, the original social system and the cultural and spiritual strength with the church as the main task-bearer were unable to adapt to the development of new industrial capitalism.

At that time, Reinhold was a new young pastor of the city church. He had not yet become a heavyweight theologian, a well-known public intellectual, or a consultant to several American presidents. However, in his pastoral practice named Essays of the Tamed Cynics, he wrote about the church's adherence to stereotypes and "talking to itself" with meticulous observation, profound analysis, and spicy and humorous words, which was a major disconnect from society. Therefore, he proposed that the theological thought of the church should be updated, advocated reading the Bible again, and preached the eternal truth of the Gospel of Christ in a way that modern person can understand, accept and apply practically.

Today, we in China have a similar situation. Compared with the second industrial revolution at that time, we are now in the fourth industrial revolution represented by artificial intelligence, big data, and the Internet of Things. We are not only in the process of industrialization but also directly entering the post-industrialization and consumerism era due to the late economic and social development.

Therefore, the emerging urban groups we are facing are quite different, and their way of thinking, life purpose and rhythm are quite different from those of traditional believers. If the teaching and pastoral care provided to them also stay in routine activities and ways such as gathering, studying scriptures, and praying, it will inevitably lead to drowsiness and inefficiency, which will eventually lead to their inability to commit wholeheartedly, failure to develop their potential and even produce side effects on the church under certain conditions.

For example, economic development has produced entrepreneurs, professional managers and professionals in the church. Up to now, according to incomplete statistics, there have been no less than 50 Christian industrial and commercial leagues in China, mainly distributed in Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Shanghai, Beijing, Sichuan, and other regions. This pattern basically corresponds to and reflects the leading advantages of the eastern coastal areas in China's reform and opening up and economic and social development.

These enterprises and professionals have formed new requirements and challenges to the original pastoral mode and ability of the church, which prompted the church to adopt new ideas and measures to meet the needs of this part of believers. They have more economic and social resources and strong abilities. They tend to have active thoughts, extensive contacts, rich resources and special status, and have considerable influence in the church and society. They can greatly promote the development and progress of the church in infrastructure construction, ministry resources expansion, management improvement, and social charity service.

At the same time, if there is no good pastoral ministry and management, it can also lead to church disputes and even divisions, destroy the original organizational structure of the church, cause foreign-related problems, breed external religious infiltration or appear in disguised pursuit of buying and selling business; and even induce illegal and criminal phenomena of illegal fund-raising, fraud and wealth collection causing extremely bad damage to the church.

Urban white-collars, overseas returnees, artists, and other new classes and industries are similar. For these participants, city churches need to adapt to local conditions, teach students in accordance with their aptitude and meet their different spiritual and social needs. It is necessary for the church to assign full-time teaching and herding co-workers for supervision and herding, and the responsibility should be fulfilled to people. However, it cannot solve all the problems, and it is necessary to "distribute food on time" and respond to them in a targeted way. It is necessary to form a characteristic gathering activity based on professional characteristics, living habits, hobbies, and specialties.

Accordingly, the church should also develop professional volunteers. The important characteristics of modern society are a division of labor and specialization. Different groups of people in the church have different needs, and many affairs of the church need to be handled professionally. In combination with its existing conditions and abilities, the church can train volunteers who specialize in certain fields such as sacred music, church acoustics, parenting education, marriage and family training, culture and art workshops, and social services.

Churches can also expand outward, seek resources, invite mature ministry teams or accomplished attendants, or professionals to give special guidance and training and establish their own professional volunteers by learning from other people's advanced experience. At present, the theological seminary education in the west is undergoing great changes, and the original theological education content and mode are being greatly challenged. A theological education for lay believers' leaders, which pays more attention to practice, pays attention to the world and emphasizes the church and church practice deeply rooted in the community as the base, is getting more and more attention and recognition.

In this respect, City-A Church has been exploring and trying. The branch campus of a provincial theological seminary in City-A is dedicated to training full-time pastors who adapt to the development of new churches in cities and lay leaders who have serious pursuits and are rooted in church service.

Finally, the reaching-out of Christianity which is based on ‘the Word became flesh’ as its core also requires us to actively adapt to and respond to our environment. Christianity also advocates "universal revelation" in its theological construction, and requires itself to enter the secular world, wear a cultural cloak, and understand and apply its surrounding culture. Christianity fully reflects its response, adaptation, reference and integration to different languages and cultures of different regions and nationalities in its two thousand years' spread and development, and there are many Christian forms that have far-reaching influence in history or reality, such as Greek Christianity, Latin Christianity, Coptic Christianity, Syrian Christianity, Byzantine Christianity, and Celtic Christianity.

After Christianity was introduced into China in history, it showed conflicts with Chinese culture in three aspects: doctrine and theology, experience and ceremony, and teaching system and power. There is also a tension between tradition and modernity in Christianity. In the present situation, it is worth pondering how the Christian church responds to the challenge.

(This article was originally published in a WeChat account named "Faith and Learning". CCD translated with permission.)

- Translated by Charlie Li

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