This year June 5th is Pentecost, also known as the "Birthday of the Church". In the book of Acts, it was on this day that the promise of Jesus was fulfilled that the Holy Spirit came upon men and women, old and young, regardless of gender, race, age, and color. It was on this day that 3,000 people were baptized after hearing the apostle Peter’s sermon. They became the first members of the early church.
Although many churches are often in conversation about loving the church, longing for the Holy Spirit, and preparing for revival, we have to admit honestly that time after time we overlook and forget the important builders of grassroots churches and the executors of church functions — the group of grassroots pastors. To us, they are often the “silent majority.”
1:24,000 pastoring ratio: the burden of pastors caused by “many sheep with few shepherds”
According to the book Religions of China Report 2010, released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there were more than 55,000 Christian churches in mainland China at that time. As found in the 29th issue of Phoenix Weekly in 2010, many interviewed experts studied this data further and found that this number was overly conservative. Although no one could give an exact number, most experts believe that the accurate number should be much higher than 55,000. The Journal quoted the analysis provided by scholars such as Li Fan and Li Xiangping, Director of the Center for Religions and Cultures Research at East China Normal University. They felt that, at that time, the number of church sites (church buildings and meeting venues) exceeded 80,000. This number did not include small meetings in homes.
Based on the data released by the State Administration of Religious Affairs in June 2012, there were nearly 139,000 sites approved for religious activities in China, including 56,000 Christian churches and meeting locations approximately.
It is 2022 now, and the numbers may be higher or lower due to changes in various situational factors. From the official data of 2010 and 2012, the number of grassroots pastors at that time (the pastors and church workers in the pastoral position) should be in the tens of thousands.
According to the data from the white paper entitled, China's Policies and Practices on Upholding Freedom of Religious Belief, there are more than 38 million Christians and about 57,000 clergy. In addition to the registered teaching staff, there are many non-government-approved grassroots pastors. The exact number remains unknown, but it is estimated that there are more than 60,000 or 70,000 grassroots pastors.
Many pastors commented that the revival of the Chinese church in the 1980s and 1990s after China’s reform and opening up was essentially a "lay movement." This manifested itself in grassroots pastors being "good shepherds." They may not have much power and benefits associated with the hierarchical structure of an institutionalized church. Most of them are the pastors of their congregations simply because they have experienced God's grace and calling.
Derived from the official data of 2014, the current number of Christians in China is between 23 million and 40 million, accounting for about 1.7% to 2.9% of China's total population. If we calculate based on 40 million Christians and 60,000 grassroots pastors, one pastor is ministering to 24,000 people. Even if we take various factors into account and reduce the number by half, the minimum number of people that one grassroots pastor has to minister exceeds 10,000.
Compared to churches around the globe, the ration of 1:10,000 is shocking. This shows how great is the burden upon the shoulders of grassroots pastors.
When talking to an urban pastor in Shandong, I asked, "What do grassroots pastors need?" His answer impressed me. "The best thing is to give us some rest. The reality is that numerous pastors in China have no chance to rest at all, including me. Retreat? It is not that there are some. Rather, there are none at all. Pastors in other countries are able to have a sabbatical every seven years, but that is impossible in China. If I take a break, who is able to fill in for me? There are so many things that no one else can handle. Taking Monday off every week is very difficult to implement. If believers come to talk, they can't be left alone, can they? They could drop by at any time. Those who come are typically troubled. No one comes to the pastor if everything goes well."
The situation this pastor faces is not unique. Many nameless grassroots pastors are under this continual, year after year of the stress of giving pastoral care.
A stable income and life often "not expected nor attainable" for grassroots pastors
In addition to the burden of pastoral care, many grassroots pastors face financial difficulties. With the rise of urban churches, there has been an emphasis on the institutionalization of full-time pastoral staff. Many urban churches have gradually attached importance to and implemented a payroll system for full-time pastors. The reporter recently heard that, especially in the southeastern coastal areas, such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, and other places, full-time pastors are offered wages and social security that are higher than the city’s minimum wage. These places have attracted seminary graduates from all over. After all, a secure income is a key to the stability of the ministry. This approach, in turn, is a blessing to the local church. It can ultimately lead to the steady operation and development of the church, and bring about a cycle of virtue.
However, it is undeniable that very few grassroots pastors earn comparable salaries in most of the economically underdeveloped regions, such as the Central Plains, Northeast, and Northwest regions, especially in rural churches.
Most of the pastors of rural churches that I have met have been farming or working a second job to support themselves and their families. A case that I remember clearly was that of a pastor who did not receive any salary from the church. He could only earn 50-200 yuan when he was invited and rode an electric bike to preach in a church or when he lead a one-day training in a neighboring village. For the pastors of small churches in some third- or fourth-tier cities, the maximum salary that a church can offer is around 600-1500 yuan per month. It is barely enough to support the pastor themself. When they get married, it becomes extremely difficult to support a spouse and children. They have to deal with the enormous tension between "supporting the family" and "serving faithfully." Numerous pastors have had no choice but to give up their ministry and find a job after they were married or had children.
This dilemma is due to not only the lack of offerings in local churches, especially rural churches, but the mentality of believers toward offerings. Churches rarely address the meaning and importance of offerings in an upright manner. Pastors who bring up this topic would be misinterpreted by the believers as "loving money." Churches would not receive offerings over time, nor would they have funds for other ministries, let alone hiring full-time pastors.
The traditional notion of "living by faith" has been dogmatically and rigidly applied. In traditional Chinese church circles, "Pastors live by faith" has become a cliché. This notion can be traced back to the history of Hudson Taylor’s mission. Hudson Taylor followed this principle because he did not want the Chinese to develop the wrong impression that Christianity was dependent on the power and wealth of the British Empire. He and others gave up these worldly powers for the Chinese to receive the sound gospel.
Today's context is completely different. Under the influence of secular culture, many churches fail to pay their pastors the salaries they deserve. It is difficult to meet their daily needs with their low wages, which has discouraged many young people from becoming pastors. It is questioned whether the meager income of this profession can support a family. Grassroots churches, especially those in economically underdeveloped areas, have consequently found no one to continue their ministries. Young people are hesitant to study theology and be pastors. Even if they embark on this path, they would either leave to serve in the southeast coastal area after graduation or choose to take a secular job and earn a living, deviating from their original calling.
"There is no one who cares for us": the heart-wrenching voice of grassroots pastors
Fortunately, the development of churches in China in recent decades has brought about an increase in correspondence courses and training resources. While high-quality resources are still lacking, pastors now have more opportunities for in-person or online training. It is easier for them to equip themselves through various channels today, compared to the hardship faced by the grassroots pastors in the 1980s and 1990s.
But all this time, most churches in China have paid little attention to caring for pastors. Churches oftentimes talk about "caring for the believers", "caring for the disadvantaged", and “caring for the society"... The one group that needs the most care, the grassroots pastors, is often overlooked.
Pastor D, who has served in grassroots churches for more than 20 years in the Central Plains, said, "We do have 'material needs.' 'Spiritual care' is needed as well but unavailable. Pastors are also in need of love and shepherding."
In 2017, an article that went viral in the Christian community was, "'I Saw No Hope,"' 33-Y-O Young Missionary Died of Cancer and Pressure in Marriage". The article stated that 33-year-old Pastor Ding Nanjiang passed away early in his life due to advanced lung cancer. His death at a young age was not simply due to his physical illness. His frustration in serving the church, and his unhappiness and despair in his family also played a role. The article said, "After studying theology for seven years with a passion for serving, (Ding Nanjiang) planned to devote himself to the mission field after graduation. He later had no choice but to run around to fulfill his family responsibilities. He did not experience the warmth of family. The tremendous stress overwhelmed him. Besides, there was no understanding or caring from his church. As a result, he often lost contact, his health deteriorated, and he missed the best timing for treatment. He was not clear about his health issues even when he died."
At that time, Pastor Pan from East China sighed after reading the article. She mentioned that new pastors often face three major challenges when they serve in grassroots churches after graduation. One is the agony resulting from senior pastors’ oppression. Another is that they are underpaid by the church. Lastly, there is a lack of relational shepherding. No one cares for them. These are all demands on them.
What we learn from this is that when it comes to caring, one of the critical factors is "relationship". Pastor D from the Central Plains indicated that most churches and pastors with a charismatic background put more emphasis on relationships. In contrast, conservative and evangelical churches and pastors focus on effectiveness. That is, pastors have to reach the goals set for themselves. For instance, the number of church members has to reach 70 or a certain number. "Caring for pastors is essential but easily overlooked... We have seen some grassroots pastors who have served for years but have never been ministered to by pastors above them. Every time they are contacted, it is all about their ministry assignments. Frankly speaking, grassroots pastors are also human. They will feel exhausted and are in need of love!”
His voice was piercing. "Grassroots pastors need to shepherd believers with love and love the Lord's flock. They give so much love, but receive so little love. Who can minister to a large number of grassroots pastors? Who will love us?”
The reality is usually the opposite. A pastor from Shandong stated, "We don't ask for much understanding, but just a little. The truth is that many believers do nothing but keep receiving. They know nothing about being grateful. From what they understand, talking to you about their problems is the way it should. Pastors should help themselves. It is the pastor’s responsibility to pray for and give to believers. Who asked you to be a pastor? That’s your job.”
Pastor M from the Central Plains indicated, “Pastors, preachers, and teachers of the church are ordinary people. They are the instruments used by God. They are not able to handle all situations with ease or to be without problems of any kind. They have their own life paths to follow and their own ups and downs to overcome."
"Here are some questions. Who will care for pastors of the church? Who will listen to them? Who will care about their life? When pastors encounter problems in their everyday lives, their families, and their spiritual lives, who will care?" In reality, they can only overcome these difficulties by relying on God, trusting that God does not forget them.
A youth minister, born in the 1990s in Jiangsu, had this observation. "This tremendous pain is often ignored by the church. Both believers and pastors say that no one cares for them." There is bitterness in the hearts of both believers and pastors. However, these two groups don’t understand or care for each other. "The pastor and the believers may seem close, but the gap between them is as wide as the Pacific Ocean. How sad it is for the church to be filled with hypocrisy and bureaucracy!"
All of the above are listed to make us more aware that caring for grassroots pastors is an unavoidable responsibility of churches in China today.
We can call for better pastoral care, innovative church systems and management, and taking more responsibility for society and even the Great Commission. Nevertheless, when we want to go far and go global, we cannot ignore our immediate needs right in front of us — "caring for grassroots pastors" should not become a blind spot in Chinese churches.
Church revival and the Great Commission that we talk about would be in vain if we do not pay attention to and take good care of grassroots pastors who silently and committedly sacrifice themselves for the churches in China. Indeed, we advocate for and value the laity, but we cannot use it as an excuse not to look after the servants of God who remain faithful in all kinds of hardships.
May the churches in China become more aware of this problem and make changes soon. Hopefully, the hearts of more grassroots pastors will be warmed, and the fire of revival of more healthy churches will be ignited.
- Translated by June I. Chen