China once saw a fast growing rural congregation.
The country's 2010 Blue Book of religions estimated Protestants in China to number about 23 million, 80% of whom were scattered in the countryside. However, the general situation in the rural church is that the majority of rural Christians are elderly people, women, and children and that the church ministries are basically services and gatherings, Bible studies, and visitation. There is a huge loss of young preachers.
I choose some cases in areas where Christianity prosper, like the northeastern and eastern China and the Central Plain, to present an epitome of the church in the countryside.
Brother Y works as a preacher in a historical rural church in a county-level city in central Jiangsu Province. His church was founded during the Republic of China. The members gathered in a rented warehouse, then built a church, and enlarged it. In 2012, the church building could hold more than 1,000 yuan.
Brother Y said the growth in the believers' number occurred in the 1990s when new converts, mainly old people and women, believed in Jesus because of being healed. "The number of the attendants on Christmas reached over 2,000."Moreover, five new campuses were added in different villages and towns. But now the church attendance is over 600 on Sundays and ranges from 200 to 300 in the weekdays. Women account for more than 60% of the churchgoers who are mostly 60-70 years old.
The bulk of church ministries are carried out by sisters who outnumber brothers in the church and ministry. In Y's church, seven co-workers make decisions about church affairs. Apart from the church head who is male, the rest co-workers are all female.
There are also young believers most of whom are second or third generation Christians who follow their parents or grandparents to the church in their childhood. However, few young people join a rural church. With urbanization, the young generation leaves their hometowns for job and education opportunities in the cities, leaving behind the elderly, women, and children. This directly contributes to the phenomenon of "left-behind elders and children", but the church still follows its old pattern to confront the change - holding services and Bible studies.
In the church of Brother Y, there are 100 women who stay at home to look after their children and elderly people and also serve in the church. Their husbands mainly work in Shanghai and return at weekends. "They are mostly construction workers or small-business men, yet their work is not fixed."
"We have many local senior and single families. Intending to launch a ministry for single families, our church workers are not able to start it," signed Brother Y.
The rural-urban migration on the rural communities takes preachers away as well. As a third generation, he graduated from a seminary in 2010 and begun to serve in a local church in 2015. A couple of years ago, the church's key co-workers were appointed to work in new campuses. New preachers enter the church, but gradually leave for cities: to pursue higher education like theology, to accompany their children who study in urban schools, or to make money. "Rural Christians face big financial challenges. Recently a sister who serves in the choir, in her fifties, told me that she wanted to be a nurse in a nursing home because of the financial difficulty. The church had to let her go."
At present, less than 30 believers are aged 18 to 15, six of whom are male. Only four male workers serve in the county and Brother Y is the only young male worker. "The grassroots churches need personnel but fail to maintain them. It is an uneasy thing to survive. I'm grateful that I don't feel lonely and have hope because of the Lord."
In the recent years, migrant workers return to their hometowns, but many of them are not as devout as before. The possible cause may be that accustomed to urban life and affected by the age, they are a bit incongruous with the countryside.
Talking about the status of the rural church, Brother Y argued that the rural church should change its concept and keep up with the times. "In the past, people followed Jesus because of their diseases and poor financial conditions. But it is not the same now. It is said that it is difficult to share the gospel. I think that it's obviously not suitable or ill-timed to preach it in the way used in the 1980s."
He noted the existing problems like a rural aging population, left-behind children issue, and more single parents. They need psychological and emotional support, so the church can do something in these areas to reveal the love of Christ. He added that the ministry for these groups required more specilized and finer work. It's impossible to run the ministry merely by a church or a worker. The idea has to be put on the shelf and wait to sprout until the time is ripe.
- Translated by Karen Luo