Overseas Educated Chinese Pastor Shares: How Can Theological Knowledge Be Better Applied to Local Ministry?

An open Bible and a book
An open Bible and a book (photo:pixabay.com)
By Esther TianOctober 28th, 2022

A house church pastor urges that although theological equipping is necessary, those who apply and practice the knowledge should keep the local environment in mind.

Pastor C, born in the 1980s, is an urban church pastor and has an elite educational background. He serves in a church with a large proportion of young people. After working for nearly ten years, a pastor recommended that he study in overseas seminaries. After graduating, Pastor C continued to serve in the original church.

After gaining more experience in serving, Pastor C has formed new thoughts on how to localize the theological knowledge he learned. He believes that the application of theological knowledge needs to consider the actual field of ministry.

Pastor C observes that there are many differences between the problems faced by Chinese and Western pastors. Due to their different environments, pastors can not completely rely on the theories and knowledge learned in the West to solve the problems encountered by domestic pastors. Compared with Europe, America, and China, he explains four areas where domestic pastors face more obvious challenges in their ministry.

1. The economic pressures faced by pastors differ in the West and China.

Although economic pressure exists universally, and the pastors in Europe and America are not all financially sufficient, Pastor C says that their system is relatively perfect. For instance, American churches employ or send pastors and pastors to have corresponding systems, but the salaries paid by China churches to pastors and pastors are generally low or even nonexistent. Many churches do not have a system to protect the economic needs of pastors. A pastor’s service depends more on ‘faith’ or on the support of his family and spouse - this is the first challenge.

2. The social statuses of pastors differ in the West and China.

As far as social status is concerned, Pastor C thinks that pastor as a profession is generally respected in the United States. Although there will be negative incidents among American pastors such as corruption and sexual assault, on the whole, pastors are socially recognized professions, especially in some relatively conservative areas such as the southern United States.

However, in China, he says reluctantly that although it is true that not all places are the same, it is rather common for pastors to have a low social status. “Pastors are marginalized groups. Many people do not know the work of pastors. Especially in areas with low cultural and educational levels, people tend to think that the bottom of the pile in society will become pastors, and some even regard pastors as ‘divine sticks’ (original meaning unknown, translator’s note). Many people still believe that only the old, the weak, the sick, and the disabled will go to church. This makes it difficult for some pastors to talk about their profession in a normal social situation. This is also the difference between China and the West.”

3. Young pastors face different challenges.

He cites that the acceptance of young pastors by Western churches is relatively high, because Western believers are based on biblical culture, and their knowledge of authority comes from the Bible. Back home, he finds that “people have a strong family-style and seniority-oriented concept. Believers value qualifications, such as whether you have received theological education or not, but also your age and experience. Therefore, many people do not necessarily agree with young people as church leaders. There are many examples within practical pastoral care. For instance, if you do not have children, it is difficult for you to use biblical truth to guide families with children. This is a problem that young pastors will face.”

4. The believers have different belief bases.

“Western countries have a deep Christian culture, but Chinese people do not.” Pastor C points out that this is a common challenge for pastors and believers in China. “In Europe and America, for example, people know God from the teaching of creationism. They also know evolution and atheism, but because they have known biblical stories since childhood, they have biblical culture as their foundation. So they generally know the teaching of creationism.”

By contrast, he says, “But most of the believers in China are first-generation believers, or Christians of different generations (they have heard from their ancestors, but they have no in-depth understanding). Their knowledge of God often begins with salvation. Taking myself as an example, I first knew that Jesus Christ was a teacher, then that he was the Savior, and finally that there was God the Father. I came to believe in God’s creation slowly.”

Pastor C believes that the conflict between creationism and evolution, as well as the concept of hell and resurrection after death, all believers in China, need to get rid of the old ideas. He explains this: “Westerners have long known the concepts of hell and heaven, and resurrection, etc. When people in China hear of hell, they think of the terrible ‘eighteen layers of hell’ (a Chinese way of understanding hell, translator’s note.) or ‘people die as if the lights go out, and they do not consider resurrection at all. Because the basic culture of the people of faith is different, the challenge is bigger.”

“However, I believe that with the accumulation of time, the cultural foundation of brothers and sisters’ faith will become deeper and deeper.”

On how to better apply western theological education in our culture, he combines his own experience and puts forward four suggestions to pastors equipped with theology.

1. Recognize your targets

“The pastor must first recognize that he is disciplining Chinese people in China, and he is not disciplinig Westerners in China.” When he talks about his own understanding, “Even more specifically, I am herding a group in a certain place in a city in the south or north of China because the characteristics of people in different provinces and cities are different.”

“And the thinking of Westerners is very different from that of China. For example, when I went to study, I saw that the Western church is usually a lobby because westerners are relatively independent and pursue individual freedom. They go to church in pursuit of truth and peace of mind. However, Chinese people prefer group gatherings and feel that this is more intimate. So we can not completely copy the Western theological education.”

2. Train workers with their own specialties

Secondly, Pastor C pays special attention to the training of workers and church talents. He suggests that pastors with formal theological education overseas should spend more time cultivating workers’ teams. Because, in his view, “there are many seminaries and theological resources abroad, and there is no shortage of excellent pastors. Foreign churches need pastors and co-workers who can be openly hired at the social level. But there is no such thing in China. On the one hand, there are few seminaries in China, on the other hand, it is difficult to train domestic workers. Yet, China has a large threshing floor and fewer pastors. So it is also a burden for me to train a team of workers.”

3. Reflect on history, and don’t forget the lessons learned from others

C also finds the phenomenon that the church in China lacks the concept of historical inheritance. As to why he says: “The history we study is mainly the history of Western churches. Although the actual Nestorianism period in China has already begun, it is mainly the history after the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Because of the short time, many people do not have the burden of history and will ignore history.” Pastor C thinks that ignoring history is easy to make mistakes in history. He suggests that the Church of China should attach importance to the inheritance of history: “Especially pastors who have received theological training will have a deeper thinking about history and a different vision. Therefore, we need to look at the traditions of the church from a historical perspective and distinguish which traditions are good and which ones need to be changed.”

4. Perfecting the financial system is a long-term solution

When it comes to the financial problems of the church, Pastor C’s suggestion is that pastors should not have direct contact with money. He believes that the church needs to establish a basic financial system. All the foreign churches he knows have relatively perfect financial systems and will appoint specialized financial staff.

Pastor C explains, “Churches in our country were originally established by missionaries, and they did not receive dedication from the churches they built. Because they had an original church, the church’s financial use was different. However, when foreign missionaries left, domestic churches faced a problem. Local pastors had no corresponding systems to guarantee their basic life. Churches in big cities may be fine, but the support of pastors in small cities or rural areas is very serious.”

“Of course, some pastors live by ‘faith’, but not everyone has the same faith. In order for pastors not to be distracted by the economy, and for them to serve wholeheartedly, the church needs to establish a sound financial system and principles. Companies and enterprises have financial systems and principles. Why can’t they have them in the church?”

- Translated by Charlie Li

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