Observation: Three Pastors Become Employees During Pandemic, Reflecting Decline and Transformation of Traditional Church

A picture of a lighted church in the snow
A picture of a lighted church in the snow (photo: pixabay.com)
By Li DaonanMay 17th, 2023

There are three brothers who were once influential pastors but have now taken on roles as migrant workers or street vendors. The transformative effects of the three-year pandemic have not only impacted their daily lives but have also altered social dynamics.

A decade ago, Brother Wang had not yet become a pastor. During that time, he worked as a migrant worker in an electronics factory while serving in a church primarily composed of migrant workers. Later, he resigned from his job and pursued theological studies at a seminary in Zhejiang. Subsequently, he engaged in further theological education in the northeast.

After years of training, he became a pastor despite having only received an education up to the junior high school level. He served in a church located in a provincial capital in central China, catering primarily to migrant workers with occasional attendance from students at several technical colleges. Following the departure of the church's previous leader, he assumed the role of head pastor. He married and started a family, aspiring to build a church with a congregation of thousands. His sermons, theological knowledge, and understanding of believers were exceptional, garnering him recognition among the congregation. Prior to the pandemic, he had plans to establish a new meeting place and was raising funds for rent.

However, the three-year pandemic dealt a severe blow to his church.

Now his church is utterly struggling. With the rent being too expensive, the big house for the original gathering has been abandoned. Believers can only meet temporarily in a sister’s house, and there are only a dozen people left. Their family’s income is terribly affected. As a last resort, he has to go out to do food delivery work. His child is still young, and his wife takes care of the baby at home. He goes out in the morning and comes back very late at night, and he can earn two or three hundred yuan a day.

Presently, his church is facing immense challenges. The high rental costs forced them to abandon the spacious gathering place. The remaining believers can only temporarily convene at a sister's house, with the congregation dwindling to a mere dozen individuals. Their family's income has been significantly impacted. Consequently, he has resorted to working as a food delivery person out of necessity. With a young child at home, his wife attends to their baby while he departs early in the morning and returns late at night, earning a daily wage of two or three hundred yuan.

Brother Zhang serves as a pastor in the central region. It is known that he graduated from a seminary in the United States, and his theological training courses were previously in high demand.

During those years, his income was relatively substantial due to training fees and the devoted contributions of believers, rendering him a successful figure. However, with the cessation of legally recognized underground training programs, he started working as a church pastor in a developed city in the south. This church primarily catered to cultural and professional groups. Despite his theological seminary education in the United States, his daily pastoral duties remained challenging due to his limited education level.

Following three years of the pandemic, the church, under economic pressure and considering his educational background, decided to terminate his employment. With his daughter studying abroad and his family's need for sustenance, he has resorted to working as a taxi driver. Yet, the discrepancy in educational recognition has often caused him to experience moments of depression.

Brother Wen graduated from a prestigious university. After obtaining a master's degree, he briefly worked as a university lecturer. However, due to his fervent commitment to Christianity, he encountered conflicts with the university administration, leading to his departure. Subsequently, he joined a church in central China.

Slowly, his ideas also clashed with those of the church. That forced him to leave the church and rely on writing articles. At one point, his official WeChat account gained over ten thousand followers. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the platform was closed due to its Christian content, resulting in the loss of his last means of self-realization.

On his WeChat Moments (a function for posting vlogs or blogs on WeChat, translator’s note), he can be seen selling items at a stall, and his income appears stable.

The transition from being a pastor to becoming a migrant worker not only signifies a change in the personal destiny of the pastors but also highlights the transformation within the traditional church. 

It is evident that currently, the conventional church has lost its position within the realm of policy and social transformations, thereby rendering its disintegration or collapse inevitable.

The underlying social framework of the traditional church resides within a modest agrarian society, as it places significance on dimensions such as size, quantity, social influence, and its conflicts with societal norms. The traditional church prioritizes constancy and stability, adopting a patriarchal system as its political foundation, rather than focusing on the realization of gospel values and the individual social worth of its adherents. Consequently, it is bound to disintegrate amidst the competition between small-scale farmers and urban communities.

In the forthcoming era, the new church will undoubtedly become an inclusive and easily accessible community, with its growth inseparably tied to the progression of urban spaces.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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