Topic: It's Time to Cultivate New Generation of Chinese Christian Leaders

Exterior view of an old church in South China
Exterior view of an old church in South China
By Steve Sun, Ruth Wang December 15th, 2022

Editor's note: It's the second article of a series of interviews under the topic: Cultivate a New Generation of Chinese Christian Leaders (see article one). The Christian Times, an online Christian newspaper in China, interviewed a pastor in North China, and he talked about his opinion on the timing of cultivating a new generation of Christian leaders. 

Pastor Wang became a follower of Jesus when he was in college in the 1980s. He was one of the first group of native believers who joined the church after the reform and opening up. Thereafter, he pastored churches in rural and urban areas for many years while engaging himself in charity and the workplace.

The Christian Times: What is your opinion on training a new generation of spiritual leaders for churches in China?

Pastor Wang: It's a pressing task for many churches in China.

These cases are not uncommon. When the first-generation leaders of many well-known missionary teams reached the age of 70 or 80, they suddenly realized that the development of successors had been overlooked in their decades-long services. They did not think about the development of their groups under the new leadership after they left the leading position. When they realized this issue in their old age, they found that it was too late to deal with it. 

Chinese churches are facing a similar difficulty, and the history of Chinese churches and leaders' personalities could be the reason.

Many churches in China have been developed by a founder. This founding pastor is often regarded as the leader. I do not like the word "leader", but Chinese churches like it. This word has the opposite meaning to the pastor, which is God's servant according to the Bible. Bible teaches the older to serve the younger, and Jesus washes feet for disciples. While leaders are served by others. Moses did not proclaim himself as a leader even though he guided the Israelites. In historical documents, a person who was translated as a Jewish leader often carries negative connotations.

If a pastor makes himself a leader, he will place himself in a unique and irreplaceable position. Because of the credit and hard work of a pastor, followers usually give him much respect and praise. Consequently, the pastor tends to consider his existence irreplaceable. Deep in their hearts, some pastors even have the fear and anxiety of being replaced by new leadership.

I don’t think the word "leader" is in God’s dictionary. It has distorted and stigmatized the definition and position of church pastors.

Besides, one common feature of Chinese churches is the leader serves in all ministries. When the church has been developing successfully, the leader's radiance easily overshadows others. Given the pastor’s accomplishments, new leaders are difficult to be trained and grow.

Some leaders are just too confident and do not realize that they need to cultivate new leaders. I have seen pastors who do not think that they’ll get sick and have to leave their positions. They believe that they are in God’s care and will stay healthy and work till their 80s.

The Christian Times: What's the meaning of training new leaders for churches in China?

Pastor Wang: After the reform and opening up, the church has developed for 40 years. Pastors who began their ministries in their 20s at that time are in their 60s now. It is time for the Chinese churches to consider passing down the legacy to the new generation.

Leaders of Chinese churches after the reform and opening up have worked hard and sacrificed a lot. The church is their baby. Church founders with high authority may result in the void of successors. The pastors of the older generation should be future-oriented and have a long-term vision because they will retire someday. When the time comes, who can take over and keep up the good work? The preparatory work must be done sooner.

Churches need to train and raise leaders of a younger generation to carry on and grow the church. I heard that in churches in Western countries, pastors must retire when they reach a certain age according to the church policy. The pastors of several Chinese churches that I have been in touch with are all about 80 years old. They indicated, "I am pressing on." Of course, there is nothing wrong with that from a spiritual point of view. But as the church develops and reaches its next stage, the structure and needs of its congregation evolve as well. The church has to face the issue of how to keep it growing sustainably and robustly.

The Christian Times: You talked about the legacy and sustainable development of the church. What should be done in practice?

Pastor Wang: Firstly, churches need pastors, but they could not be in the role of a founder, an authority, or a great patriarch, but should be an example. More importantly, there must be more pastors to succeed him, pass on his legacy, and carry it forward.

Secondly, churches need to take good care of their younger pastors. Ministering a church in the 90s is quite different from today. The pressure of life was relatively low at that time. Nowadays, things have changed so much. The church needs to be aware of its responsibility to sustain the pastor’s living. The housing cost is generally high, and pastors’ children deserve a quality education in the city as well. Most pastors cannot meet these demands by themselves. The church has to step in and support. In short, the church has to recognize that it is imperative to provide well-rounded support for the pastor.

The Christian Times: You just brought up the issue of pastors’ salaries and everyday needs. In fact, this is a very serious problem for churches in many areas. Some churches encourage their pastors to work a second job or run a business. What is your take on this?

Pastor Wang: This is a practical question for a church. It is challenging for a pastor to sustain his family with low pay. Would the congregation think differently if the pay is high? Another practical issue is whether the young pastor’s wife supports his calling.

In the 90s, pastors’ wives were being supportive. Today, their wives undertake heavier family burdens than those did in the past. The living cost was low back then. If a husband gives up a high salary to serve a church, the burden of the family would be placed on the wife. Is the wife able to take over the financial responsibility? A church has to take all these issues into consideration.

The Christian Times: Part-time ministry is a new trend today. It is also popular among those in the workplace to serve as part-time ministers, and they are rarely paid by the church. Should people be encouraged to serve full-time or part-time?

Pastor Wang: The person in charge of the church needs to think about this question thoroughly since people have different gifts. Some may be suitable to be full-time ministers while others are part-time ministers. The key is to place people in positions where they can give full play to their strengths.

There is actually no correct answer. No correct answers to the questions Chinese churches are facing now. Once the environment changes, ways to do things need to change. We can't use the system from the West directly, because our legal system, social system, and economic environment are unique. People who have the same symptom will be given the same pill according to western medicine but different prescriptions according to Chinese medicine.

- Translated by June I. Chen

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