Interview With China Partner President: God Has Used Christian Leadership to Grow His Church in China

The China Partner team (from left to right: Rev. Frank Wang, Rev. Erik Burklin, Dr. Charlie Li and his wife, Sharon) gathered in Holy Trinity Cathedral in Shanghai during their September trip back to China for the first time in four years.
1/2The China Partner team (from left to right: Rev. Frank Wang, Rev. Erik Burklin, Dr. Charlie Li and his wife, Sharon) gathered in Holy Trinity Cathedral in Shanghai during their September trip back to China for the first time in four years.
Erik Burklin
2/2Erik Burklin
By Karen Luo, Katherine GuoJanuary 10th, 2024

Editor's note: As a descendant of German missionaries to China, Erik Bürklin, president of China Partner, has been serving the church in China with training trips and material distribution in the past decades. With a heart for China, Erik talks about the main work and projects of the organization, the changes in the church in China, the challenges facing Chinese pastors and churches, and global engagement in China.

China Christian Daily: Could you please introduce yourself and your organization to us?

Erik Bürklin: I serve as the president of a ministry that my father founded and called “China Partner” (中国伙伴). A pastor in China suggested this name to us and told us that it would be wonderful: East and West collaborating. Founded in the United States in 1989, our mission is to serve the church in China through training trips.

The history of this ministry goes way back to my grandparents, who were missionaries with the China Inland Mission (currently called OMF International). Coming from Germany, they served in Jiangxi Province from 1925 to 1950. Born and raised in China, my father, Dr. Werner Bürklin, went to a German-speaking school in Shanghai for most of his teenage years, and then in 1950, all foreigners had to leave China, including missionaries, so my grandparents and their three children moved back to Germany. Although my father always desired to return to China, he became an evangelist in Germany and worked for several different Christian organizations. In 1981, he traveled back to China after learning that the Chinese government was issuing visas for foreigners. When he returned to Jiangxi Province as one of the very first foreigners, he realized that God had done marvelous work in China: the church had literally exploded. In 1989, he incorporated China Partner. Our mission is to serve the church in China by equipping the Chinese church leadership. Bishop Ting, the then president of the China Christian Council and principal of the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, gave his blessing and invited my father to come with an international team to hold a training seminar in the seminary in 1991.

After the training was done, Bishop Ting told my father, “I have heard not one negative voice of what you have taught and what you said. Please come back.” That was his official invitation to my father to do more of what he had done in Nanjing that week. So shortly after that, we were invited to teach in Hangzhou and Guangzhou. Since then, we have ministered in almost all 22 official seminaries throughout the country of China and have made many wonderful friends.

China Christian Daily: Could you introduce the main work that China Partner has done in China in the past, and how would you evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts?

Erik Bürklin: We fulfill our mission by bringing and conducting short-term training seminars for lay pastors, seminary students, and Bible school students, based on the requests of the China Christian Council. Let's say a Bible school in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, will invite our team to come for one week of training at their Bible school. So we will go there with a small team, and then every day, we will have as many hours as they give us with those young people and equip them. Our training is a supplement to what they have received and provides practical ministry ideas. For instance, one of the training seminars is about evangelism—how you can become an evangelist in a local church setting. Other themes include discipleship, Christian leadership, and pastoral care. Lately, we’ve done more training on marriage and family. We always listen to the Chinese church leadership about what they need, and we try to match that need by inviting pastors and Christian leaders who can speak to that need.

The effectiveness is based on the feedback we get from the pastors in China. Some pastors of local churches and current seminary leaders who were seminary students 35 years ago still remember my father and the CP teams conducting these trainings. It's wonderful to see how God has used these church leaders, as they have grown spiritually and become key leaders to grow their local churches. Because of our constant connection with them, we have had the privilege of seeing how our ministry has actually had a positive effect on them personally and also on the local churches wherever they minister.

China Christian Daily: Can you introduce the projects that China Partner is currently undertaking in China?

Erik Bürklin: During COVID, everything was shut down, so we have not been able to do any in-person training. In fact, my very first trip back to China since then was just in September 2023. Our current project is to reconnect with all the church leadership, as we haven’t seen them for four years, and to gather information from them to see what their current needs are. We have been invited to come this April and October and visit eight or nine different cities.

We know the pandemic has posed new challenges for all of us, including many pastors and Christian leaders in China, such as mental issues and declining church attendance. We want to learn what those challenges are. We are confident that we will be back to conduct further in-person short-term training seminars wherever we are invited within the next year or two.

China Christian Daily: You and the team visited China for the first time since the pandemic. Share with us more about the trip. What differences did you observe before and after the pandemic?

Erik Bürklin: We were warmly received wherever we went. We started in Shanghai and met the CCC&TSPM leadership. Rev. Wu Wei, CCC president, hosted us for a two-hour meeting. He shared that one of the big changes is that the government is now no longer allowing minors to go to church.  While this has been a regulation for many years, the Religious Affairs Bureau, which is now directly under the United Front Department, is now enforcing it. So, the church leadership is talking and praying through this new challenge: What do we do with children? Rev. Wu said that they are trying to equip parents to do the ministry for their own children. Equipping children and teenagers is the responsibility of parents, which is a biblical principle found in the Old Testament.

In addition, I personally noticed that there were much fewer foreigners on the Bund near the Huangpo River in Shanghai when I was jogging in the early morning. Shanghai is an international city that has always had many foreign visitors. I think many expats have left China. I’m hopeful that more and more foreigners will return and Chinese companies will welcome foreign partnerships again.

What was more, the Chinese people were obedient to the traffic lights and waited until they turned green. That was never the case before. There seems to be a little more respect for authority.

China Christian Daily: China Partner has been equipping Chinese churches and leaders during the past decades; have you observed any change in churches and Christian leaders in China in the process?

Erik Bürklin: The biggest change we have noticed is that churches have difficulties reaching the next generation of Christ followers as China becomes wealthier and more materialistic. As many young people speak English, the Internet has changed the overall exposure that the Chinese have to the rest of the world. So, the question becomes: how do churches change their programs and ministry philosophy in a way that will attract young people and professionals?

That also poses a big challenge for the church leadership. In the early ‘80s and ‘90s, Christians in China were so excited to go to church again (which was not possible during the cultural revolution) that pastors didn’t have to worry about inviting anybody. Even without good music, preaching, or programs, you just opened up your church doors, and everybody would come. However, today, pastors have to manage their churches well to attract young professionals. Many churches are trying new things and rethinking their ministry strategies.

I noticed that the worship music has changed over the years: many registered churches have chorus bands now—with drum sets on stage and using guitars and pianos instead of just a traditional organ. Pastors are preaching more practical sermons, trying to invite people to be interested in God’s word. I have visited one big church in Beijing that holds a youth service separate from the regular service. So many churches are trying to be more effective in their ministries.

China Christian Daily: From your perspective, what are the current challenges faced by pastors in Chinese churches?

Erik Bürklin: I think one of the biggest challenges for the Chinese churches is contextualizing their faith while staying true to the scriptures.

I have heard many pastors are now rethinking how they can make Christianity more Chinese, or "Sinicization," as they call it. They have a challenge because of some of the government restrictions that are now being enforced. They have to constantly think how we can stay true to what God has commanded us to do within the system that God has placed us in.

We have friends in China who personally went through the Cultural Revolution and survived it. They say that even though there are some restrictions and some demands that the government makes on Christianity, it's much, much better than it was in the past. Christians in China place their hope in Christ. They know that history has proven that the church will always survive because Jesus Christ is eternal.

China Christian Daily: Could you discuss the difficulties Chinese churches are experiencing, as your organization has noticed them, and suggest potential solutions to these problems?

Erik Bürklin: Not being Chinese nor living in their context, I don't have any practical solutions for how those challenges will be overcome. But I know pastors and younger Christians have wonderful ideas of how to meet those challenges, and they're still being developed.

I know an Old Testament professor who serves at the Zhongnan Theological Seminary in Wuhan. She just got her doctorate degree in Taiwan. She recently received a request from the China Christian Council to join a small group of scholars who are writing a new Old Testament commentary. This group gets together every three months in Nanjing, and they together write a new commentary right from the Hebrew into Chinese.

I think Chinese (Christian) scholars need to be at the forefront of writing these kinds of books and commentaries rather than depending on foreign materials that have been translated from English or from German into Chinese. While these books are, of course, very helpful and should continue to be used by seminary and Bible school students, it is exciting to see that Chinese scholars are now writing their own material in China. They are developing their own leaders, books, preaching, and music styles; that's how it becomes Chinese. We praise God for this positive new development in the church in China.

China Christian Daily: What should foreign ministries and organizations do to build a trusting relationship with China?

Erik Bürklin: That's one of the reasons why we conduct China symposiums. We try to help foreign organizations understand China better.

I think one of the key things that helped China Partner in its mission is that my father was born and raised in China, and my grandparents served as missionaries in China for 25 years. This gave our family and our ministry a helpful context. It helped us understand the Chinese culture. As a young boy, I heard many stories about China and its culture.

I would say foreign ministries or foreign organizations need to learn what the Chinese culture is about, respect it, and not reject or criticize it. We, at China Partner, stay very neutral about any political topics since China is a different country and run by a different leadership structure. We respect it and agree with their system, even though politically we might disagree with their policy. But as a foreign organization, we have no say in the matter. We've learned to accept their reality, and we try to prove to the Chinese people that we really care about them and that we love them. We respect their context.

China Christian Daily: From your perspective, how do you see registered churches and house churches?

Erik Bürklin: Basically, there are two different churches that have decided to minister in different ways. Since the government requires all religious entities to register, many churches have chosen to register to become legally recognized. The registered church has decided to work within the system they have been given while acknowledging that Christ is the head of the church. Many other churches refuse to register for theological reasons and stay independent. Therefore, and unfortunately, the government considers them illegal, which causes them a lot of heartache and challenges.

Theologically, as a Christian, I can understand why there would be resistance to registering. If I'm a born-again believer and I register my church, then it can be interpreted that I'm surrendering my church to the government. We answer to a higher calling, a higher God that is above all kings, presidents, and government systems. Yet, I know that many registered churches still have the belief and the knowledge that they are under Jesus Christ, who is still the head of the church. Everyone has to make that decision based on their understanding and where they stand theologically.

All in all, I see one church of Jesus Christ that serves the people of China. Whether they're found in a registered church or an unregistered church, they're still part of one church, and that is the church of Jesus Christ.

China Christian Daily: Is it true that the Western world is not paying as much attention to the missions in China? How can the global church engage in the mission in China?

Erik Bürklin: I would probably say that's not true. I think most Christians and churches in the West do care about what goes on in China and, specifically, what goes on in the Christian church. At the same time, I believe the interest has maybe shifted from Asia to other parts of the world.

I know right now many of my friends do ministry in the Muslim world; that's a very popular ministry to get involved in. But in general, most Christians know about the Chinese church, about the registered and unregistered churches, and that Bibles are printed in China. They know that the church in China has seen much spiritual growth over the last 50 years.

But not every foreign organization is going to have a vision for China, so you can't force that. When you say how they can engage in the mission in China, I would say to find out from other organizations that are working in China and learn from them. If they really have a calling to minister in China, then take the next step to do that, educate themselves, and find out what is going on in China. I think it's important to take trips to China; go see for yourself, and then they will have a better understanding of what's really happening.

China Christian Daily: Do you have any words for the church and Christians in China?

Erik Bürklin: Stay true to the Word of God. That's it. Stay true; stay faithful. Keep doing the good work, and Jesus Christ will help you. He's always with you.

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