Understanding Chinese Pastors: Article Review

“Pastors in This Modern Age,” by Ke En, appeared in the April-May issue of Pray for China, published in Hong Kong by Christian Communications Limited. I find this journal consistently helpful, and heartily recommend it.

The article speaks of six challenges facing Chinese pastors today:

  1. The challenge from the secularization of the church. Even pastors are affected. Many of them “are seeking after money and fame and succumbing to worldly temptations,” such as a desire for luxury goods and entertainment.

  2. The challenge from mega-churches. As the society expands, people compete with each other. Pastors pursue prestige and power by building larger and larger churches, housed in buildings that are more and more extravagant and expensive.

  3. The challenge of studying for degrees. The government-sponsored church puts emphasis upon academic degrees. More and more church leaders are running after advanced degrees to bolster their image. They seek doctorates especially, not for the learning involved but mostly for the recognition.

  4. Challenge to pastors’ dedication. As living standards in urban areas rise, “Pastors who are prepared to seek God’s will and serve and sacrifice for the grass-root believers are few and far between.”

  5. Challenge to pastor’s meditation life. Many, perhaps most, pastors are too busy to spend quality time with God in Bible study, meditation, and prayer. They lose their spiritual vitality and effectiveness as a result.

  6. Challenge in pastoral care. Instead of taking time to know and care for their flock, many pastors spend all their time preparing impressive sermons and “managing” the church.

These pastors desperately need someone to “pastor” them, for “There is no one to talk to” about their problems and feelings. At a recent conference, a well-traveled Chinese pastor said to me, “Chinese pastors are terribly lonely, because they cannot share their heart with anyone. They are expected to be paragons of Christian virtue and spirituality, so they cannot reveal any flaws or failings. Meanwhile, the people in their church must also maintain the same façade, for to admit to a pastor that they have spiritual troubles would show just how ‘inferior’ they are. Thus, everyone plays the same silly game. The result is that the pastors become increasingly isolated, tired, and discouraged.”

The article concludes with two pleas: We should not burden young house church pastors with the historical division between the house churches and the Three-Self church. And we should “advise pastors… not to repeat the mistake of western churches in building mega churches” (many of which now stand empty).

How should we respond to this poignant portrait?

First, we must re-double our efforts to pray for China’s harried, lonely, hard-pressed pastors. They are not all spiritual giants, but are men like us, with temptations that stem from the rapidly-changing society around them and appeal to the flesh that we all share.

Then, those who seek to minister among Chinese pastors should adopt a posture of humility. Without focusing too much on themselves, they should be willing to share honestly their own struggles and failures, and how God’s grace is enabling them to overcome.

Then there is the need for critical reflection on our own ambitions and idols. How much of what Westerners and overseas Chinese take to China comes from biblical values? Just how important are advanced degrees, a comfortable lifestyle, and big church buildings to us? Is there any biblical justification for what we value so highly? If those going to China lack a vital spiritual life, how will they help local pastors nurture an intimate relationship with God?

Since the publication of Ray Stedman’s Body Life several decades ago, at least some in the West have begun to re-think the traditional role of the pastor in light of the biblical model of the critical function of each member of the Body of Christ. The Confucian/imperial tradition of leadership still afflicts Chinese pastors with non-biblical notions, bringing them into bondage to fulfill an impossible role. Widespread teaching on the priesthood of all believers, the gifts of the spirit, and the limited role of pastors to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” should be a high priority.

G. Wright Doyle