Theological Education and Church Development in China
Theological Education in China: An Introductory Sketch
Before 1949 in China, there were independent seminaries and Bible schools, and also Christian study institutes in universities such as the Yanjing Institute of Religious Studies of Yanjing University in Beijing. In 1950s, with the policy of separation between school education and religion, those university-affiliated Christian institutes became independent seminaries. During the Cultural Revolution, all seminaries and bible schools were closed. Since 1980, theological education in China has entered a new phase.
At the end of 20th century, as the Protestant church in so-called Christian countries is in a general decline, in China it is faced with rapid growth. Church buildings are mushrooming, and people are flocking to join churches. The phenomenon has puzzled many people. There are many wrong assumptions about the causes of the growth. Some, including some scholars, claim that the reason for the growth religion in general and of the Christian church in particular in China is that Chinese society is now in a moral vacuum, and Christianity is needed for the reestablishment of a moral system. This is a very simplistic judgement. As a matter of fact, the traditional value system in China has not collapsed, and people still abide by their traditional moral concepts. The traditional culture that has maintained Chinese society for thousand of years is still alive and functioning. That is ultimately why, as China undergoes great changes in all aspects, its culture is not fading, but energizing the society. In contrast, American society is in a moral vacuum in a more proper sense. Campus violence is one instance. But, given the moral vacuum, Protestant churches in the United States are not that fast growing. Thus the claim that moral vacuum causes church growth does not hold up.
The second wrong assumption is that the church is growing because of people's disappointment with the communist ideal. In China, the communist ideal is still rather influential, and the party is also growing. If one checks the free forums on Chinese websites, one can easily find out that many Chinese people still use the slogan "Long live the Chinese Communist Party" to express their political and social ideal.
The third misunderstanding assumes that people go to church because they feel hopeless about the future of China. It is widely known that China's reforms have been rather successful in recent years. As the result of these reforms, our society is much freer and the people's standard of living has improved tremendously. It sounds rather awkward to assume that people feel hopeless at this point. At least, it is unlikely to be a reflection of Chinese people's opinion. The revival of classical studies in the past decade proves the above argument. It is a fact that there are many corruption cases and more crimes now in China. If we compare, however, the freedom and economic improvement people enjoy now with what people had before the reforms, most people will say there is no contest. When people have the opportunity to choose, they may choose according to their personal interest, and when so many possibilities are open to them, there are many ways they may achieve their goals.
The Chinese church is growing; the reasons for the growth, however, are various. Any simple judgement that generalizes the complex situation in China will necessarily lead to fallacies. Chinese society as a whole is changing in every aspect, and the changes have a variety of impacts on the church, including the growth. The growth of the church is a result of the changes. Let us consider some possible reasons.
No democratic country with multiple ethnic groups has only one religion, since it is not possible to satisfy the religious needs of all its people with only one kind of religious faith. China has been transformed from a closed society into an open and more democratic society. Consequently, it is possible for people to have free choice according to their personal will. That is one of the reasons that all religions, as well as the Christian church, are growing in China.
Secondly, the encounter of Chinese culture with other cultures encourages Chinese people to explore other cultural concepts, including religions, as a part of cultural expression. Many Chinese young people take Christianity as a part of Western culture because westerners keep telling them that their countries are Christian countries. In this era of globalization, it is popularly said, Follow the money and you'll find the culture. Economically speaking, western countries are better off, therefore Christianity appeals to those who think learning Christianity means learning western culture. Eventually some of them may become church members.
Thirdly, it is well known in the west that many people enter the church only three times in their lives: birth, wedding, funeral. Church buildings have been there for hundred of years and they have become a part of the natural landscape. Televangelism and religious broadcasting are always available. The church has become a part of the culture (I would not say that the culture is a Christian culture). The church is very familiar to people as a cultural icon, but not necessarily as a faith community. Many people are church members, but do not believe Jesus. The focus on church expansion has replaced the proclamation of the Gospel. All of the above robs Christianity of its uniqueness. The situation in China makes a sharp contrast to that in western countries. It is the uniqueness of the Christian church in China that makes it attractive to Chinese people.
The last, but most significant, reason for growth is that the Chinese church carries on its mission in China with an indigenized missiology. I have been asked many times by Christians from western countries whether Chinese Christians can preach on street comers (actually this method is not widely applied by churches in western counties either). The Chinese church does not believe in that kind of evangelism. Chinese society is bound by the traditional culture that emphasizes personal relationships and the Chinese church develops its missiology on the basis of this cultural character. We carry on our mission in accordance with Martin Luther's belief that every Christian is a priest, and elevate this to an emphasis on every Christian as a missionary. This kind of personal evangelism has been proved to be the most effective way in China.
In order to meet the needs created by the rapid growth of the church, seminaries, bible schools, and training centers have either been reopened or established. Presently there are 18 seminaries and bible schools with a relatively formal setup. Of these, one is operated by the CCC; the rest either by a provincial Christian council or by the cooperation of several Christian councils. There are innumerable training centers managed by municipal Christian councils and local congregations. This is not the end yet, and more schools are still in the works.
In the 18 better set-up schools, around 2,000 students are presently enrolled. About 4,000 students have completed their programs in the 18 schools in past years, with more than 90 percent of graduates serving either in local congregations or at different seminaries and Bible schools. The major component of a new generation of leadership in theological education are those who have done their graduate studies overseas. The first round of new campus construction has almost finished. All the 18 schools have either moved into new campuses or new buildings, or are in the process of construction. Just in the year 2000, 4 schools dedicated new campuses. The Commission on Theological Education (CTE) (1) has been helping the schools to set up libraries and enlarge their book collections. Nanjing Union Theological Seminary in Nanjing, the only national seminary with degree programs, has the largest library, with about fifty thousand volumes, including about twenty thousand in English. The library at East China Theological Seminary in Shanghai has over fifty thousand volumes, but about eighty per cent of them are straight historical studies. Some of the schools have only few hundred books.
Computer technology is not widely used in seminaries and bible schools. Yanjing Theological Seminary is the only one to have a networked multimedia computer lab. The Seminary is now approaching its goal to computerize its library in the near future.
Bible schools and training centers, as well as church buildings, are mushrooming. The situation sounds very exciting, but it also raises concerns. The fast growth of training programs causes resource decentralization. First of all, all the schools currently face a shortage of teaching staff. Shall we have fewer schools with adequate teaching staff or simply more schools? This issue does not seem to have gained popular attention. Another issue caused by random growth is the overlapping of similar programs. Because of the lack of staff and the absence of school management skills, one may not find much difference between a seminary and a bible school, or between a bible school and a training center. If they all serve the same purpose, why must there be so many schools, when the older institutions do not have enough qualified applicants? The third difficulty is that the schools with better facilities do not have enough applicants, since local churches prefer to send their young people to their own local training programs. At this point, the question is whether we shall have more local training centers, rather than better equipped and higher quality schools. In other words, shall we put our attention on more schools or on better quality?
Fundraising is another hard issue. Theoretically speaking, regional and provincial schools are financed by local churches. If money goes to local training programs, who is responsible for the support of regional schools or even provincial schools? This is a common issue in most regional schools. All the above issues are the result of the urgent need for church personnel. The needs of the churches create a vicious circle in theological education: if every church runs its own training program, and none of the programs has sufficient or qualified training staff, we may have to evaluate what our church really needs. But the issue is who makes that judgement.
Our seminaries and bible schools benefit form close relationships with local churches, for they know what the local churches expect from their students. On the other hand, they also suffer from this close relationship. Church institutions as educational organizations have their own disciplines. A seminary or a bible school trains future pastors for churches, but it is not a church by nature. The church mindset always tries to corrupt school spirit and convert the school into another church, and the church interference very often cripples the school discipline. It may not be a good idea to have a clear distinction between a seminary and a church, but there must be a difference. The Chinese church is already in a quandary due to the absence of a well-formulated ecclesiology. If our churches try to impose the church concept without the support of an ecclesiology on our schools, and to interfere their pedagogical disciplines, our theological education will remain in an awkward position. The issue will continue to disturb until the Chinese church formulates its own indigenous ecclesiology and has a right understanding toward the relationship between churches and church institutions.
APedagogical Examination of Theological Education in a Chinese Context
Theological education must be carried on according to its context in order to make it effective. Therefore, the ability to be aware of our Chinese context is one of the foci of our theological education. Our purpose in theological education is to enhance our church's ability to express itself and to enforce effective and constructive carrying out of the church's mission.
Because of is complex historical background, the Chinese Church must be able to identify its historical self with its present self. The historical self refers to its historical identity that relates mostly to its semi-colonial past dominated by western powers. The present self reveals its true nature: a Chinese church that is witnessing to the Good New of Jesus in China. Only when the Chinese Church is able to gain historical awareness of its true self, can it play its prophetic role in China.
When we speak of our context, we have to consider the following characteristics and development of today's China seriously. By this, I mean not only developments in Chinese society that have nothing to do with the church, but the society as the context in which the identity of Chinese church is shaped.
Ours is a developing country that possesses one quarter of the world's entire population. The economic achievements of recent years have enabled the whole nation to strive for a more successful future while struggling with economic problems and controversial issues that relate to development: environmental issues, ecological issues, issues of economic justice, and even family problems, etc.
All of China is developing. However, the economic gap between the rich and the poor is widening. The central government has recently launched a campaign for purposes of a geographically balanced development and called upon the whole nation to develop the China's west, its least developed area. A strange phenomenon is that while many people with special skills and ambition are thronging westward, many young people from the west are coming east as migrant workers.
Chinese culture is six thousand years old, and it is self-sustaining. With economic development, traditional Chinese culture has been invigorating and enriching itself by absorbing new insights from other cultures, especially western cultures. On a superficial level, for example, more and more new words transliterated from other languages are being borrowed into Chinese. Changes in thinking are also obvious. The reforms and changes have not undermined young people's obligation to their traditional culture, nor their obligation to their national identity, (2) but inspired them to reflect their own tradition and culture more profoundly.
China now is a socialist country with its own particularities. It is trying to benefit all Chinese people through a balanced development that does not only connote economic achievement but the full-scale development of the entire society. Serious controversial issues have also arisen in the course of the reform. Is a market economy the only way in which China can develop? What is the ultimate goal of a market economy? What does development imply when it relates to a market economy? To what extent should a market economy be introduced? Will a market economy lead China into balanced development? Is there still a room for a planned economy that will balance the market economy?
Because of the policy of separation between education and religion, there is no religious education in primary schools or high schools. There are some universities that offer basic introductory courses on religion. Many Chinese people have traditional beliefs or folk beliefs, which have almost become a part of our folk culture. It is easy for Chinese Christians to confuse their Christian faith with folk beliefs. Chinese churches are constantly disturbed by pseudo-Christian heresies.
The Chinese church is in a post-denominational stage, but it may be in a pre-denominational stage. (3) We understand the post-denominational situation as in accordance with the biblical teachings concerning the unity of the church, and it is also in accordance with Chinese cultural tradition. In this pluralistic world, however, this situation of unity seems to go against the grain. How can we express the significance of church unity in a society that is inclining more and more toward individual rights? How shall the oneness of the faith in Jesus Christ become the basis on which difference will no longer playa destructive role?
It is in such a context that we set our goals for our theological education, and try to make our faith meaningful to our people. Below are some of the major foci in our theological education.
We emphasize the importance of being familiar with our own context, but not to be preoccupied by the established norms brought from other contexts. Martin Luther broke down the barriers between God and individual pilgrimage. If we accept Luther's position on the possibility of lay people communicating with God, we must admit that the Chinese Church can have its own understanding of the Word of God, since God Himself speaks to our Chinese context.
Our viability lies in our awareness of our selfhood (indigenization and contextualization). We believe that particular religious experience presupposes particular faith. In that sense, a profound faith must be the result of one's personal cognitive experience and conviction in his or her particular existence. In religious faith, individual experience is authentic, and it can not be replaced by any other experience. (4) That is why Job sternly rebuked his friends who felt his experience in his dreadful suffering was not relevant to their faith experience, nor to Job's own prior faith experience.
Given the focus on our own reflection, we shall not overlook the tradition that consists of the Scripture, doctrines and the Church. We shall be conscious of our selfhood in accordance with the oneness of the church universal. We are a church at a post-denominational stage that is particularly Chinese since it is the reflection of traditional Chinese culture that emphasizes harmony rather than difference. At the same time, however, we are an integral part of the church universal. The spiritual life of the Chinese church is inseparable from the spiritual life of the church universal.
Our concentration in our theological education is to make our theological breakthrough. In our context, to make a theological breakthrough is to confess "Jesus is Christ" in our existence. This is especially important in today's world when so-called globalization is corrupting human spirituality, as can be seen in any developed or developing country. The separation between Jesus and Christ leads the Christian church either into becoming simply a social establishment relying on its own sufficiency, or a self-interested and independent cell unable to engage in social intercourse. Such a church can be influential to some extent, but unable to go beyond itself.
Both of the above mentioned extremes are self-sufficient. The former does not imply a transcendent goal to fulfill its obligation, and the latter fulfills its obligation to transcendence but isolates its goal from its commitment.
To reclaim "Jesus is Christ", as Chinese Christians understand it, is the way to regenerate the viability of our church again and again in our modem society. It is also the way that will enable us to combat the threat of secularization that is being intensified by the clamor of globalization. To confess "Jesus is Christ" is not only a faithful proclamation of one's Christian commitment, but also a faithful recognition of the truth that God is at work in this world and we are his instruments. In such an understanding, the uniqueness of Christianity, if there is any, is not in the aggressiveness of our Church toward people with different experience, nor in its indifference in a world where the notorious blasphemy that "Might is Right" still prevails, but in its confession of the ultimate truth, and in its action to manifest "Jesus is Christ." The claim "Jesus is Christ" is the proclamation of a church to the necessity of becoming holy. The holiness of a church can only be achieved to the extent that the faith proclamation of "Jesus is Christ" becomes a faith praxis, and to the extent that our Church constantly becomes the new vessel of Jesus Christ. The emphasis of the Chinese Church on being the light and the salt is the result of its understanding of the proclamation that "Jesus is Christ" in its experience.
It is with such an emphasis and understanding that our education is carried on. It is significant to recognize that theological education must be able to integrate church praxis. In the course of doing so, a tension may arise. Local congregations may not be aware of the significance of our emphasis in our theological education, and they may discourage the attempt to challenge their set-faith. Therefore, education should be carried on both from above and from below. It is true that Church has always been growing in tensions and tensions may be unavoidable in a growing church.
Theological education in China has just started. There will be more challenges and tasks. While we use the experience of other churches from their theological education as our references, we must concentrate on developing our own pattern of theological education that is capable of being expressed by the Chinese culture. This pattern of theological education with Chinese particularies can only be based on the confession of "Jesus is Christ" in a Chinese context.
1. CTE is a functioning committee under the CCC, which oversees and serves all 18 schools. It can make suggestion, but has no decision-making power over them.
2. A scholar from Nanjing said: "I had a student tell me the other day that in 1989 he was in Tiananmen Square as a young boy and in 1999 he was outside the U.S. Embassy throwing stones after the Americans bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade." ("International Herald Tribune, October 28-29,2000)
3. The possibility of being a pre-denominational church is caused by the fact that some narrow-minded overseas churches are trying whole-heartedly to restore their denominational influence in China, since they can not tolerate the Chinese Church without their denominational emphasis. They do not regard the post-denominational situation of the Chinese Church as God's guidance in a Chinese context, but strive to break the harmony that brings strength and life to the Chinese Church.
4. The term "individual" here refers to both an individual person and an individual church. An individual's experience is unique, and an individual church's experience is also unique. The experience of Chinese Church has shaped a faith pattern that is also unique.