How Should We Do Theological Education Within the Chinese Environment?

Editor’s note: The following is a summary from a Chinese pastor concerning a trip he made to observe and learn from American seminaries for the sake of efforts building up theological education in China. His letter provides a fascinating look both at how many Chinese see and experience American theological education, both it benefits and drawbacks, and at what Chinese church leaders believe is important for seminary education and pastoral training. His reflections are not only a good example of contemporary, urban Chinese house church concerns, but also words from which American churches and seminaries can learn.

Peace be with you, brothers and sisters.

It has been over a month since I came to visit the United States. 

I, along with some leaders of [Chinese] seminaries, was [asked by our Chinese association of seminaries] to visit American theological seminaries, most of which are Reformed seminaries, in the hope that it would provide [our association] with information for the building-up of Chinese seminaries.During this process, I provided you with live reports as we visited each seminary.Now I am sending you a summary for your reflection.

During this trip we visited eight seminaries, and the general impression was that each of them were distinct from the others. First, I will briefly introduce each of the eight seminaries.

1. [A Well-Known Seminary in the Southeast]

Its goal is clear – namely, to train pastors. This is simple and clear; yet, it does have a strong faculty.

2. [A Small Seminary in the Southeast]

It has two main purposes. One is to train those who serve in the denomination but have other full-time jobs, for example, elders and deacons. Another is to train pastors, but the number is small. This seminary has the same goal as the first, but with a completely different model. Most of its students have full-time jobs during the day and come for evening courses. It has no residential professors; all courses are taught by visiting professors. It has no building of its own; all classes are taught in a local church. Yet, its students have the highest passing rate in their ordination exam. This is a nonresidential school with a low-budget operation, full of its own distinctives.

3. [A Small Midwestern Seminary]

The school has strict regulations because of its focus. It emphasizes developing the students’ spiritual life, especially in prayer and personal counseling. Because of its belief in the professors’ impact on students, it has high requirements for professors as well, and only those who are qualified in scholarship, spiritual life, and piety may teach there. Consequently, its course load is less demanding.

4. [A Historic Midwestern Seminary]

The school adheres to attention on both academics and spirituality. With a very strong academic culture, it does leave room for devotional life, appointed time with advisors, and sharing with classmates, which are all counted toward credit. However, generally speaking, the school stresses academics more than spirituality.

5. [A Large Southern Denominational Seminary]

The Reformed position, as well as its denominationalism, are very obvious. [The school] emphasizes its denominationalism through direct relationship with churches. If a student joins a denominational church and interns there, the internship counts towards credit. Since the denomination is one of the largest among American protestant churches, funding is never a problem for the seminary. It has the largest student body; however, the quality of its faculty seems to be lower than the other seminaries.

6. [A Well-Known Midwestern Seminary]

This is one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the United States, with the largest group of Chinese students as well. With its strong faculty, the school features the best evangelical environment for developing PhDs. Because of its adherence to evangelical theology, theological perspectives among its faculty are not uniform.

7. [A Well-Known Northeastern Seminary]

This is one of the largest evangelical seminaries with about two thousand students. It is focused on urban ministry. Similar to #6, its theological perspective is broader and more tolerant to differences - Reformed theology is merely one of them. The school has a few Chinese professors who are all evangelical. Generally speaking, the school is more academically focused.

8. [Another Well-Known Northeastern Seminary]

This is the most conservative seminary with a distinct Reformed position. Meanwhile, it adopts the classic way of faith and cultural dialogue, and therefore faces challenges in the postmodern environment of the United States. It maintains a high academic standard with the clear goal of training scholars, but it lacks in spiritual formation. Chinese students in the school have a hard time studying there.

Clarity of Orientation

A few presidents of the seminaries we visited warned us not to imitate or copy from the model of American seminaries. That is to say, we must find within our own current context an educational model that suits our uniqueness and then establish seminaries with our own characteristics. 

Let us analyze the situation in China. Without a doubt we are taking the Reformed denominational path. How should we position ourselves? How should we do theological education within the Chinese environment?

During this trip, one school that impressed me the most was #2. Through communication with its president we learned about their self-analysis as a school. Among the American seminaries within the Reformed tradition, there are schools who devote themselves to training scholars, such as #6 and #8, and there are also those who focus on training pastors, such as #1 and #3. With its own unique features and limitations in size and faculty, #2 decided to position itself to train pastors, but it does so with a combination of evening classes and day classes, which accommodates its other educational goal, that is, to train lay leaders within the denomination who have non-ministry vocations. Its operating cost is only twenty percent of what an ordinary seminary would cost. While it is small in scale, it has not sacrificed quality. It is said that its graduates enjoy a high passing rate in their ordination exams. 

At #7, I met an elder of a prominent Chinese house church. He said these words which were enlightening for me: “Currently the Chinese seminaries are capable of training Masters of Divinity; only extraordinary scholars should come to the United States for their PhDs. It is not necessary to come to the United States to study for a Master of Divinity since the cost is too high.”

Therefore, with our well-recognized domestic Reformed seminaries, there is no need to replicate the American theological education system such that would waste resources(at least at the early stages). We can learn from the second seminary’s focus on training potential pastors and at the same time accommodating the need to train lay leaders within our presbyteries. Extraordinary talents who are fit to be pastors can be sent to one of the domestic seminaries; those with scholarly talent may be sent to American seminaries. Next, we need to clearly orient ourselves, with a complete mission and vision, and detailed planning and strategies.

Churches and Seminaries’ Roles for the Spiritual Formation of Seminary Students

During this trip, one of the central topics for everyone was - how can we cultivate both the academics and the spirituality of the seminary student? At each seminary, we asked the same question, “How do you help your students to grow both academically and spiritually?”The answer from a professor at #5 could be representative of the current situation of theological education in this age: “If you find the answer to this question, please come back and tell me.” This is certainly American humor.

The president of #7 explained that contextually the American seminaries mainly fight against liberal thought and therefore focus more on scholarship. A professor is evaluated by his publications rather than how much time he spends with students. One Chinese student at #5 told us in tears that he had no hope of having spiritual dialogue with his professors. At present, the Western seminary has become something closer to the model of the secular university, especially in shaping the spiritual lives of seminary students. Therefore, this is a stern warning for all of us, that our Chinese theological education must not fall into the Western malpractice of emphasis on scholarship with the neglect of spiritual life.

At our last stop, the Vice President of #8 pointed us to one solution that suits the Reformed faith - the seminary should collaborate with the church and the seminary student’s spiritual life must be developed within the church. He specifically emphasized that the church ought to have a systematic approach to this issue.

It is true that because of its unique functions and historical context, the seminary may not be able to focus on both scholarship and spirituality; thus, the church should be proactive in working on the issue and forming a system of doing so. For example, before a seminary student goes to the school, the church should design a plan to put them under care; during the student’s study, the church should maintain the relationship and counsel them regularly; after graduation, the church should be well prepared to nurture them and help them grow.

The Convergence of the Times and the Succession of Mission

Before the 1980s, there was a whole generation of preachers who suffered tremendously in the Cultural Revolution and yet lived out the gospel in the face of roaring lions with their testimonies of faithfulness to Christ. We can see in history that through that generation in that unique age, God kept the Christian faith alive in China. Their spiritual life, marked by faithfulness to God on the edge of life and death, is the biggest legacy they left for us today. We cannot ask them to pass on to us the systematic doctrines in that age when they did not even have certainty about their own lives; neither can they be asked to leave a sound institutional model for governing and good pastoring practices during their precarious circumstances.

Since the Chinese economic reform, the number of Chinese believers has been skyrocketing; a new generation of preachers rose up and took over the responsibility of pastoring the church from the older generation; at the convergence of times, the gospel mission has been passed to our generation. In the thirty years since the Chinese economic reform, the Chinese house church has experienced rapid growth. House church pastors who grew up during this period were impacted more or less by preachers of the older generation; they inherited their emphasis on building up a personal spiritual life, on upholding the Christian fundamentals, and especially on the willingness to suffer due to the political environment.

However, after the rapid growth, the house church has encountered a series of problems as a result of a general lack of theological training, confusing pastoral philosophies, and disorderly church governing. House churches in rural areas are being weakened, and traditional house churches are growing slowly; the church is marginalized in Chinese society and Chinese culture, while the legacy of piety in spiritual life from the older generation is deteriorating steadily. History once again witnesses the bottleneck of church growth; how the church is transformed has become the key to continued healthy development of many churches. 

During this trip to the United States, we met many seminary students from China; some of them were college graduates who came to faith in China, others came to Christ when they were studying in the United States. They are called to serve full-time by studying theology and getting ready to serve in China upon graduation. Generally speaking, they do not have the traditional struggle of faith of the previous generation, and they are more influenced by modern Western culture than traditional Chinese culture. These seminary students of overseas theological education generally do not know much about the Chinese church; some even know nothing about it. While they are young and highly educated, they generally lack knowledge of the Chinese church and its circumstances; they are likely to copy from the American church, and likely to face tension with pastors of the previous generation within the Chinese church.

The Chinese house church needs these returnee pastors with adequate theological training; they have been growing in a healthy system ever since they came to Christ, and their return to China will definitely be a blessing for the church. Yet it will be a great challenge for them to apply their theological training in the Chinese context, and an even greater challenge for them to inherit the legacy of piety in spiritual life from the older generation of preachers. The Chinese church of this age seems to be at the convergence of times again, waiting to see whether the gospel mission can be passed on successfully, and whether church responsibilities can be handed over smoothly to the young by an older generations of pastors.

A gospel that is pulled away from the life of the cross is a twisted gospel; the gospel without grace is a false gospel. How should we proclaim the old gospel in a new stage of history? Historical developments do not reside in human hands; we have to look to God’s will and follow his guidance. The older generation of pastors have fulfilled the mission entrusted to them in their time, and they are willing to be paving stones for younger generation of pastors to fulfill their mission, that is, to build up a healthy gospel system, through which the gospel of the kingdom will continue to evolve in the ages to come. The Lord will be with us, whether in a pillar of cloud or in a pillar of fire.

My writing skills are limited, please forgive me if there are any mistakes and confusions.

Sincerely,

Your brother who longs to grow with you in truth.