House Church Seminaries in Mainland China: Let the Machines Do the Data Transfer

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Editor’s note: This month, China Partnership is intentionally praying for theological education within the Chinese house church. Today, we are sharing the second part of an interview with a leader in the field of theological education within China. While he himself was trained according to the traditional Western model, he believes that the Internet will change long-established, worldwide patterns, just as the printing press changed education forever around the time of the Reformation. The Chinese house church may be one of the first to embrace and experience this revolution.

This interview has been edited and condensed from its original form for both clarity and length. Yang Mingdao is the collective pseudonym for Chinese staff within China Partnership.

Yang Mingdao: At a seminary I work very closely with, we wanted to do accreditation and evaluate the academic level, but also attend to life and the practical side. We found this very interesting. We start with practical theology—gospel renewal classes. Then we did church planting, and here we found a gap. Most people coming to these courses are not purely what Westerners call church planters, who mostly have graduated from seminary and just lack practical training. For these people, they have a coaching program to go through while they plant a church. When I planted a church, I went through something like this: each month we gathered for half a day, learned a module, prayed, had coaching, and then were dismissed. All this was very good for me, but when we brought this to China, we found a different context. 

In China, we were dealing with more of a church revival or church renewal movement. Not many people in China have a seminary education, so a lot of material was too technical. We had to shrink the courses. In seminary, there are three categories of class: basic Bible, theology, and practice. If younger people came out of courses at our seminary without an understanding of the Bible or of theology, they will have a hard time understanding what gospel theology is, because it is all so new. We decided we needed to do something so that biblical and theological education could go hand-in-hand with practical theology, such as church planting or gospel movements. In church planting, we go through church planting material and help people to become trainers who can train others. For theology, we train the trainers in the three disciplines of New Testament, Old Testament, and theology, in hopes of starting church-based, theological centers.

I’ll give you an illustration. Redeemer Presbyterian Church has a seminary, RTS, now. The idea is that the seminary faculty teach the biblical and theological side, and the Redeemer staff teach practical theology. That is a genius idea. We also had this idea—we want to take the practical part from the church, and the biblical and theological part from Third Mill. This would be a kind of flexible seminary that can be put in the churches. 

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We are already doing this. We facilitate online learning, and call this a blended model. Students can do the homework and practice ideas and concepts online. But on the weekends, they discuss practical implications. We call these church-based theological training centers. Is there only one way to represent the gospel—just the Tim Keller way? Of course not. There are multiple ways. But Tim is so smart, and he is able to come in with biblical theology in the U.S. setting. He does not only enter into the culture, but also trains the culture. There is a theological vision behind everything.

I will give you a situation. China was first, but hopefully this can be global. Recently we did a street-level certificate to train leaders. This was church-based; when someone goes through all the training, they basically have a diploma. We do not say that the person has a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, as it is designed for global churches that may not have a seminary. For the introductory courses in the Bible and theology, we added a practical component. When students finished the foundational courses, we gave them some tools to do evangelism—similar to Christianity Explored, or guiding them to write their testimony. When they finish the courses, they actually need to do evangelism. 

CP: My husband took an evangelism course in seminary and was shocked to see the other guys had never done evangelism in their whole life. 

Yang: How are you going to be a pastor? Basically by preaching over people’s heads!

For all the courses—foundational or biblical studies or theological studies—we had them finish with application. If I go into a church and do church planting, not everyone can take the seminary courses. However, evangelism or discipleship or prayer or basic teaching are part of the church’s regular program. When you finish these applicational classes, the people can run the church. You have established co-workers! 

In this way, you are not simply dumping all you have learned, but showing them something they can use, something more suitable. If I am the pastor and I am the trainer, I will watch how the people do as I demonstrate how I do evangelism and discipleship, how I pray and teach others to pray. The more advanced courses [for those who will become pastors] do not have to be taught by pastors, because those are data transfer. They already have a machine, and the machine does that job well; the use more efficient words and illustrations and finish the job well. But the pastors need to do the equipping.

The students may not be able to practice unless you break down the content. Say you learned the Apostles’ Creed—maybe ask a question. In the Apostles’ Creed, which doctrine is first: the doctrine of church, or the doctrine of salvation? Most people, with surprise, tell me the doctrine of salvation is first. I say, “Really? It says, ‘I believe in the communion of the saints,’ and then it says, ‘the forgiveness of sins.’” Basically, students learn without thinking. Learning something verbatim does not mean the students understand how it interrelates, or how the Reformation changed things, or whether the change was good or bad.

You must have time for analytical learning, not just memorizing data. Learning data can come through the machine, through a video. Jesus preached, and people asked questions. He asked questions: “Who do they say that I am?” Our theological education is blended—we want to have the best of the Internet, and the best of people meeting, to shape life and sharpen their skills.

CP: For all the issues and challenges, the opportunity for the church in China to approach these things a little bit differently is actually very exciting. 

Yang: It is.

CP: Is there anything else to share?

Yang: This is the picture I think of. Bring the seminary into the church, don’t bring the people out of the church to go to seminary. I think that was Jesus’s model. With technology, why do we have to operate theological education in the old way? If the printing press changed the Reformation, and technology changed the church, then how we deliver the transformational model [can change as well].

Think about how to mentor the people. That is the part that is lifelong. Even creation had that aim—“You are my God, we are your people.” Less data transfer. Let the machines do the data transfer, let the people transfer the wisdom, the knowledge, the experience, and the fellowship.

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