Can the Chinese Church Avoid the Disconnect Between Theological Education and Pastoral Work?


Editor’s note: This interview with Dr. Ben Chen, director of Chinese language at Third Millennium Ministries, was originally published in 2018 on Qin Lu’s personal WeChat. It is translated and shared with Qin’s permission.

This version has been edited for clarity and length.

Qin Lu: As a younger person and his junior, as a student in seminary, as a pastor interning in a church, and as a guest lecturer teaching in a seminary, I benefited a lot from Pastor Ben Chen’s sharing, and I was also much comforted and encouraged.

I believe that the issue of theological education is a topic of great concern to many pastors, seminary professors, seminary students, and many brothers and sisters in the Chinese church today. So I asked Pastor Chen if he could spend some time and do a short interview on the topic of theological education in the Chinese church. Since I found it very valuable, I have compiled it to share with brothers and sisters.

Pastor Chen, from your years of ministry experience in the church and seminary, and from your pastoral and theological teaching experience, what do you think is the greatest need in theological education in the Chinese church today? Many people think it is the [lack of] depth in theological knowledge; some think it is the need to make the theological system more unified and consistent; others think it is the formalization of theological degrees. What are your thoughts?

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Pastor Ben Chen: The theological education needs in the Chinese church are multifaceted, whether it is the [lack of] depth of theological knowledge you just mentioned, the consistency of the theological system, or the formalization of theological degrees. All of these areas are very important. However, I believe that the greatest theological education need in the Chinese church today is to remedy the disconnect between seminary studies and pastoral ministry in the local church. Many seminarians are unable to apply what they learned in seminary to the pastoral ministry of the church. This is similar to the disconnect between the knowledge of the faith and the living out of spiritual life that Christians often wrestle with in their life of faith. This disconnect is fatal to the theological education and pastoral ministry of the Chinese church. 

We send many students out to study theology, either in China or overseas. But when these students come out of seminary, it is difficult for them to put the knowledge and theories they learned in seminary into practice and apply them to pastoral ministry. This has created a strange phenomenon—we feel that seminarians can talk the talk, but are unable to walk the walk; they have knowledge, but no experience; they have theory, but no practice. This causes a serious disconnect between seminarians and the church.

This phenomenon actually also exists in North American seminaries and churches, and the problem is not with seminary students. I do not believe that most students who go to seminary are simply there to pursue knowledge and degrees. More often they go to seminary to equip themselves for ministry in the church. The problem lies in the disconnect between the design and implementation of seminary education and the church’s pastoral ministry. Most North American seminary professors are very well-trained. The areas of specialization in North American seminaries are very carefully divided, and each professor is an expert in his or her field. They are excellent in passing on theology and knowledge to seminarians, helping them write excellent papers, and helping them acquire a solid theological foundation. But not many of these professors have practical experience in local church pastoral ministry, and few are pastors. Very few theology professors teach seminary while serving in churches. The courses these professors teach are mainly academic- and information-oriented, focused on the transmission and accumulation of knowledge. But these professors are not very good at helping students practice translating and integrating this knowledge so they can apply it in their future pastoral ministry.

Therefore, the problem is not only with seminarians. We cannot expect seminarians to shape themselves—of course, the Holy Spirit is the greatest Shaper. We can’t expect them to learn and grasp theological knowledge well during the three to four years of seminary, and to then translate and integrate this theological knowledge well to apply it in church ministry. We cannot expect them to be excellent in pastoral and practical ministry right after graduation, to possess theological knowledge, and to have a very healthy spiritual life. This expectation is unrealistic in light of the current model of theological education. It is not that seminarians do not want to apply the theological knowledge they have learned in pastoral ministry, but that they do not know how and do not have enough time to do it.

Qin: What are some good solutions to meet these needs?

Pastor Chen: We need to rethink the model of theological education in the Chinese church today. The current model of theological education in the Chinese church is gradually moving to imitate and learn from the Western model. I am not denying Western theological education, but the disconnect between theory and practice brought about by the independent model of theological education in the West is obvious. Will the Chinese church make the same mistake? Can we avoid the disconnect between theological education and pastoral work? Western seminaries have made very important contributions and have had very significant results, but in the current situation of the Chinese church, this model of theological education may not be suitable. The important thing is that this is not the model of theological education and pastoral formation advocated by the Bible.

In fact, many evangelical church and seminary leaders in North America have been reflecting on this crisis in Western theological education for the past several decades. In Justo Gonzalez’s 2015 book, The History of Theological Education, he mentioned four major premises: 1) some form of theological education is a fundamental trait of the church; 2) traditional-style Western theological education has been in crisis over the past several centuries; 3) while traditional-style Western theological education is in crisis, broader theological education is not; and 4) church history, especially the history of theological education in the Church, is a very effective tool for guidance. In fact, as the author of this book pointed out in premise three, and many others have also pointed out, broader theological education is in lively development. This includes non-traditional theological education and churches that are not led by the Western model of ministry. 

If we pay attention, we find that theological education in the West is now moving in a purely academic direction. On the one hand, it is obvious that the purely theoretical and academic phenomenon is more evident in the many liberal seminaries. On the other hand, many evangelical seminaries are trying to balance theological education and pastoral ministry, but these efforts have yielded poor results. This is because most seminaries do not have close relationships with  or are independent of the local church, and because few of their own professors are pastors on the frontline of the church. For this reason, some influential churches and denominations are now producing seminaries, church planting centers and training centers (e.g. Redeemer City to City or 9 Marks) that are trying to reduce the gap between seminary and church by adding an internship period for an integrated learning practice.

To this end, we at Grace to City and Third Millennium Theological Resource Center are now hoping to launch a new ministry, a new combination and experiment that we hope will bring seminary back to the church. What does that mean? We want to be able to integrate theological education with pastoral ministry in the local church in a good way.

We hope to base this education in a city, gathering and training the leaders and pastors of different churches in that city. We will then let some of them do in-depth study and research in certain fields, and become educators with expertise in that field. Then these people can form a theological training center in their city (what is often called an evening school or seminary), and let them train the pastors of the churches in that city. These pastors can become lecturers in that seminary while they are pastoring, and let other pastors, while they are pastoring, study theology. This is actually the paradigm of theological education that the Reformers adopted 500 years ago.

We hope to train four to five pastors in a city who will teach courses in different areas—Old Testament and theology, New Testament and theology, systematic theology, practical theology, etc. These pastors are to study and learn more deeply about their fields while pastoring. Then, also while pastoring, they can teach and form a new generation of pastors. The teachers of these seminaries or theological education centers are, first and foremost, full-time pastors in the local church. Only secondly are they part-time seminary teachers.

In this way, we can reduce the cost of three or four years of full-time theological study. On the one hand, by doing this we can largely avoid the disconnect between theological education and pastoral ministry; on the other hand, these students can still serve in the church during the period of theological study, so that there will not be a disconnect between theological study and church ministry. This is not only a matter of saving resources. After three to four years of M.Div. studies, one’s theology and thinking will be basically set, and in the future it will be more difficult to reshape.

Qin Lu: In what ways do you think congregations can be involved in these solutions you offer?

Pastor Chen: We hope to reach out to different churches to participate in this ministry with a kingdom mindset and a mindset of learning from each other, while sharing the same fundamental theological positions.

This ministry cannot be accomplished by one or two organizations or a few teachers. It requires more churches to recognize these same phenomena. These phenomena include: the extreme shortage of pastors in China due to the Chinese church’s rapid development; the lack of training and equipping of pastors; the number of people trained by the traditional theological education model and the drawbacks it brings. Many churches must see the need for us to be able to carry out this work with the heart and mind of “striving to keep the unity of the Holy Spirit” and working together in this century’s new model of theological education to bring seminaries back to the church. In the end, seminaries exist for the Church, who are the main way God spreads his kingdom.

Grace to City and the Third Millennium Theological Education Resource Center are only taking the lead and guiding the way. The latter stages of this ministry will require the participation of many colleagues from many churches. We are not seeking to promote the institutional unity of the churches through this ministry; that is not our purpose. We hope that through this ministry we can raise up more servants after God’s own heart for the Chinese church in order to realize the mature church described in Ephesians 4.

Usually, in Chinese churches seminarians are sent by the church or choose to go out to study theology on their own, either domestically or overseas. Some of these seminarians will return to serve in the church after graduation, and some may go on to serve elsewhere. The current educational model focuses on knowledge accumulation during seminary. Then, we expect seminarians to be able to integrate what they have learned into pastoral ministry after three to four years of study, which is very unrealistic. The result of this, on the one hand, is that the church is disappointed with these seminarians. They often ask questions such as: “How come all the seminarians nowadays only know theology, but not pastoral ministry? What is the use of studying theology?” On the other hand, it is also a great hurt and blow to the seminarians and preachers. They often ask: “Where did I go wrong? What is wrong with studying theology? What is wrong with knowing too much? If I had come to pastoral ministry without studying theology, people would not have criticized me for knowing only theology but not understanding pastoring.”

Therefore, we hope that churches can objectively look at the current crisis of this theological education model, and then be able to carry out this ministry with one heart and mind by opening seminaries in the church and bringing seminaries back to the church. I believe that this is a pressing issue for the Chinese church today, and we hope that the churches will participate together to avoid the disconnection that often happens after theological students return to the church following graduation.

Qin Lu: What are some difficulties you anticipate in starting this ministry?

Pastor Chen: There are many difficulties. On the one hand, it is difficult to choose the right teachers, who first need to have been in the church for many years and have significant pastoral fruit, and also need to have certain academic research and teaching abilities. To be honest, this kind of teacher is difficult to find; but we can form and educate pastors to become such teachers. On the other hand, there are difficulties related to how each course should be connected and organized and how fellow church members can be connected in order to participate. Churches in China usually prefer to work alone and are not quite able to cooperate and work together with other churches. This is also a big challenge. Lastly, we will have to deal with theological differences between churches—how do we navigate theological debates on various topics? Many people cannot sort through theological priorities and differences.

Qin Lu: Finally, what are your expectations and vision for this ministry?

Pastor Chen: We are looking to integrate good theological content (Third Millennium courses) with actual pastoral practice. The Third Millennium courses (video/audio/text and study guides) actually provide a content standard perspective that ensures the quality and delivery of biblical and theological knowledge concepts. We also want to train the kind of educators through whom these knowledge concepts will be realized and translated into the learners’ personal lives and pastoral skills. Because I am currently involved in two ministries at the same time—one is the Church Planting Movement of Grace to City and the other is the Theological Training Ministry of Third Millennium—it would be great if these two ministries could be integrated together. After a two-year cycle of training and fellowship, I hope to produce a group of better trainers. I believe that such a cycle of training enhancement would bring great help and edification to the Chinese church.

We have found that the biblical and theological maturity of participants in church planting training is far from the standard of a pastor who can lead a church plant. At the same time, it is impossible to turn all these trainees who serve in ministry or on a substitute basis into full-time seminarians—in that case, the church would have no leaders. Yet a seminarian who is sent off to a traditional seminary in another city and then returns to pastor and plant a church of his or her own often has to go through a lot of detours and a long period of adjustment. When seminaries are in churches, future full-time workers are prepared and selected from within the church, and the next generation of planters and pastors emerge from this group. They tend to be better than “parachutists” in applying what they learned and in dealing with real situations.

The purpose of theological education is to build up God’s church, and God’s church cannot be built without theology rooted in and guided by the Bible. We hope to train and nurture more faithful servants of God and leaders of different levels for the Chinese church. These leaders and servants will be solid in theological scholarship and at the same time able to apply theology in pastoral practice—that is, we hope to stop the disconnect between theological scholarship and pastoral ministry. The best way to do this is not to let seminarians to figure it out on their own, but to take the DNA of Jesus Christ’s discipleship of his followers, to nurture and train these students to holistically apply what they have learned in pastoral service in real life.

Seminary should be in the church, not elsewhere.

The process of studying theology is a process of shepherding and being shepherded.

The teachers themselves are pastors, and the students themselves are pastors-in-training.

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