House Church Seminaries in Mainland China: Mimicking the Western Model?

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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 first 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.

China Partnership: Could you give an introduction to the state of theological education within Mainland Chinese house churches?

Yang Mingdao: Theological education in Chinese church history is not new—North China Theological Seminary was probably the largest Asian seminary during the 1930s. A lot of people from overseas—the Philippines, Malaysia, and even Korea, went there to learn. This seminary even spun off Shandong University. Many pioneer missionaries worked in education, starting elementary schools and seminaries. In Western China, in Chengdu, there is Huaxi University, a [missionary-founded] seminary and also university. With this background, however there was a major disruption in 1949, as the Communists took over and missionaries were forced to leave. All seminaries of course were shut down. Later on, even if seminaries were started, of course they were Three-Self [the officially sanctioned church, which is overseen by the Chinese government]. A lot of people go to those seminaries without really being Christian, having not had an experience of regeneration, just to get a typical religious job.

Even after reopening in the 1970s and especially in the 80s, missionaries from Taiwan, Hong Kong, the U.S., and South Korea went to China and started training others. They felt theological training and biblical education was important. This was a renaissance for the Chinese church. These were not typical seminaries, because at that time, there was no way to have a regular seminary. This theological education was on a basic level; students were not able to pursue a degree, but their life and knowledge were very orthodox. There were a lot of fundamentalists.

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As China’s doors opened, the 80s and 90s were the period of the countryside house church movement. The education was relatively lower level; most leaders never had college experience. But during the turn of the century, around 2000, there was a movement to church planting in urban settings as intellectuals became Christian. They were more hungry to learn. Some people went overseas; others were sent into China to start this training. A lot of theological trainings started to be held in the city. In Wenzhou alone, they may have had more than ten seminaries! The intellectuals were more educated people, and so they thought of formal, theological education. They wanted to mimic what Westerners did.

I got a formal education with a degree in my field, and after that was called to the ministry while in the U.S. At that point I went through a summer camp, and I finally went to a traditional seminary and got a MDiv. However, as I mature and pastor and train and teach at different seminaries in the Asian context, I see that the purely Western model may not always be good. This depends on the situation, and how Scripture teaches us and church history informs us.

Some years ago The Gospel Coalition interviewed several leaders working in theological education. They asked these leaders: “If you were king and could change one thing about seminary education, what would you change?” The answers were very interesting, and we ended up translating the article and sharing it in China. D.A. Carson said that theological education is in crisis, and we need more integration in our curriculum. He means that seminaries have become very scholarly. Al Mohler said evangelicals are failing at theological education in the U.S.; the church and seminary do not connect well. Of course, Mohler did not want to cancel theological education, but said more people ought to be sent to the churches to have practice. Richard Pratt said that seminaries should be more like a simulation camp such as West Point. His point was that seminary students must in some way be exposed to how families break down, how marriages are in deep trouble, how to do funerals and hospital visits. He wants to change the way seminary runs.

I resonated with these points. If we simply take the old model to China and start seminaries in that way, we will need a major correction later on.

CP: What about the situation in China specifically? It seems like there is a temptation to follow Western patterns, but because of the situation in China, there is an inability to do that. How does that play out in life for people in China who want to be trained to be pastors?

Yang: Let me give you some cases.

There was a seminary in northeast China started by a pastor who graduated from an American seminary. They wanted to do what they learned from the U.S. and was very typical: you needed to have a degree to teach. But this seminary was flexible enough that they allowed Chinese pastors who graduated from that seminary to teach all the practical theology: Old Testament, New Testament, church history. 

That church was very disciple-making. They normally picked people who already had experience and put them together in dormitory—in China of course it was not a big dormitory, basically it was an apartment, with ten or fifteen students in one place. They could go down and eat together, and on the weekend they could go home if they were local. Most of the time they were old-school: eat together, pray together, learn together. Security reasons made things very challenging, and no one had cell phones during the week. There were generally a lot of good students who came from there. That school emphasized piety and was kind of Reformed, but did not call themselves Reformed because they wanted unity with other churches.

The churches in Wenzhou had multiple seminaries. Wenzhou had money, and really wanted to keep their students there. They wanted to have both good quality, and to reproduce the education of a place like Westminster, but with the piety of China. They were successful in some ways,  but when students graduated, the older generation was not satisfied. There were multiple reasons for this; some being their own limitations, some had to do with the younger generation. 

The younger generation would be called to ministry and go to seminary. But the older generation were always bi-vocational businessmen. They had piety, but did not have much knowledge. One pressure was that the teachers in the seminary were mostly from Western schools. The students learned in this model, but in the morning still did early morning prayer from 6 to 7, then would eat quickly, and start class at 8. They wanted to do everything right, [but it was a lot]. Then when these students graduated, there was a breakdown between the generations. The older Wenzhou church model was more itinerant. One preacher would be a businessman and travel and preach everywhere, a revival model. There was not a local church, which was not healthy. Maybe this is good during a time of revival, but you still need a local church. This older generation were very experienced businessmen, but the young graduates gradually came to know the local church was important. Of course the older generation said yes, but the models were very different. The third issue had to do with the younger generation’s failure: they had a lot of knowledge, but they may not have had the piety or life experience, the obedience and respect to the older generation. The ministry models were different, and their young people never did evangelism. 

Wenzhou leaders are also very pragmatic. They have money, and they think that, if they give money, that should be able to generate people immediately. Of course it does not. Also Wenzhou itself is a commercial city, a business city, not an intellectual city like Beijing or Shanghai or even Chengdu. You cannot make Wenzhou people just like people from Shanghai or Chengdu; you have to cultivate the culture of the entire village.

Other cities had places that did theological teaching and training, but did not call themselves seminaries. 

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