Studying Theology Overseas: A Word of Caution to the Chinese Church


Editor’s note: This author is a Chinese student who came to the U.S. for seminary studies. Although he went overseas for his studies, based on this experience, he issues a strong word of warning to Chinese students who are considering this move. He believes full-time seminary studies abroad, with the goal of returning to pastor a church in China, is not a helpful pursuit.

In the last decade, it has become a trend for Chinese Christians to study overseas (mainly in North America) at various Western theological education institutions. This new wave of overseas students has two distinctive features: first, they are mainly urban intellectuals, and second, most of them have been deeply involved in pastoral service in China before attending overseas seminaries. As a member of this wave, I have benefited a lot from it, but at the same time, I am also deeply concerned about the various shortcomings. Therefore, I offer the following as my own personal humble opinion, in an attempt to analyze the benefits. 

When it comes to the motivation for studying theology overseas, there is no greater reason than the desire to be near “the origin of all kinds of theological and discursive production.” It is true that the training in overseas seminaries is really beneficial. Being under the tutelage of overseas masters eliminates the need to chew through second-hand materials and information, and opens up direct communication channels with teachers and peers, which indeed opens up the mind and stimulates theological students to reflect on theology and the domestic situation. In addition, moving overseas for several years provided an opportunity to observe and encounter overseas churches from a close distance. This helps pastors at home in China to understand more fully the current situation of overseas churches, so that their future studies and learning are no longer seen through the fog or a dim reflection.

But, in that case, is studying theology overseas the best option for now? Not necessarily, and a few points need to be made here.

 (1) For a brother or sister who has already been deeply involved in ministry in China and still aspires to pastoral care in the future, being uprooted from the original pastoral soil for three or four years can do more harm than good in every way. The church is an organic ecosystem, and pastors, as part of this community, need to be aware of changes in the pastoral environment in real time. In the past few years, it has been common for the returning seminarians to become unaccustomed to the home church and thereby caught up in various pastoral conflicts. The reason for this has much to do with the fact these seminary students have been separated from the pastoral reality in China for too long.

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(2) Do not expect too much from seminary spiritual formation. Christian theology, even in the seminary system (research universities naturally speak for themselves), is still primarily an academic pursuit that holds high standards for original language and philosophical training. In contrast, the spiritual formation of seminary students is an area that is shouted loudly but done poorly. There are several seminaries that I know of that have private or official spiritual prayer groups for professors and students, and the school administration does its best to provide various spiritual formation courses, but despite this, the spiritual formation within the seminary is far inferior to the honing in a real, pastoral environment.

(3) Don’t place too much trust in the advice of professors in Western seminaries about the future path of ministry (especially ministry back home). Most professors do not know much about non-Western situations. Even if they have been missionaries, their role is not similar to that of a seminarian returning to serve as a pastor. Such advice should first be given in consultation with a church and pastor who know you. 

(4) You should not expect to find your calling in seminary. Seminaries can provide relevant training, but they are not a substitute for authentic self-discovery in a real pastoral setting. Truth be told, seminary is more appropriate for brothers and sisters who already know their purpose of service; otherwise, seminarians are equally caught up in the pursuit of grades and other kinds of peer pressure.

In summary, I believe that one needs to be cautious and careful about studying theology overseas, especially brothers and sisters whose goal is to pastor a church in China.

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