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Christianity in China

Cultural Factors Affecting Chinese Church Leaders

B
y common consent, development of leaders is the most urgent need for the Chinese church. With explosive growth over the past few decades, there are not enough shepherds for the flock. Moreover, many – perhaps most – pastors and elders lack skills in Biblical interpretation and balanced Biblical instruction, leaving the church wide open to heresies, sects, and shallow growth.

Recent studies have also exposed another problem: Leaders do not have – or do not take – enough time for meditation, prayer, study, and disciplined reflection on the Word of God and its implications for today. An even deeper problem is that those in authority often do not display humility, patience, kindness, and gentleness towards those under and around them, including members of their own family. Indeed, as even the “heavenly man” acknowledged in his autobiography, most Chinese church leaders do not spend enough time with their families, which creates a fundamental weakness in their entire ministry.

The question is, Why do Chinese church leaders often lack qualities, or habits, which would make them more effective? Some obvious reasons include the sheer scope of the need confronting them; the incessant travel which robs them of energy; the pressure that unregistered churches face; lack of peer support; the rapidly – changing situation, including unprecedented urbanization.

In addition, I believe that there are cultural factors, some of them stemming from millennia of tradition, which affect Chinese church leaders. In this brief article, I shall only mention a few of these, with little or no explanation, expecting others with more knowledge and understanding to fill out the picture. My hope is that we shall better understand the pressures that our Chinese colleagues face, and that our prayers and efforts to support them will flow from a greater appreciation of the obstacles they encounter.

Social and psychological factors

Most Chinese church leaders come from homes with little or no environment of encouragement, praise, or affirmation. Parental rebuke and exhortation are the norm. Aloof or absent fathers, and overworked mothers, have left a legacy of neglect and a profound deficit of perceived love. As one Chinese put it, “Most of us are ‘emotionally starved.’”

Younger leaders have grown up as only children, doted upon by parents and grandparents; indulged; spoiled; and missing the experience of give-and-take and mutual checking that rubs off some of our rough edges.

Cultural influences

Despite rapid social change, some of it overturning centuries of tradition and custom, certain “Chinese” characteristics continue to play a role even today. For example, the “group mentality” for which Chinese are known, while undergoing erosion, still affects Christians and their leaders. One the one hand, it will encourage self-sacrifice in the interests of others; on the other hand, it will place pressures to accede to the current desires of others, at the expense of personal development.

In the past, the extended family has claimed almost ultimate loyalty. What would that mean for a pastor in a church of several hundred – or several thousand – members who are “brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers” in Christ?

Chinese rightly consider themselves to be a practical people; they value actions more than words; they are diligent in work. We see the results in explosive church growth fostered by tireless efforts of evangelists and pastors. But this activism militates against quiet time alone with God, strategic planning, and extensive reading. Nor does it allow for mush real rest. Hard work earns praise, but “I am tired” is not a universally-valid excuse for taking time off.

Since the legendary Emperor Yu, who tamed the raging waters of the Yellow River, Chinese have lauded the leader who sacrifices personal interests, including his family, to the needs of society. True, the Confucian tradition states that one must first cultivate oneself, then one’s family, before one can hope to influence the larger world. In practice however, leaders are expected to put public duty before private matters. For pastors, that means that the church comes first; it is “unspiritual” to spend time at home.

Confucianism, as well as much popular Buddhism, have reinforced Chinese pragmatism, creating a pervasive moralism. Even the Communists have constantly barraged the people with moralistic slogans (“serve the people”; “imitate Lei Feng”) in their role as ideological and ethical teachers. In the church, this shows up in preaching that emphasizes rules more than a relationship with Christ; law more than grace; serving God more than basking in his love; works more than faith. (Chinese are not the only ones given to moralism, of course; it seems to be the “default mode” of human nature. Bryan Chappel’s Christ-Centered Preaching was written to combat this atmosphere in the American church.)

We should not be surprised, therefore, to see pastors using exhortation, admonition, even shame (“You haven’t come to meetings recently”) to motivate their people.

All observers have noted the authoritarian nature of Chinese leadership, from Imperial times to the present. We should remember also that the “mandate of heaven” rests only upon those who are competent and free of corruption. At the same time, Chinese tend to be idealistic about human nature. The result: Leaders are required, and expected, to be both completely capable and virtuous. That fits part of the Biblical view of leadership, of course, but does not take into account the pervasiveness of sin.

Could this partly explain why Chinese church leaders find it hard to be transparent; willing to admit errors and mistakes; open to disagreement; and free to share their burdens with co-workers? Are they given the freedom to fail?

These are only a few of the cultural factors that may be affecting our Chinese colleagues in leadership. I am sure they could point out a similar list of influences reducing the effectiveness of Western church leaders! The only difference might be that they are too polite – too willing to give us “face” – to tell us!