Chinese Protestantism has evolved quickly in recent decades. (Photo supplied)
Once again, the week of prayer for Christian unity is back. Once again, I would like to turn the spotlight on Chinese Christians. It is true that many of them do not know much about this joint initiative of the World Council of Churches and of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Yet, with divisions among them being multiple and deep, prayers are much needed.
Catholics around the world are aware of how political tensions have deeply divided Chinese Catholicism. Yet the week of prayer for Christian unity invites us to turn our attention toward non-Catholic Christians.
This year the theme of the week is “Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit.” It was selected by the monastic and ecumenical Community of Grandchamp in Switzerland in relation to John 15:1-17. In this section of the Gospel, Jesus invites us to contemplate how God the gardener trims his vine to make it bear even more fruit.
Guided by this theme, we need to look at the young branches growing out of Chinese Protestant communities. To identify some of the difficulties they are facing and inform our prayers for unity, I would like to shed light on what I call a generational crisis.
Over the past decades, Chinese Protestantism has evolved quickly. On one hand, it went through steady growth. Millions of new believers have joined Protestant churches. But this rapid development is now gone, and Chinese Protestantism is transitioning to a new stage of its history.
On the other hand, the state administration is increasing its anti-religious policies and new restrictions are forcing churches to adjust their functioning. Furthermore, internal migration has deeply reshaped the sociocultural landscape of the country. These various aspects have multiple consequences for Chinese Protestantism.
First, Protestant communities that have decided to collaborate with the state tend to evolve under the leadership of senior pastors who are in their 50s and 60s today. Many of these pastors came to faith during the 1980s, got training in theology and led their communities for years. This generation of senior leaders have the considerable experience that allows them to navigate the internal tensions of their congregation as well as the pressure of state officials.
However, many have been unable or unwilling to prepare a new generation of leaders who could effectively take over. In the coming years, Chinese Protestantism is facing a serious risk of a generational crisis.
How is that possible? Indeed, registered churches are mostly made of and overseen by local Christians. Their senior pastors are from the local community. Yet, in a country where younger people have moved out of their hometowns to find jobs in big cities, younger Protestants are mostly within unregistered churches.
In many ways, the division between official and unregistered Chinese Protestantism is generational, and it is fueled by migration. This is especially true within large cities. There, the average age of churchgoers joining official churches is much higher than that of those joining unregistered churches. And this is also true among pastors. Unregistered networks operate under the leadership of younger leaders.
Similar contrasts can be found about geographical origins. Official churches tend to attract Christians from the surrounding region. Unregistered networks attract “outsiders” — younger students and professionals who come from far away.
Furthermore, the rapid growth of Chinese Protestantism has brought many senior pastors overseeing official churches to establish rather strict authority. This leadership model bears its advantages and disadvantages. As we say in Chinese, a mountain cannot host two tigers. At official churches, younger and promising ministers often face pressure from senior pastors to leave. They are implicitly pushed out to protect the cohesion of the congregation. Thus, in many well-established Protestant churches, leadership is carefully monopolized by senior pastors.
Official schools of theology
Another factor causing tensions comes from official schools of theology. The state requires that Protestant leaders go through theological training at state-sanctioned schools of theology. Although those institutions have gained in strength and academic quality, state control and administrative requirements are making the functioning of those schools increasingly complicated. Recruitment of students and professors is heavily bureaucratic.
In some parts of the country, the state requires that all forms of Christian traditions study at the same school. With this imposed coexistence, theological differences are difficult to address and professors tend to avoid sensitive subjects. Teaching about the trinity, the sacraments and the Bible becomes complicated. And this is a slippery slope.
Not surprisingly, young ministers from official churches are becoming increasingly skeptical toward state-sanctioned training. They feel like they waste their time at school. At church, they feel the generational gap with average churchgoers and the conditional support of their senior pastors. Submission and obedience are the key.
In this context, many promising candidates elope. Some go abroad to access better schools of theology. Yet they know that without state-approved training they will never be allowed to take the leadership of their home congregations. Others simply join unregistered communities. Without any supervising regulations, these underground networks of smaller and warmer communities offer more room for pastoral initiative and leadership.
The conjunction of all these difficulties creates what I call a generational crisis. Younger Protestant leaders may find themselves unable to prepare for the tasks needed of them. In the coming years, without a younger generation of ministers able to assert real leadership, Chinese official Protestantism may find itself in crisis.
Some may consider this as good news. Certain observers with deep anti-Chinese state feelings believe that the collapse of established churches would free Chinese Protestantism from communism and favor its spiritual and numeral growth.
I think this assumption is shortsighted. First, it is unfair to pretend that official churches have corrupted and unworthy faith. Their commitment to the Lord is often remarkable. Second, nothing indicates that Chinese religious movements that are entirely underground are doing well today. While it was the case in the 1980s and 1990s, the state has since found very harsh tools to suppress them efficiently. In the current situation of the People’s Republic of China, no one should wish Chinese Christians to fully go underground.
Following the view of many scholars, I believe that the dynamic relationships between official and unregistered Protestant communities benefit the Protestant Church in China. First, structural separations among Protestants do not bear the same religious meaning as they do among Catholics. Second, those differentiations allow a high level of theological and spiritual diversity. They also weaken state control and makes church structures more flexible. In other words, a collapse of official churches due to a generation crisis cannot benefit Chinese Protestantism.
In conclusion, no matter how things will unfold, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit will find a way to support Chinese Protestants. But history has shown that things can always get worse. Therefore, in this week of prayer for Christian unity, Catholics around the world should pray for the physical security and spiritual growth of Chinese Protestant communities. These brothers and sisters need to find a way to nurture young branches growing out of official churches. Their well-being will benefit the whole body of Christ.
Michel Chambon is a French Catholic theologian and anthropologist. Twitter: @MichelChambon. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.