The younger generation is suddenly flocking into China's churches, radically transforming the composition of many congregations from mainly elderly people to over 50 percent young people. But according to the Rev. Sun Xi-Pei, Vice-Chairman of the China Christian Council, "We can only keep about one third of these young people. Our big challenge is to turn growth into quality."
Churches of the official Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) are bursting at the seams with young people, at least in the larger cities. House churches also report a similar increase in young people and are often the beneficiaries when many tire of the official church.
A Three Self pastor in Wuhan told the congregation of St. Michaels on December 5, "It used to be in this city that the Religious Affairs Bureau would say 'one more Christian, one less Chinese' but now they say, 'one more Christian, one less criminal'."
Meanwhile, the TSPM's educational institutions are also bursting. Its 18 seminaries are expanding rapidly as they seek to overcome a chronic shortage of pastors.
The 13.3 million members of the church have barely 1,300 ordained pastors. Most seminaries cannot train more than 200 pastors at a time.
Despite the expansion, the needs are overwhelming. Even with expanded campuses, seminaries are still taking in barely 20 percent of the applicants.
And, if the official church has problems—with under 14 million members—the problem of theological training for the 50-million-plus members of the house churches is even more acute. They cannot receive foreign donations or rent large premises to hold seminars for fear of discovery by the authorities.
"There is no more important work, nor more hazardous work, than training a new generation of leaders in the Bible and the issues of leadership," said a Shanghai church leader.
See our July 13, 1998 cover story, "A Tale of China's Two Churches."
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