Models of Ministry in Chinese Churches

About 7-8 years ago someone gave me a copy of an article by Victor Lee of Toronto on “Models of Ministry in Chinese Churches.” I thought that it was quite helpful at the time, and even made copies for our church board members. His description of the stages of development in a typical Chinese church fits in very well with what I have described in the past few posts. I will summarize some of the key ideas from his article. The names of the models are his, but the the descriptions are based partly on my own experiences.

The Paternal (Father/son) Model

Most Chinese churches begin with a structure and leadership style influenced by traditional Chinese culture. Often the OBC leaders run the church in the same way as they run their family, with a top-down approach. In this stage the EM is started under the supervision of an OBC leader, and it is expected to serve the needs of the children of the OBC church members. In fact, the EM is viewed as one of the departments of the church, along side of all the other (Chinese) ministry departments. Worship services at this stage are often translated. There is some frustration among the EM leaders who have grown up with a more participatory style of leadership but find a paternalistic style in the church. Eventually as the younger generation begins to grow up and seek their own identity there is recognition of the need for an English worship service. At that point the church moves toward the next stage.

The Parallel Model

There is a growing recognition that the EM needs its own ministry departments, separate from the Chinese ministry. The EM begins to develop its own worship ministry, Sunday School ministry, etc. In the church that I serve we even had two college fellowships, one using English and one using Mandarin. Gradually the EM establishes its own ministries in parallel with those of the Chinese Ministry.

At first the EM is still run by OBC leaders and directly overseen by the OBC board. But the EM leaders desire to have more freedom to design their own ministry to reach the second generation rather than doing everything the same way that it is done in the Chinese Ministry. At some point the EM leaders are given more responsibility and more freedom. There is a move to have a few local born EM leaders on the church board. But the church constitution and leadership structure has not yet changed to adjust to the existence of a parallel English ministry, and that fact sometimes leads to frustration or conflict.

The Partnership Model

In this stage the church leadership structure and governing policy is changed to fit the new reality of two parallel, inter-dependent ministries. When I first arrived at CFC, there were positions on the Pastor-Deacon board for worship, Sunday School, Fellowship groups, and Missions. In theory the deacons in each of these positions were supposed to oversee their respective area of ministry in the entire church, but in fact they only worked in the Chinese Ministry. The corresponding EM leaders were not on the board.

Gradually we shifted to a new structure, with most congregation ministries overseen by the English or Chinese Ministry Council and the Board focusing mainly on policies and issues that affect the entire church. We still have a Missions Deacon, because we consider Missions to be a joint ministry and have a joint Missions Committee to oversee it. But most of the other ministries are handled separately. Our structure is almost exactly what Pastor Lee’s paper suggests. But one thing that we have not done yet is to modify the church constitution to recognize the role of the two ministry councils.

There are a lot more suggestions in the article about the Partnership Model, including the the following:

  • promote mutual understanding of cultural distinctives
  • develop vision as a unified pastoral staff
  • develop a standard of leadership that is rooted in Scripture
  • provide training and spiritual development helping the leaders to understand the cultural distinctives
  • ensure that all joint services are sensitive to both ministries
  • plan strategic events that build church unity

Now it’s your turn. . .

  • Do you have any experience in a church using one of these models?
  • What it necessary to enable a church to move toward the Partnership Model?
  • Do you think that there are other models that we should consider?

Update: Pastor Victor Lee has kindly agreed to share an updated version of his article as well as another article that he has written. You can find them on my Articles Page.

10 Responses to Models of Ministry in Chinese Churches

  • LT says:

    I very much appreciate you sharing your journey of pastoral ministry with this Chinese church body.

    Correct me if I’m wrong I see that like many Chinese churches CFC is striving to for a “unified” EM and CM with parallel and inter-dependent ministries. That partnership is usually difficult and full of tension but it’s one big happy family. I have read Victor Lee’s article sometime ago. Good resource indeed.

    My questions are, what is the sense of unity like? Is it different in the minds of the EM versus the CM? How do you resolve that? Your EM congregation sounds young since you mentioned you’re at stage 3.

    I agree with you, as long as there is a flow of immigration for the Chinese there will be a need for effective ministry to different generations – under one roof? I guess that also depends on the size and stage of life of the church. I think as a church grows in number it’s difficult to keep things under one roof unless you started building a campus.

    I think there are opportunities for the EM to serve the CM and even reach Chinese immigrants but I think the tension arrives when a CM expects the EM to do so like a child.

    Does the CM agree with the EM’s methods to reach and nurture its intended audience? How different is the EM allowed to be? Obviously translation is a no-no. Was that tough to swallow for CM leaders? Thanks for sharing that too. It cheered me up.

    It really does come down to how the unified pastoral staff works if they are to set the vision and strategic initiatives for the rest of the church. The stronger the staff/leadership is at the early stages the easier it is to usher in change but if there’s fragmentation or disunity amongst the leaders it will be reflected in the life of the body as well.

  • PK says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yes, CFC is striving to be a unified church with inter-dependent parallel ministries. We have to decide on an almost daily basis what that means, and which things make sense to try to do together and which are better done separately. Our two congregations have a considerable level of autonomy but we all are committed to working together as one church. Sure sometimes that isn’t easy, but there is a continued need for healthy bilingual churches.

    The “under one roof” addresses the challenge of two congregations sharing one facility. Victor Lee has shared an updated version of his paper (see the link above) which adds one more step to the Partnership Model, namely having different buildings for each congregation on the same property. That sounds ideal, but it is difficult to see how we could do that at CFC anytime soon.

    I have much more to say about church unity, but I will save it for a later post in this series.

  • PK says:

    As I re-read your comment, I realized that I did not address some of your questions. I wanted to add that overall the CM, the board, and the Chinese Pastor have been very supportive of our efforts to build the EM to effectively reach the second generation. This was tested when we asked the church to buy a drum set for use in English worship. There was quite a bit of discussion about this, but eventually the board agreed to purchase the drums. There are some in the CM who do not really like drums in worship, but most of them recognize the Gospel purpose behind what we are doing and support our efforts. We in turn try to use the drums responsibly. Some of the earlier fears that we were headed for heavy metal worship have now subsided. We have no intention of going there.

  • NKL says:

    1. I’ve been part of the final transitioning from the paternal model to the parallel model.

    2. The key was trust. Just as there is trust before a parent leave the children in charge of the house while they are away, there needs to be trust before a traditional Chinese church moves from paternal to parallel models of leadership.

    I’m discovering that the third move from parallel to partnership is about more than trust. As good as Covey’s “The Speed of Trust” is in refining the workplace, it’s different in the church. Partnership implies fellowship, a deeper heart filled connection.

    Fostering fellowship and community between two (or three) independantly led groups from differnt cultures and generations–it takes competence but more than just competence.

    My opinion: It all comes down to compassion. I learned to walk the bridge and meet my developmentally handicapped brothers and sisters in community when I allowed God to awaken in me a compassion for them. The problem is, you don’t foster compassion when you live in parallel worlds.

    3. Isn’t the direction of the American Asian church towards Pan-Asian and eventually multi-cultural churches. I’m getting this from my reading of Ken Fong’s contributions to this topic.

  • PK says:

    Good comments on the need for trust and compassion.

    Many ABCs are attracted to an Asian American or multi-ethnic church. We need more churches of those types to reach certain people. But we still need healthy, vibrant bilingual Chinese churches. As long as Chinese immigrants continue to come and continue to have children, we need a strong EM in Chinese churches. The question that I am contemplating right now is how much the EM can move in the AA or multi-ethnic direction while still maintaining a good relationship with the Chinese congregation.

  • The difficulty about “parallel” is that the lines don’t cross. I saw one image of parallel as train tracks. I like Edwin Kong’s use of the term “chopsticks.” He means somethings similar to parallel but uses a great Asian analogy. We need point(s) of crossing and movement together to carry out effective ministry. Edwin is the director of Chinese Christian Mission in Canada. His article on this is published. I will have to find it.
    Those of us born and/or raised in North America are all somewhere on a cultural continuum (Gail Law), from Western to Asian or NABC to OBC. Our movement on that continuum is fluid too. I sense that we need different churches or at least different ministry emphases to minister to the spectrum of people, especially to reach out to others who identify in a certain way.

  • PK says:

    Thanks for joining the discussion. I like the idea of using an Asian metaphor, and I would like to see Edwin Kong’s article if you can find it. The thing that I like about the term “parallel” is that it makes clear that there will be separate but similar ministries in each congregation. But of course we also want to have some connection points between the two congregations. Maybe we could think of the railroad ties as connections?

    Another issue is whether the connections are hierarchical lines of authority or relational lines of fellowship. In our overall church org chart we show a separate EM and CM under the board, but at the bottom there is another arrow connecting them marked “Fellowship and Cooperation.”

  • whu says:

    there is another development in NA chinese churches (at least in Canada) more Mandarin-speaking from China are here, the traditional HK and SE Asia churches are facing new challenges besides the generational gap (OBC vs CBC)differences, what is the model? it seems to me that we need to sense the Spirit and go back to the basics of the Scripture and live the life God has given us both individually and collectively with the kingdom of God ruling over us. Working together with the community where you are and He is building His church.

  • PK says:

    The focus of this series is on reaching ABCs through the EM. But I think that it is often true that there is more cultural diversity within the Chinese ministry than within the EM. In my own church we have needed to shift gears somewhat to reach out to the influx of people from China. I can imagine that in a Cantonese speaking church it would require a much greater adjustment. Some of factors that make it possible to develop a mature EM would probably also apply to establishing a solid Mandarin ministry in a Cantonese speaking church.

    Bottom line: we need to be focused on the Great Commission and look for opportunities to reach those whom God is bringing our way.

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