Developmental Stages of a Chinese Church

This entry is part 2 of 24 in the series 30 Days on the Chinese Church

This article is part of the series “30 Days on the Chinese Church.”

I want to start this series by sharing about the history of my own church. Don’t worry, I won’t overwhelm you with lots of names and dates! But it is important to understand the typical development pattern of a Chinese church in the U.S. I will share our story with you to illustrate a common pattern.

A New Church in a New Country (Stage 1: A Mono-lingual Church)

The church that I serve had its beginnings in the 1960’s, when a group of students from Taiwan began attending a Bible study at U.C. Berkeley and a number of them became Christians. The group gradually grew larger, and eventually they decided to begin a Sunday worship service in a student center near the campus. Calvin Chao and Moses Yu, both of whom had done student ministry in China before the communist revolution, were instrumental in getting the new group started. In 1974 the young church took a step of faith and purchased the building in Berkeley where the church still meets.

Many immigrant churches share a similar story. In other cases a group of immigrants who were Christians in their homeland decide to establish a new church in their new country. A bit further back in our nation’s history there were German Baptist and Swedish Lutheran churches established in much the same way. These immigrant churches are often very effective at reaching new arrivals from their homeland. It is very refreshing for immigrants who need to use English all week long at school or work to be able to fellowship with their countrymen on Sundays and speak their mother tongue. But things can’t stay so simple for long. . .

New Families Need New Ministries (Stage 2: English Children’s Ministry)

The college students from the Bible study group graduated, got married, and began to have children. At first, the nursery could be conducted entirely in Mandarin, since that was the language that most parents used at home with their children. But when the children started school they began to use English, and after a few years they would often prefer to use English with their friends. Not only that, but most of the Sunday School materials are printed in English. Curriculum imported from Asia doesn’t work very well, since most of the children can’t read very well in Chinese. Eventually the decision is made to teach the children’s classes in English. (I’m not sure exactly when this happened in my church.)

Teenagers Bring New Needs (Stage 3: Youth Ministry and English Worship)

As the children continue to grow up, a youth group is started. By this time most of the children are using English almost all the time, and some of them don’t even remember very much Chinese. There is no question as to what language should be used in the youth group. In the beginning, the group is run by parent volunteers. If the church is large enough to afford it, they bring on a youth minister.

At some point the teenagers outgrow children’s worship and are invited into the regular worship service. But this presents a big problem, because some of them are not fluent in Chinese. So the next step is a translated worship service. Churches try different approaches to translation. Some use side-by-side simultaneous translation. Others use headphones. One former member of our church, who is an ABC married to an OBC, shared with me that when he first came to the church he sat upstairs in a hallway with 2-3 other and people and looked through the window at the service below while someone translated for them. This may have worked as a temporary measure, but it could not be a long term solution. (Translated service have a lot of problems, but I might address that in another article.)

Eventually there was a decision to begin an English worship service in the Fellowship Hall. I’m not sure of the year, but it may have been about the same time as the church hired its first English Pastor. Our history says that the English Ministry began in 1985, which is 11 years after the purchase of the church building. In most Chinese churches, the English worship service begins as a service primarily for the youth. Gradually they begin to attract some college students and a few adults.

Some Chinese churches are content to stay at Stage 3 for a long time, even decades. But there is one more stage of development to a mature English ministry. Tomorrow I will continue on to Stage 4.

Update: I have since learned that the early translation of the service took place behind a window in a balcony area, not a hallway, since at that time the upstairs classrooms had not yet been constructed.  This upstairs English translation section eventually grew to 20-25 people. 

Now it’s your turn. . .

  • Have you seen these stages in your church or a Chinese church with which you are familiar?
  • What are some of the struggles involved in moving from one stage to the next?
Series Navigation<< New Series: 30 Days on the Chinese ChurchThe CFC Story: Moving toward Maturity >>

2 Responses to Developmental Stages of a Chinese Church

  • NKL says:

    Yes to the first question: approximate dates
    1967 the start of the Chinese congregation (Cantonese though from HK)
    Late 70’s second service side-by-side translation
    Early 80’s hiring of English pastor (Asian American who functionally ministered in English only)
    1991 English only service

    You see the long time period between the establishment of the side-by-side translation to the English only service. That was a tough period for people like me who only understood one language. It took a long time to complete Stage 3 and we lost a few generations.

  • PK says:

    Thanks for sharing your church experience. It looks like your church used side-by-side translation for over 10 years. Why do you think that it took so long to move to an English service? And I’m wondering what motivated you to stay with the church during all that time?

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