This entry is part 5 of 25 in the series 30 Days on the Chinese Church

In Chinese churches, we often compare the church to a family. Just as a family goes through many changes as the children grow up, immigrant churches also go through predictable stages. Today I want to share a few more thoughts about the developmental stages of Chinese churches, with particular focus on the process of growing a mature English ministry.

The Church is like a Family

“The church is like a family.” But exactly how is it like a family? We know that the universal Church is God’s family, but how does that apply to a local church body? When we try to apply the family concept to an individual church, our own ideas about “family”
have a big influence on our thinking. Several years ago one of our lay leaders in the Chinese congregation said “The church is like a family, and the pastor is like the father.” I was actually a bit taken back by this statement. At first I thought that she meant that the pastor is the “boss” of the church, as the father is the boss of the family in a traditional Asian family. But upon a moment’s reflection I realized that this could not be her meaning, because I knew very well that she did not view the pastor’s role in this way. So I think that her meaning was something more along the line of saying that the pastor should guide and care for the church, just as a loving father should guide and care for his family. This incident reminded me that when we compare the church to a family we need to be careful to define exactly what we mean and to uncover the underlying assumptions and images.

With that precaution, I want to use the analogy with a family to explore the stages of development of the English Ministry in a Chinese church. . .

The English Ministry is like a child

In some ways the English Ministry grows and develops like a child in a family. We can use a model of child development to gain some insight into the growing pains of an English Ministry. For example, a newly started English Ministry composed mostly of youth is like a child in the family. They need lots of support from the Chinese congregation and have little input into church decisions. (I realize that not every EM in a Chinese church begins this way, but this is the most common pattern.)

After the EM matures a bit it becomes like a teenager. Teenagers are on the way to becoming adults and demand more freedom to make their own decisions. They are ready for more freedom as well as more responsibility. Teenagers sometimes want more freedom than they are ready to handle, but parents sometimes are too slow to let them make their own choices. Similarly, the EM in a Chinese church reaches a stage when they want the freedom to try new things and have their own identity. This sometimes leads to a tension in which the EM is seen as impatient and rebellious while the OBC leaders are seen as too controlling. A Chinese church must successfully negotiate this “teenage” stage of the EM in order to make a mature EM possible. Lots of compromises by both sides will be necessary.

Eventually in some churches the EM reaches a stage of mature adulthood in which they function as equal partners with the CM (Chinese Ministry). Each congregation has a measure of autonomy but both congregations also look for areas of synergy in which they can effectively work together. The EM has considerable freedom, but also takes on adult level responsibility for the church.

In my own church, we decided about 7-8 years ago to change the schedule on Sunday so that children’s Sunday School is during the Chinese worship instead of the English worship. The reason for this change was so that we could recruit more of the teachers from the English congregation. I see this as a sign of maturity, because the EM is stepping up to serve the whole church.

Now it’s your turn. . .

  • What do you think about this analogy for the development of the EM? Does it work?
  • What stage is your church at? What is the developmental challenge that you face right now?
  • Does your church have a vision for the EM to become an equal adult partner ministry?
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  1. 1. I think the analogy is applicable. The emotional connection is stroger when the EM is mostly made up of the children of the CM. (This is no longer the case in our church–only 30% of the EM has grown up in the church/70% have been at our church 5 years or less). The emotional connection has it’s good and bad points. Good being the leverage it creates to draw resources for “our children”. Bad being that the frictions get drawn into family systems (and sometimes into inter-family systems) which is unhealthy.

    2. At a crossroads now. EM is a capable adult but a lazy capable adult. Members have the means but not the will to stand “as equal partners” with the CM. It’s like the 25-year old successful college educated professional pulling in big bucks who still lives at parent’s home, drives parent-owned car and eats parent provided food.

    3. I was intrigued by how another Asian-American phrased it: in the eyes of the parent, their child is still a child until they get married. Applied to the church–that means the EM will never be seen as equal until they split off and form their own church or at least occupy their own building across the streat (this happens!).

    This is not my culture. This is not how I wish to raise my family. As a father I long for the day to release my daughter into the world as a mature Christ-centered and confident person. You are right, we have different definitions of “family”.

  2. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion. I think that for the EM to step up and take adult level responsibility there needs to be a sense of ownership.

    I think that in some cases it is possible for the EM to be seen as an adult without having their own building.

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