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Development & Challenges of Theological Education in China

NEW YORK- Held on Friday at the Bible House, the China Bible Symposium organized by the American Bible Society offered an opportunity of communication between the China Church leaders and American chu
( [email protected] ) Jun 12, 2006 01:32 PM EDT

NEW YORK- Held on Friday at the Bible House, the China Bible Symposium organized by the American Bible Society offered an opportunity of communication between the China Church leaders and American churches and scholars on theological education.

The president of the China Christian Council (CCC) Rev. Cao Shengjie, the vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) of Protestant Churches Rev. Gao Feng and the vice chairperson of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) of the People’s Republic of China Wang Zuoan have attended the symposium.

The Gospel Herald has interviewed Rev. Gao Feng, who is also the president of the Shandong Theological Seminary, about the current situation, development and challenges of theological education in China. Here is the translated text of the interview.

Gao: Rev. Gao Feng, vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) of Protestant Churches, president of Shandong Theological Seminary

GH: Gospel Herald Reporter

GH: Over the last few decades, how is the development of theological seminary in China? What kind of challenges are they facing?

Gao: There are three major aspects in the development of theological education in China. First of all, we have totally 18 theological seminaries in China, which are divided into different types according to the way of recruitment of students. For national seminary-such as Nanjing Theological Seminary- it recruits students from all provinces across China. Students are gathered from a few provinces in the case of greater regional seminary like Hua Dong (East China) Theological Seminary. Lastly, for the provincial seminary, it only recruits students from the corresponding province.

In terms of short-term training, it is very important for China Church nowadays. Because the Church in China develops very rapidly, the number of pastors and ministers has always fallen short of the increase in the number of believers. In addition, up to 70 percent of believers of the China Church are in the rural villages. As most of the ministers of rural churches have not received formal theological training and are just volunteers, training becomes very crucial for them in order to raise up many believers. In conclusion, theological education must start from the grassroot level among the rural churches. For the rural churches to develop, the theological education for volunteers must be strengthened.

Lastly, we try to send many young pastors and seminary teachers to overseas for further education. As the Church in China develops, many intellectuals are attracted as well, the question of how to raise them becomes a new challenge. Therefore, the Church must raise up more well-educated and theologically well-equipped leaders. However, the Church in China is not ready to so do. That is why we have sent a few dozens of outstanding church leaders and seminary teachers for overseas training in the past 20 years, in this way, they can enrich their personal cultural and spiritual exposure.

Yet, there are many challenges in theological education in China.

First of all, facing the huge number and rapid rate of increase of Chinese believers, the existing 18 seminaries and teachers are not enough to fulfill all the needs. Secondly, books and resources are severely lacking in China. Even in Nanjing Theological Seminary, there are just around 50,000 theological books, no mention of the other seminaries that have even less number. Students thus do not have enough resources to do research, spiritual training and write their thesis. Also, teachers do not have enough references when preparing for the lectures. The insufficiency has directly affected the development of theological education in China.

Thirdly, the level of theological education in China is not good enough, so there are a lot of rooms for improvement. Many famous high schools in China have started to set up Religion major and Center for Religious Studies, more scholars become very interested in Christianity and have done very in-depth research. For instance, the theme "Understanding Christianity and Chinese Culture" has attracted the interest of many scholars and the public to learn about Christianity. On the other hand, such phenomenon has greatly challenged the Church in China: why are there no scholars in the Church to do high quality theological research? Why the Church in China does not present its voice in the society?

Fourthly, the interaction between theological education and the construction of theological theories must be improved. "Theological theory construction" was first suggested by Bishop K. H. Ting in 1998. At that time, many Christians have very old-fashioned and incorrect theological concept. For example, they think that "the poorer they are, the better is the faith" or some of them have strictly distinguished themselves from non-believers. Therefore, these misconceptions must be corrected and a new theological theory must be set up. Otherwise, evangelism and the long-term development of the church will be badly affected. The theological seminary in China must become the base for the construction of theological theory. Therefore, how to connect theological education and the theological theory construction is the first question that we should find an answer to.

In conclusion, the development of theological education in China is a very long-term process. Even for the training of teaching staff, it takes a few generations to see the effect.

GH: The China Bible Ministry Exhibition provides a very good opportunity for the China Christian Council/National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) of Protestant Churches to interact with American churches and it is beneficial for the Christian leaders of the two nations. In your opinion, what are the most valuable things that you have gained in this trip to the U.S.?

Gao: The Bible Exhibition has really offered us many opportunities to communicate and learn from many American church leaders. On one hand, they can understand more about the situation of the China Church; on the other hand, I have also learned many things. For example, American churches are more mature in terms of ministries and social services, and these are very valuable experience for us. Because the Church in China has just started, we need to continuously learn about how to carry out social services and how to serve the public better, and to present the voice of the Church in the society.

GH: In terms of theological education, have you got any plan to exchange with many countries, including the United States?

Gao: In the past over 20 years, we have already sent out many students to receive training overseas. But we still have not sent anyone to any theological seminary that has no denominational background, for example the Anglican Church. Therefore, we have planed to send outstanding students to different seminary with denominational background. We believe that will give great help to the development of theological education in China. In addition, we will have more focus in terms of training. For example, biblical language is very important subject but in China it’s very lacking, so we will send students overseas for this specific training and lead the development.

Apart from sending students overseas, we also invite some famous theologians or pastors to come to our seminaries to give lectures, participating in the work of training. Currently, the Nanjing Theological Seminary has already started this project and other seminary will follow as well.

GH: Are the theology graduates able to carry out pastoral ministries very well in China? Are the theological seminaries in China able to raise leaders that are needed by the Church?

Gao: Yes. We choose seminary students with a very high standard. Most of them have been well-testified by the ministers of their church and they are also very familiar with their church. Therefore, after graduation, they can immediately start serving their church.

GH: Just now you have mentioned that the quality of theological education and the number of teachers are far than enough to meet the need of the rapid growing Christian congregation in China, so what are the estimated numbers of missionaries and theological professors needed?

Gao: According to rough estimation by the CCC/TSPM, there are around 16 millions believers in China. This number will even grow more in the next few years. Because human resources in China are very limited, it takes some time to find the answer.

GH: The China Bible Exhibition was not accepted by some evangelical churches in the U.S., how do you think about this?

Gao: I think the biggest reason is that they do not understand the situation of the Church in China very well, otherwise they must have cherished this Bible Exhibition. Frankly speaking, the Church in China needs to communicate more with overseas Chinese churches to clear the misunderstanding, so that we can achieve the unity of the Church of Christ in the world. We truly wish that we can communicate more with Chinese churches worldwide, we are even very willing to listen to the worst critics. We wish that we can embrace each other in Christ and to truly become on body of Christ.

[Editor’s note: Jonathan Quan in New York reported for this interview.]