Numerically speaking, there is one pastor for every 10,000 Protestant believers in China. This dire situation is aggravated by the fact that clergy tend to be concentrated in the cities and many of them are way beyond retirement age. This situation leaves day-to-day-running of many rural congregations in the hands of trained lay workers. In January's edition of Tian Feng, Tang Yongquan reports on his impressions of rural church workers in Anhui province.
Tang bases his article on his experience from April 2000, when he assisted the church in Huaiyuan county, Anhui province in training church workers.
With more than 30,000 baptized Christians in a population of about 1.25 million, Huaiyuan county has a percentage of 2.5% Protestant Christians. This number is well above the national average of 1 % Christians. Currently, Huaiyuan has 107 functioning churches and meeting points, with 30 more waiting for registration. Church life in Huaiyuan is obviously flourishing.
Yet when it comes to clergy, the situation looks different. Of the two pastors in Huaiyuan county, one is eighty years old. They are assisted by a single elder. Given this situation, it is the devoted work of dozens of trained lay workers that keeps congregations in Huaiyuan alive and going. And, while other parts of Anhui were badly hit by sects like the "Established King," churches in Huaiyuan managed to stay virtually trouble-free. How was this possible?
Church representatives in Huaiyuan recognized the need for trained lay workers very soon after the reopening of churches. As early as in 1982, the church started offering training courses for lay workers. Programs were then gradually expanded. Today, the most comprehensive training available in Huaiyuan consists of a ten-month training course spread over two years. Making use of the low agricultural season, students devote five months of the year to full-time study. These efforts have paid off: Today, every church and meeting point in the county has two to three well trained church workers.
What are the requirements for students wishing to participate in the two-year training program? Apart from passing an entrance exam, students must also be recommended by their local church. Once they are in school, students are subject to a fairly regulated school life. For many of them, it is not only the time involved that poses a problem. Raising the money for tuition can also be difficult. Students pay 60 yuan [=US$ 7.5 approx.] a month for their living expenses. Besides, they contribute 40 pounds of grain or flour a month for their nutrition ?
Despite all technical difficulties, the training is rewarding for the students in more than merely an academic sense. As Tang Yongquan reports, the lay worker training program contributes greatly to students' personal growth. They tend to become more aware of their function as role models, causing them to reflect upon their own behavior. Tang remembers the case of a woman who decided not to file for divorce as she had intended before she entered the program. Students also realize the difficulties of preaching and the importance of cultivating good relations with non-Christians around them. In Huaiyuan, they participated in social activities like road construction and visits to old people's homes.
The author recognizes that good relations with society at large also depend on the local Religious Affairs Bureau and United Front Department. Fortunately for the Christians in Huaiyuan, local cadres in charge are very supportive of normal religious activities.
Tang summarizes his reflections as follows: The stability of church life at the grassroots depends almost entirely on the work of trained lay workers. In order to enable them to fulfill this task properly, they must be trained up to certain standards. If church workers are well trained and give good example through their personal lives, they can not only maintain church life, but even become the source of future church growth.