Entering full-time ministry remains a narrow path for many Christians in China. Why did some still choose to do so and what are the challenges for them in this COVID-19 pandemic season? Let’s hear from some full-time ministers in China.
SHANDONG, China – When Gao Yong, 36, felt called to enter full-time Christian ministry, his family and relatives advised him against it.
“My child was just 6 months old,” recalled Gao Yong, who graduated from Shandong Seminary this year and serves in a church in Shandong province.
It is perhaps unsurprising that some of Gao’s relatives were not keen on his proposed career path, as entering full-time ministry in China usually means giving up a stable income.
But Gao was undeterred. “I’ve worked in a company and I was even my own boss when I started a business but all these did not bring lasting satisfaction. I watched with envy, pastors who are in the business of life transformation.”
Another pastor, Feng Chao, 39, who has been serving in a rural church in Shandong since 2018 deliberated on his decision to go full-time.
He said, “For many years, I’ve sensed in my heart the calling for full-time ministry. But it was difficult to surrender to the Lord until 2015, when I finally made the decision to answer the call.”
Lack of Financial Stability
What are some challenges for people entering full-time ministry in China today? Amongst other things, to many of them, it means giving up a stable income.
As China continues to develop economically and living conditions in general are improving, entering full-time ministry and taking a pay cut is nothing less than going against the grain.
And it may come as a surprise to some that many pastors and preachers in China are not paid a regular income, especially those who serve in the rural areas.
There are a few reasons behind this problem. One main reason is that the majority of the Christians in China are the elderly poor who live in the rural areas. Most of them are not able to give offerings or tithings to the church.
Therefore, it is not unusual for pastors and preachers to work part-time to support themselves and for some to return to the marketplace to find employment after a period of serving.
Another reason is the cultural perception of pastors – most Christians in China tend to believe that full-time church workers should be poor. Poverty is believed to be the mark of a true servant of God.
Although this perception may be slowly changing, it will still take some time for it to translate into changes on the ground.
In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, financial instability has become more acute. In some churches, it was reported that offering has fallen by 30%, thus affecting the livelihood of pastors and preachers.
For example, Gao shared that some recent seminary graduates assigned to his church have been advised to find employment outside, as the church is not able to pay them especially during this period.
Perhaps he too may need to do that as he worries about the future development of the church post-pandemic.
However, the dismal financial prospect has not deterred Han Xue, 25, to fulfil her promise made to God when she was in high school to enter full-time ministry.
“The faith of my grandmother and mother has had a great influence on me. If I were to choose again, I would still serve God full-time,” said Han, who graduated from a seminary college in 2018.
The Threat of Cult Groups
Apart from financial challenges, COVID-19 has also brought to the fore the problem of Christian cult groups in China luring unsuspecting believers.
“During the pandemic, there was a flurry of information up for grabs on the internet, including content put up by cult groups,” shared Feng Chao.
“As churches were closed, people were consuming all sorts of content online. Some believers who are not able to distinguish falsehood from what is true have been lured away to join cult groups.”
Indeed, the presence of cult groups has been a problem especially for rural churches in the past few decades. Not being able to read the Bible, some illiterate or semi-illiterate rural believers have difficulty finding out the truth for themselves. They are not able to ascertain if claims are true or false amid the proliferation of fake news and misinformation on the web nowadays.
It has been observed that the suspension of church services at the height of COVID-19 has created a vacuum allowing cult groups to come in and take advantage of vulnerable believers.
Coupled with a lower level of digital literacy, elderly believers who do know how to access their church’s WeChat (China’s equivalent of Facebook) official account for e-sermons and other spiritual resources have become more susceptible to the pull of false teachings.
Hopes for the Future
Amid the challenges and uncertainties, what do these new full time church workers hope for in the future, whether for themselves or for the church?
Han, 25, who is preparing for her wedding at the point of the interview, looks forward to building a godly family. She also hopes that “more young people will step up to serve the church”. In light of the greying Christian population in China, engaging and building up the younger people is certainly an urgent task for the church.
“I hope that church workers will have a better work-life balance and keep ourselves healthy,” said Feng Chao who confessed that his church duties have sometimes prevented him from attending Meet-the-Parents sessions at his daughter’s school.
Gao Yong sums it up well for all. He said, “In the past, we have been too busy and too focused on constructing church buildings. COVID-19 has forced the church to pause and reflect. This time I believe it will be beneficial to the growth of the church in the future.”
Let’s pause to pray for these new pastors and preachers of China that they will continue to persevere in the midst of unprecedented challenges in light of the pandemic.
Story: Cynthia Oh
2022 © United Bible Societies China Partnership
UBS supports Chinese pastors and preachers by partnering with the Churches in China in sponsoring training as well as giving financial aid to needy preachers ministering in rural areas. We also sponsor Scripture Literacy classes for rural believers to help them be more grounded in the Word.