I’ve been thinking about the spread of Christianity in China for some time now. China fascinates me… I was there in 1987, and have ever felt some kind of pull back there. Presently some good friends are in China for a year, teaching English. We were only half-serious when we talked before they left about visiting them sometime in the spring of 2008, but I haven’t half given up on the idea even though it’s really a long-shot. I blame Alan Hirsch for getting me thinking about China again this morning, with his two posts, latest take on china and lastest take on china IIâ€¦through rc eyes. Quite some time ago, I mused about the underground church, and what we could learn by observation about Structures for Church Growth. I’d been musing along these lines for a couple of years already when I put them down briefly here — and then Alan Hirsch’s book, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church dove into some of these same waters, with essentially the same conclusions (but with more research to back it up). It was good to discover that either I was on the right track or I at least had good company on the wrong one. I’m pretty sure it’s the former though.
The second of Alan’s posts has some interesting conclusions on why the RC Church hasn’t grown as exponentially in China. Oddly (to my mind), they see the lack of structure — not enough priests — as a hindrance to growth. In my mind, this should be a catalyst rather than a hindrance… they may still have too much structure. Decentralized leadership structures will be more efficient and scalable in the Chinese context (and others!). See The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations for further discussion, as well as (briefly) my chapter in Voices of the Virtual World: Participative Technology and the Ecclesial Revolution. The Christian movements which are excelling in China (i.e., Pentecostalism) are the more participatory ones, and I think this is important — a distinction from the RC Church, which is less actively participatory in nature. Alan’s second post also cites RC missionary language as being characterized by the subjunctive, rather than the simple present of Pentecostal missionary language.
More recently, I was considering another factor which I believe has helped fuel the growth of the Chinese underground church, being a monastic form of discipleship, which more closely resembles the model between Jesus and his disciples, something of an apprenticeship model. To be clear, I don’t know enough about the inner workings of the underground church in China to draw convincing conclusions (I hope someone will comment on this), but I expect that their form is more monastic in the following senses:
- discipleship in the faith is integrated with all of life;
- adherents are considered learners, or apprentices;
- apprenticeship or learning is a lifelong process; and
- mastery of the field is sought through imitation of a master.
To unpack this a bit, there’s no dichotomy between secular and sacred. There’s no rush to fix everything today: patience, persistence, and practice over a lifetime will yield results. Seek to emulate the one you follow, and you will be formed in much the same way. There are probably other senses as well. I do not mean that adherents are tucked away in a monastery, but that they are dedicated always, in all areas of life to pursuing the goal. Even the masters are always learning, following their master even as they train their own apprentices. At times the process begins when the apprentice is quite young — 8 years old… but the process is the same, and is lifelong no matter when you start.
What I’m suggesting is that in China, the concept of apprenticeship is culturally and historically inseparably linked with spirituality and with holistic medicine. I’ve been told that in China you pay your traditional doctor continually to keep you healthy. If you get sick, you stop paying and he treats you for free… because his job is not primarily to fix your ills, but to keep you healthy; if you’re sick it’s (at least partly) because he hasn’t been doing his job well. There’s something about this that I like. In any event, the Chinese culture will assume that faith replicates itself after a certain pattern… much like Taoism or Buddhism, or the medical profession. Christianity at one time had a similar way… not that it’s gone now, but it’s less in vogue, and there’s very little call to a monastic life that isn’t tucked away in a monastery, but out in daily life. It isn’t that the West has no apprenticeship or mentoring programs (interestingly, the business community is discovering and re-implementing some of this), but particularly in the matter of faith, it’s been disconnected from the present as a relic of the past. Conversely, in China and similar ancient (mainly Asian) cultures, there has been no such disconnection — either the practice still continues, or it is recent enough that the direct associations still remain.
In the West, we’ve largely lost this sense of apprenticeship or mentoring that takes a more monastic view of discipleship… but if recovered, it fundamentally and necessarily pushes us into a more missional approach to our faith. We live it out, in all of life — we live our faith. We follow our Master, Christ, after whose pattern we are gradually formed. It’s a lifelong process, so we do not expect a quick-fix but are willing to invest in ourselves and in others, to be involved in their lives. To share our own life with them. This is much along the lines of what Alan Hirsch refers to as “Missional DNA” or mDNA. It’s part of the “forgotten ways” that are buried in the DNA of the church, which once recovered, will bear fruit in our lives and in the lives of those around us… as we live our faith and share our lives. It’s the monastic way of spiritual formation.
If in North America the concept is so foreign, perhaps we need to use an analogy that is sadly more a part of the popular culture. Maybe it’s like the Jedi. Missional Jedi.
The Chinese church has adopted a discipleship approach because they couldn’t form in the tradition sense (large church, centralized, one pastor). They had to form this way and it served to eliminate the casual observer who was there from a consumer perspective. Decentralization forced the leader to really practice what he/she preached, which was following Jesus.
Do you see potential for such apprenticeships in small groups that meet as a part of community life in many congregations? My dream has been for this to be true but several small groups I’ve participated in lacked the intentionality and focus needed. Additionally the flat leadership structures leave people without the “master” teacher to emulate. With the evangelical emphases regarding the priesthood of all believers (frequently divorced from its historical context) and denial of the need for any mediator besides Jesus (not the same thing), I often feel bereft of mentors and masters who will walk with me and instruct me in the ancient paths.
I hear what Norm is saying, but it seems to me that existing models of leadership have contributed to losing the heart of what it means to be mentors and masters in a way that is serving and self-sacrificial. I believe this is more likely to happen in a relational way outside of hierarchical structures.
This is much as I expect… having to be secretive necessitates a certain kind of structure. In addition to being pushed this way for political reasons, I think it actually fit within their cultural milieu so that it could be easily grasped at “the way.” For them, it has been a more traditional approach than what is traditional for us in the West, namely, trying to achieve effective discipleship through economy of scale… which is arguably not as effective in the end anyway.
Very much so. When I was in “the big church,” it was small groups that I was perhaps most passionate about, and we were involved as members and leaders of such groups for a number of years. The flat leadership structure actually encourages less “follow me” and more “follow Jesus.” There isn’t one voice that sets the course for all, but everyone listens to the Holy Spirit and learns of Christ together, discussing his model in a “how-do-we-follow-him” kind of context. It took quite a few years before I sort of gave up on the idea of a mentor after the fashion I imagined. I ended up instead with several good friendships, journeymates who help keep me on the rails, and vice-versa.
Reading your comment between Norm’s and Cindy-lu’s, I think my observation is that an emphasis on discipleship and accountability mixed with heirarchy and some idea of “spiritual authority” is a dangerous concoction of extra-biblical material cultivated to produce spiritual abuse. I wouldn’t presume to instruct you on the effects… we’ve both been there, done that, got the bandages. But would you say that’s an accurate summary? One without the other is probably fairly inert, but mix them up and it’s pretty volatile stuff. To the leader in that context, it says that everyone present should follow him, and that it’s expected as obedience to Christ. Discipleship and accountability must come from the leader through his position, and not from friends and peers through genuine caring relationship. Remove the heirarchy and authority, and relationship is encouraged in its place.
Sadly, I know more about the shepherding movement’s lingering after-effects than I care to. I think in the context of small groups, the same things we used to say about being open to the Holy Spirit hold true… we shouldn’t avoid the genuine article for fear of a counterfeit. The scenario you describe is one of the greatest fears of house church, but as I look around, I find very very few examples of groups that went off the rails that way, and many more examples of people whose lives are deeply enriched through the experience. I don’t think it’s accurate at all to say that a large group/church setting is less prone to this… in some ways, it’s worse because of the mass group dynamic… it just takes off, and dissenters are fighting against a lot more momentum. The leader has his position and his platform, and challenging his views is normally harder than in a smaller group.
The real dangers have nothing to do with size and everything to do with how we lead… are the leaders humble, correctable, postured as learners first? Do they share leadership, and is it in a context of relationship rather than position?
In the end, maybe I’ve got a bad word with “discipleship.” Apprenticeship is a word that’s starting to be used more… and we are apprentices (or disciples) of Christ — not of a pastor or leader or anyone else, but of Christ. He puts people in our lives to assist with the process, but we are always to be pointed to Christ and made like Christ, not like the people around us. This, in my view, is one of the litmus tests for how people assist you in your spiritual formation, and whether they’re helpful or not.
Yes…and this is the topic of my chapter in “Voices” (especially the “virtual” aspect)–while the rest of it is the foundation of the church planting strategy (CovenantClusters) I’ve been working on for the past 21 months! I am very much looking forward to getting a chance to talk about all the ramifications everyone has mentioned with you and the others meeting at Seabeck in three weeks.
I assume you’ve read “Back to Jerusalem”…
I’ll grant that this needn’t necessarily be a size issue. I’ve had issues with the teaching in a big church, too, and found the particular leader rather inaccessible on the topic. But to whom do you take your case if you’re in a small group and just can’t agree? Where do you find an arbiter?
As to the “we shouldnâ€™t avoid the genuine article for fear of a counterfeit” idea… well, I’ve been burned and seen many others singed for lack of appropriate caution. We’re dealing with real people here. Truly sinful people. We had a young lady in one of our small groups who appeared to have some prophetic gifting, for instance. But the second our backs were turned she was doling out overly flattering “words” to young men simply to get their attention. We had one guy in our group who was given an inappropriate word from her and we never were able to see him freed from the effects of it. Eventually we had to bring the matter to the attention of our pastor – it was too big for our small group (and us as leaders) to deal with alone.
We ran small groups for a few years and they tended to have a lot of young believers and often seekers as the primary demographic. We’ve seen the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” types – one of whom managed to rape one of our young women and then disappear. We’ve seen the “nobody understands me” types who go from church to church sucking up all the oxygen in any room they’re in. And we’ve even seen the “mature” ones who have a beef with the pastor and try to push their own views through by means of manipulating our group. Small groups are not, by nature, immune to the effects of fallen man. They may not have the burden of programming, infrastructure, or red-tape, but are they not also lacking in outside support and resources if they’re on their own?
What is the demographic of your own small-group? Are they all bible-educated, middle class christians? How do you integrate new believers into your group? Or do you? How do you handle inappropriate teaching or prophetic words? What’s the mechanism for disagreement? Does anyone have authority to speak to anyone else in the group about sin in their lives? On what basis? Where do you go for help if you run into something too big for you to handle? I’m not trying to be critical, I just really need to see the practical questions of dealing with real people dealt with. I don’t have a problem with the theory, it’s the practical, “rubber meets the road” stuff I need to see addressed. I don’t mean to add to your workload, but perhaps there are those out there who can fill me in on the nuts and bolts of how they do it.
I didn’t say bigger is better. I suspect, however, that by going small you’re simply trading in one set of issues for another. Keep in mind that my background (pre-charismatic) is Brethren – professionals are/were few and far between, but there were plenty of elders to whom one could go for help.
Unfortunately, you answered my “practical” questions with more theory – not what I was looking for, I’m afraid. I’m still in the dark.
Let me give you another window into my own experience. At one time when we were leading a group our church was trying to become “cell-based”. That meant that we needed to find apprentices to raise up from within the group who could go on to lead on their own when we grew too large – and we were bursting at the seams. Do you know who the best pick in our entire group was? A young man with Schizophrenia. That’s right. Our best choice for an apprentice leader was a guy who heard voices – and I don’t mean the Spirit. The rest of the group were either not christians yet, manipulative and/or immature (such as our prophetic girl, or the one who got raped), VERY new believers (like the 18-year-old who boarded with us), abused teenagers, a self-destructive divorcee, or a seriously disfunctional married couple. How, exactly, would a “leaderless” system have been of benefit to us in such a group? These were the people God gave to us. We loved them. We taught them whatever we knew and pointed them to Jesus. But let’s be honest here, not one of them was capable of really sharing the load with us. We were only in our twenties and were struggling through our own issues (infertility would be a big one!). If we hadn’t had some supports from outside our group I can’t imagine it having functioned for as long as it did.
God has consistently brought into our lives really broken people. Maybe that’s not who He’s brought into yours. All the theory I’m reading here sounds fine for a group of fairly functional people who have some Bible knowledge and a modicum of maturity with which to work. Those just are not, by and large, the people in my life. And by this time I neither expect nor want those who are fairly functional to be in the majority. The issues I’ve seen and have had to deal with go deeper than simply dealing with conflict immediately. I want these needy, messy people in my life. I just also want someone around with enough maturity and knowledge and love to call me on my stuff, too. Or carry what I can’t. Going it alone is just too tough.
Again, I don’t have a problem with the theory. It sounds good. It just doesn’t resonate with my experiences dealing with people in groups. I’m a practical girl. I need to know the “how’s”. I need the examples. I need to see it working and then understand what makes it tick.
I did not mean to just give you theory…and I so resonate with your description of no options for leadership. When we were in such a situation, 10 years back, they were looking to these kind of leadership apprentices rather than embrace me, as a woman, as a leader…sigh….
What I have to offer in terms of concrete examples and “hows” is embedded in the vision I am working on for a neo-monastic community of leadership families living in clusters within larger neighborhoods. These leaders would have the opportunity to walk together in life on a day to day basis, not just try to get together apart from “reality” to try to study together and encourage each other without “real” context for each other’s lives. This is a very counter-cultural vision and many are intimidated by it, but I believe it is exactly what you are looking for. A community of leaders who can help each other serve…it is not a leaderless community I’m looking to build, but a community of all leaders mutually submitted to each other under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
For too many of us, we are isolated in our communities…our ability to serve and touch our neighbors is impacted by our limited time and resources as we strive to do everything needful for our own families…there is no sharing of the day to day burdens in this kind of rugged individualistic mission that is too often our reality.
The small group ministry I was responsible for when on staff at the large church was never able to grow to its potential because leaders were not willing to be fully apprenticed so that they could then apprentice another. And the shocking-but-true statictic is that 50% of leaders that jump in and give it a go without this kind of full apprenticeship fail. Fifty percent! It is a sobering number. Twenty percent of those who are willing are also able to pull small group leadership off by their gifts and knowledge and experience. But I would say over 90% of those do not replicate themselves in a fully apprenticed leader who can multiply the group. No wonder we’re not growing!
The Missional Order stuff that you may have heard about is key to this concept, because the training and raising up of a dynamic, disciple-making leadership core is a long term deal…there is no quick fix. And you have to have fully devoted Christ-followers who are ready to leave all to follow…and I believe that they must go out to serve in clusters in order to have authentic mentoring and authentic accountability and, in the process, the power of the lifestyle witness that this brings to the rest of the neighborhood.
Hang in there…God is at work in your circumstance and will not leave you to go it alone…he may, however, ask you to redefine what “it” is.