Children, Monks 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 II…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.

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