In April this year, a group of over 70 Chinese-speaking pastors, ministry leaders and academics from Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia gathered in Penang for the Future Church Conference.
The topic at hand: the future of the Chinese-speaking church in Asia. What will it look like and how can we be part of God’s move among the Chinese diaspora?
Organised by the Chinese Coordination Centre for World Evangelisation (CCCOWE), the four-day conference focused on the future church in light of the gospel, discipleship and missions.
“We know we don’t have to be worried about the future of the Church, because that is in God’s hands. But what will the Future Church look like, what will its appearance be? All of us are involved in that,” says Dr. Chuah Chia Choon, conference participant and professor at Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS).
Read on for five trends and key insights Dr Chuah gleaned from the conference:
1. The church needs a gospel community that is safe, trustworthy and peaceful
In order for the gospel to remain relevant to emergent and future generations of Chinese diaspora, the Church needs to build a gospel-centric community that is safe, trustworthy and peaceful:
- Safe: an emphasis on the truth as a safeguard of our faith, the Church can be a safe space to discuss and contend on diverse issues
- Trustworthy: establishing the Kingdom of God as the sovereign authority in our faith
- Peaceful: creating a Church that emphasises strong relationships with one another, founded on our identity in Christ
Dr Chuah, who oversees doctoral programs in MBTS and sits on several boards of missions agencies, says such a community is needed more than ever because of growing divides.
“We are so diverse because of politics, culture and controversial issues but what we need is a community founded on the gospel that is accepting, gracious and open to conversation,” he explains.
If Christians do not feel safe asking questions, voicing doubts or seeking honest conversations with their leaders in church, they will struggle to see the relevance of their faith in daily life.
In Malaysia, Dr Chuah adds, the situation is quite alarming. Seminary intake numbers are in decline, fewer Christian ministries are being set up these days and the number of Malaysians being sent to the mission field continues to drop.
2. The church needs to see discipleship as holistic growth of the Christian
“When we talk about discipleship within the Chinese-speaking church, the traditional focus has been the cultivation of spiritual disciplines through courses and classes. But that definition is changing,” Dr Chuah opines.
If we are to be prepared for the future, the Church and its leaders need to rethink its definition of discipleship to reflect the holistic growth of the Christian.
This includes support for family life, mental health, personal development and even physical health. It’s a wide net that has been cast, but one that’s necessary.
Holistic discipleship may be the solution to another challenge currently faced by the Chinese-speaking church in Asia: the younger generation leaving church, especially traditional forms of Christianity, or giving up the faith entirely.
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing if they move to churches with contemporary worship and a vibrant community life, but within the Chinese church, we have seen the younger generation giving up the faith entirely,” Dr Chuah observes.
The conference therefore also focused on a coming together of leaders serving the same-language community in different cultures and contexts.
“Everyone’s been working hard on their own, but if we come together we can do more. As many of the participants hold top leadership positions, we wanted a platform where partnerships could be explored,” he said.
3. The church needs to see missions beyond its own community
According to Dr Chuah, an interesting trait of the Chinese church is that there is a struggle within churches when it comes to missions and what the mission field looks like.
“In the Chinese community, there’s always this argument: Why not serve your own people and community first? Yes, missions involves reaching out to those within your native community, but the call to missions involves everyone.”
He challenges churches and leaders to think about the Great Commission and our call to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), and Jesus’ last command for us to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
“The truth is, Chinese diaspora churches everywhere are thriving and growing because as a language community, we have a large presence in many places,” says the professor, who is passionate about missions and is involved in MBTS’ missions partnerships outside of the academic portfolio.
4. Lay leaders are the future of the church
Sadly, there are not enough pastors at the moment for all the churches that have been planted amongst Chinese diaspora communities. This is not just confined to Asia, Dr Chuah says. It is common in Europe and other parts of the world as well.
The added challenge is that traditionally, Chinese churches depend greatly on having a pastor for identity and stability.
But supply cannot keep up with demand, and many churches end up with untrained lay leaders.
For these Chinese-speaking churches, the operations and running of the church are handled by lay leaders.
Therefore, Dr Chuah says, the need now is for these lay leaders to be trained theologically to respond to issues that crop up and changing trends. At the same time, we need to continue to call for more full-time ministers, the full-time clergy role is still necessary.
“At the moment, lay leaders step up based on calling, talents and time. But all of us need to have solid theological grounding if we are going to be relevant to society and in relation to current issues,” he states.
5. Chinese diaspora communities are strategically positioned for global missions
Today, there is a lot of movement within the Chinese Christian diaspora in Asia. Hong Kong Christians are migrating, Chinese Christians are moving out for livelihood, as well as a better lifestyle, and some into the mission field beyond their homeland.
In March, Dr Chuah attended the 2023 Macedonia Hua Ou Mission Conference co-organised by MBTS-Silk Road Gospel Network in partnership with the Chinese churches in Europe, which saw Chinese church leaders and church leaders from the Balkans attending.
“Now and in the future, the Chinese church has many opportunities because there are Chinese Christian communities scattered all over the world.
It makes missions possible, because there’s less of a gap in terms of cultural adaptability and familiarisation with a new place. Yet, the Chinese communities must be mobilised and trained to be more fruitful for the global mission.
It is an interesting phenomenon, a very different experience from what we’ve seen in history where traditional missionaries from the West brought the gospel to the East.
What’s next for the Chinese-speaking diaspora church?
Earlier this month, MBTS hosted a conference from 6-8 June 2023 that gathered nearly 100 leaders and organisations from Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other nations to begin planning for the future of the Chinese mission.
In August 2023, the triennial Trans-World Chinese Baptist Missions Conference will be held in Thailand, bringing together Chinese-speaking leaders around both the West and East.
“It’s exciting to see all that God is doing amongst Chinese Christian communities around the world. We now have the opportunity to be more involved, whether in Asia or Europe,” Dr Chuah says.
“We must recognise that opportunity, share our resources and work together. The church of the future is in God’s hands, but again, we are all involved in how it unfolds.”