A Lifestyle Model: Spiritual Formation in China’s Theological Education

Posted 03/13/2019 in

This blog is part of an ongoing series on theological education in China. Read Dr. Diane Obenchain’s article titled “President Labberton Witnesses Firsthand New Developments in Chinese Theological Education” here and Dr. Peter Lim’s article on “20 Years of Innovative Education in China” here.

I have visited a number of seminaries in China over the last few decades and have found four spiritual practices that are fundamental in the formation of Chinese Christianity:

Routine Reading Through the Bible

Many seminaries in China require both faculty and students to read through the Bible together as a community at the beginning of the school year. Every student gets to read the Bible more than a few times throughout her/his seminary life, and each faculty member, likewise, gets to read through the Bible at least once a year. On top of that, many of them are committed to memorizing the Bible book by book. Whenever I teach there, I am always impressed with the seminarians’ high level of familiarity with the scriptures.

Consistent Prayer Life

The most inspiring experience during my first visit to Heilongjiang Theological Seminary in Harbin was discovering the existence of prayer rooms on campus. Students signed up to use the prayer rooms at different times throughout the day. I found out later that many other seminaries also required students to maintain prayer routines. A young pastor who I met thirty-some years ago, whose mentor was an old Pentecostal pastor, maintained a prayer rigor that began his day with a time of prayer at 4am before leading a daily congregational prayer meeting at 5am. Whenever a pastor in China says, “I will pray about it,” s/he mean s/he will truly pray about it.

Relational Personal Evangelism

A US-based parachurch organization offered to teach personal evangelism courses in China, believing that they could introduce to Chinese seminarians a number of proven American methods for successfully reaching non-believers in China. After traveling with me to observe the on-the-job training of a few seminarians, they bowed out for good. They realized that those seminarians have taken the time to build relationships and earn the trust of people before sharing the stories of their walk with Jesus. The American cold-call approach was perceived as superficial and insincere in a culture that values interpersonal relationship.

The Calling of Servanthood

With their strong sense of pride, the American evangelicals are so caught up with the idea of becoming leaders in every arena, including being ambitious in seeking political appointments, while the Chinese Christian Church is constantly reminding and reaffirming their seminarians of their calling of servanthood. Many seminaries have either Matthew 20:28 or Mark 10:45 inscribed on the wall to encourage seminarians to choose serving others rather than being served. I am humbled by many pastors in China for their commitment to being called as servants of God for all people, both Christians and non-Christians.

Spiritual formation in China’s theological education is foundational and essential. Seminarians acquire the practices of reading through the Bible regularly, praying consistently, witnessing relationally, and serving others with a sense of calling even before their admission, and they continue to strengthen these practices as they prepare themselves for ministry. For them, spiritual formation is not a program but a lifestyle that others can model, as they themselves model after Christ.

Peter L. Lim is the Acting Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies and the Headington Assistant Professor of Global Leadership Development