Accurate statistics for how many Christians there are in China are hard to come by.
Estimates vary widely from the official number of 40 million to unofficial estimates of more than 100 million.
Regardless of the numbers, there are not nearly enough trained ministers to shepherd the large number of churches.
We serve in Sichuan province in China’s southwest, where registered churches claim more than 300,000 Christians.
The regional Bible college in our city reopened in the 1980s and has graduated less than 400 pastors and preachers total to serve this province of nearly 100 million people. That roughly corresponds to one Bible college trained pastor for every 250,000 people.
The disparity of numbers is shocking but makes the role of bivocational ministers essential. In China, these servants are called lay leaders.
Within Bazhong prefecture, in northeastern Sichuan Province, there are 10,000 believers in 40 churches spread across four mountainous counties. Some of the remote churches are hours away from the main city church.
There are currently only four full-time pastors responsible for these 40 churches and 10,000 Christians.
Adequate ministry is impossible without the efforts of local believers, such as Dr. Wang, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine who leads the church in his local village of several hundred believers.
While the four full-time pastors visit each of the 40 churches one or two times each month, Dr. Wang leads weekly worship services and Bible studies, makes hospital visits and ministers to church and community members.
In another village, a local family owns a small storefront restaurant that operates next to a second storefront they purchased for the church to meet in. This family also provides leadership for the church’s regular worship activities and ministries.
Because Bazhong prefecture is in a rural, agricultural area, the church has limited funds to pay full-time ministers.
Even in larger cities, which tend to be better resourced, there is a need for bivocational ministers.
In Sichuan province’s capital city of Chengdu, a 10-year-old congregation of 400 members has only two full-time ministers.
In addition to the main church, this congregation is responsible for staffing the pulpits of its two church starts in other parts of the city.
Two deacons help fulfill pulpit and pastoral responsibilities. One is a small business owner, and the other is a telecommunications company manager.
In addition to working 40-plus hours a week at their secular professions, these two lay leaders preach and lead weekly worship services, make hospital visits and carry out other ministry responsibilities that American churches might leave to full-time clergy.
In this case, the issue is not a lack of finances to fund full-time pastoral staff; it is the lack of trained clergy available.
We often reflect that we are living amid the early church version of church life, where churches were planted and led by those who earned their own living and led by local business people. It is exciting but is accompanied by the difficulties we can see in the early churches.
One challenge is that those serving as bivocational ministers often have little or no theological training.
For the most part, they are fairly new, first-generation believers with limited church leadership experience. In this situation, dangerous non-orthodox beliefs can easily influence the churches.
The few trained, full-time ministers are left with responsibility to shepherd and train these lay leaders. Lay training programs are part of nearly every growing registered church in Sichuan Province.
In Bazhong prefecture, the four ordained pastors have developed such a lay training program. Lay leaders meet for two weeks three times a year for a period of three years to complete a program modeled on a basic Bible college degree.
In addition to biblical and theological training, the courses cover areas of practical ministry and provide a much-needed forum for the bivocational leaders to exchange ideas and develop into a support network.
In response to a need among pastors for master’s level theological education, we have found that many bivocational leaders also benefit from this level of study and practice.
In large cities, most bivocational leaders have bachelor’s or advanced degrees. The local Bible college’s residential program is aimed at young people just entering ministry and is not a good fit for these lay leaders who are already highly educated.
A partnership with B.H. Carroll Theological Institute in Irving, Texas, has allowed us to provide a four-year program where lay leader participants can obtain a master of arts in religion.
As the church in China continues to baptize hundreds of thousands of people every year and the need for ministers grows, the church must continue to call out and equip more bivocational ministers to serve.
Bill and Michelle Cayard are Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel serving in Sichuan Province, China, since 2003. You can learn more about the Cayards’ ministry here.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on bivocational ministry.
Previous articles in the series are: