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|Experiences from China|
Need for Bible training trumps poverty
August 22, 2005
Nanchong, China — Mr. Deng, a farmer, is no relation to the more famous political leader Deng Xiaoping, although they did grow up within miles of each other. Other things they have in common are their rural roots, a commitment to their home communities, and their need to leave home to make their way in the world.
That’s where the similarity ends. Mr. Deng, the farmer, didn’t leave home, didn’t leave his rural roots, and didn’t become famous. Mr. Deng continues as a subsistence farmer, eking out a living on land capable of providing food for his family, but not large enough to provide cash for school fees for his two children, medical expenses, or any extras for his family.
For this he is praised by his wife and the rural Christian congregation that he shepherds. But he is also ridiculed by his neighbours.
In Sichuan province, most rural men of Mr. Deng’s age and ability would leave to find work in the cities, usually in the far away coastal and southern areas. The lucky ones find work that provides not only for their own needs but also gives them some extra money to send home to the families they see every one to two years. This is true also of families in Mr. Deng’s congregation.
All of the young people, especially those with higher education, meaning junior high, leave home and family to find work. This is one of the reasons that Brother Deng hasn’t left.
A few years ago he tried to leave. His two children had dropped out of school, and he needed money. The local congregation of about 100 Christians gathered in front of him in tears, begging him to stay. They connected with the city church in Nanchong trying to find some help. The two children were enrolled in inter-Mennonite China Educational Exchange’s (CEE) student sponsorship program — a program that sends almost 200 children to school. A local Christian lent Mr. Deng 2,000 yuan (about 280 dollars).
Too distant from large markets to grow vegetables, Mr. Deng used the money to buy a drier for sweet potatoes and then sold the sweet potato starch, which is commonly used in Sichuan cuisine. From the money he earned with that, he bought chickens. From the money he earned with those, he bought ducks, and later, geese. Along the way he paid back the initial loan and bought a small cow to help till the fields. He still lives a simple farming life, but his family is content and happy.
I asked him what kind of help his congregation needed, expecting him to ask for more of the type of help he got. His answer was quite different. “We need more Bible training. We need more lay leadership courses. This is vital for the health of the church. I couldn’t leave the congregation when they begged me to stay. I know the risks. There are people traveling around preaching things that aren’t in the Bible. Cults are prevalent. Some come with lots of money from Canada or the U.S., and they lead people astray. Swindlers with some Biblical knowledge target rural congregations and cheat people of their meagre resources. Literacy rates are low. It is difficult for people to know the truth.”
Mennonite workers in China have heard this echoed from many pastors and lay leaders. Training classes are desperately needed. The number of Christians has skyrocketed in the past 20 years but lack of training and discipleship has caused many problems. In the countryside, people easily fall into a religious practice that incorporates many religions and superstitions. In cities, there are now two generations of people who have grown up with absolutely no religious background. New Christians struggle with the basics of their faith.
Mennonite Church Canada Witness partner CEE has been supporting lay leadership training classes by providing money for travel and food, as well as for trained Chinese pastors and seminary professors to teach and develop curriculum. Bus tickets, photocopying, and a little meat and a few vegetables to add to the rice and noodles students bring from home are sometimes all that stand in the way of a church offering a lay leadership training course.
This is where we, from far away, can stand together with our Chinese brothers and sisters and help them meet this need. We can help to give talented, committed young leaders like them the training they need to provide effective, loving, Biblical Christian leadership.