You may have noticed something new (Chinese characters!) if you follow Safe Church on The Network. How did this come about? The following interview will help us understand.
Who is behind the Chinese/Safe Church initiative?
Meet Mary Ma:
I am a research scholar, mission consultant, social scientist and justice advocate. After my conversion to the Christian faith, I began to specialize in China mission research and public theology. Currently as research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life of Calvin College, I am working on a new book about the experiences of Christian women in urban China. I have published two books, Surviving the State, Remaking the Church, and The Chinese Exodus.
Meet Adrian (Yijun) Zhao:
I am a student at Calvin Theological Seminary and working on on a Master of Ministry Leadership of Pastoral Care and Counseling. I am also a member of River Terrace Church in East Lansing, MI (BTW, Bonnie Nicholas, also attends River Terrace CRC).
How did you get the idea to apply for a Safe Church mini-grant and begin translating Safe Church materials into Chinese?
Mary: When doing my research about churches in China, I was exposed to some abuse cases. Listening to victims’ accounts was both a devastative and formative experience, which marked a turning point in my personal faith journey. Since then, my radar has become more sensitive to these issues. And my awareness of the power dynamics within the church has been enhanced by reading the resources on Safe Church ministry and also by the wider #MeToo and later #ChurchToo movement in America. There have not been similar resources in the Chinese-speaking world for Chinese churches (both overseas and in mainland China). One day I saw Bonnie’s article in The Banner, and at the end, it mentions this mini-grant. So I called Adrian and discussed this need with him. We decided to apply.
Adrian: I learned about Safe Church from Bonnie’s presentation at River Terrace Church adult education program and I am amazed about the resources that Safe Church Ministry of CRC has when I look at its web site and I want to do something for Chinese churches. When Mary and I talked about it and we are concurred that to apply for this grant is the good start point for this ministry.
What are your initial or short-term goals for this project?
The initial proposal was to set up a Chinese website or webpage with resources from Safe Church Ministry and other advocates. Our short term goal is about raising awareness about the power dynamics within the church. We hope that this can generate conversations to start with inside the growing Chinese churches where the topic of power abuse has been an obsolete one. I think when churches of certain ethnic background grow to a certain numeric scale, power abuse tends to become a pressing issue. I am also convinced that the biggest challenge for the church is most often from the inside. In our current time, when churches seem to have every kind of resource at its disposal (financial, media, technology), power can become an even more tempting issue. That is no different for Chinese churches. In fact, because most leaders in Chinese churches were first-generation converts who were pushed to leadership positions before they had time to grow to spiritual maturity, power abuse can become quite common.
What is your long-term vision for this work? Or, do you have an end goal in mind or a vision of how this will look when it's completed?
Now we have four volunteers in our team. We have yet to discuss the long-term goals. The website project really started with seeing a need crying out from real people around us. Then every member of our team (Adrian and myself included) had at some point experienced power abuse within the church. So we understand the pain and care for people who have walked the similar path. We do this because we care and we understand.
I personally hope that in the future we can include not just pre-abuse prevention content and post-trauma healing resources, but also ways of ministry when we can walk alongside with victims of power abuse within the church. Adrian and I had participated in the Trauma Healing Workshop, which gave us a taste of what this way of ministry could be. But this additional part certainly requires a lot of help from trained professionals.
What are you learning so far as you begin?
Through Safe Church resources and other teaching videos of advocates, I have learned that power is the air we breathe within the church, so we cannot ignore it. In fact, religious settings can intensify the power dynamics because ministers are in positions that combine a range of powers, including discourse power from the pulpit, intellectual/theological power, emotional power, etc. Secondly, I have come to understand how traumatizing power abuse within the church by leaders can be to victims, and how hidden these harms can be buried, personally and institutionally. As Christian psychologist Diane Langberg said, we, as Christians, are called to listen to the voices of the least, the weakest, the most vulnerable. I think our theology also needs to be reoriented towards this crying need of our time. It cannot be ignored. We have begun, and still have much learning and a long way to go.
What do you hope that others will learn or gain from your work?
Mary: At this point, I hope leaders of the Chinese church can be aware of the power dynamics within their own church settings. These resources translated into Chinese hopefully can humble us in knowing that there is nothing we should boast about within ourselves. Our embracing of the Christian faith should not blind us into living an unreality. With spiritual abuse in the church, Christianity can even become a source of alienation, rather than restoration and reconciliation. I have seen real life cases of such happenings, and they concern me gravely. Whenever there is spiritual pride about our Christian identity and even our self-righteous “persecuted church” identity, there will be the power dynamics festering within the church that are hard to discern.
Adrian: We are fighting a spiritual warfare inside and outside of church. There is a greater danger if the spiritual pride blind the eyes of the church leaders who then become the spiritual abuser to his/her sheep.
What else would you like our readers to know about this project?
We want to thank God for leading us to this ministry and thanks to Safe Church has helped us to start our journey for promoting Safe Church in Chinese ministry and hopefully by God’s grace and mercy it will help Chinese church to grow.