‘I believe we will lose the next generation of Christians in this country’
“My alarm goes off at 6 o’clock every morning,” Xiao Ling* says. She’s a teenager in central China, the daughter of one of the Christians who attends a church there. “I eat a bowl of noodles with my classmates on the way to the bus stop; we’re on the bus by 7, and at our desks, ready for class, by 8 o’clock. Classes run until 5:30. The teachers are very strict, and demand a lot from us. We are not encouraged to ask questions, but we are expected to get high marks in our exams. If we don’t understand something we must find out how to do it outside of class time by paying a private tutor or attending an after-school class.
“The teachers give us lots of homework. After I get home, I eat dinner and then go straight to my room to do my homework, which usually takes a couple of hours. There is no time for play, and we certainly can’t go to any church meetings. I usually have homework on the weekends too, so by Sunday I’m so tired, all I want to do is sleep.”
If this sounds exhausting for students, that’s because it is. The Chinese school system is built around competition. Students compete for a place in a good elementary or high school, or to enter a good university. They compete to get a high-paying job, or to be accepted into an overseas university.
This system results in a generation of students who believe they are only as good—or as lovable—as their last report card. Churches and Christian parents have for many years tried to engage young believers in church life and fight this system of competition, but it has become increasingly difficult. Academic pressure, fatigue, social media, materialism and socializing on Sundays have stolen many young believers’ hearts away from Christian fellowship.
In many cases, youth ministry in China has too closely mirrored the hyper-competitive nature of general school. The emphasis is on academic achievement (like Bible knowledge) and teaching on religious performance. This, too, has become a barrier to young believers staying connected to the church. Sadly, youth work often perpetuates the sense of conditional love young people feel at school, and rarely focuses on total acceptance of the young person as they are, saved by grace and a work in progress.
“There is a big disconnect between our leadership team and this generation,” says Pastor Zheng*. He’s from central China, and we spoke with him at a recent Open Doors youth leadership training. “Recently, three young believers told us they’d had enough of church and just wanted to stay home and rest. If we don’t find a way to listen better and understand what they are feeling and then speak to those needs, I believe we will lose the next generation of Christians in this country.”
Addressing the challenge now