Cover Story
BIG CHALLENGES: A young girl learns to read the Bible at a registered church in the Zhejiang province. Unregistered Christian schools did not allow photographs.
Photo by Jimmy Lam/Redux
BIG CHALLENGES: A young girl learns to read the Bible at a registered church in the Zhejiang province. Unregistered Christian schools did not allow photographs.

Risks and rewards

Back to School | Amid limited resources and a hostile government, a Chinese Christian school movement is growing

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 6, 2014

CHINA—After service on Sunday at a large house church in China, congregants gathered in the sanctuary to share their thoughts about the sermon they had heard. One woman stood up and expressed her gratitude to American missionaries John and Betty Stam, who were murdered by Communist Chinese soldiers in 1934 while bringing the gospel to the Chinese people. “We used to see [Communist General] Fang Zhimin as a hero, but now I realize that he killed so many people,” she said. “It makes me wonder how much of what we learned in school was incorrect.”

It’s this distrust of the government-controlled public-school system, along with general critiques of Chinese education’s grueling test-driven instruction and cut-throat competition, that has brought a quandary to the growing number of new Christian parents: How can we obey God’s Word to raise up our children in the way of the Lord in an education system hostile to that message?

Unlike American Christians who may send their children to public school, Christian or other private school, or teach them at home, Chinese Christians have only one legal option: state-run public school. Classes often span six days a week, stretching from the early morning to 7 or 9 at night, then compounded with tutoring, homework, and studying. The pinnacle of education is to score well on the gaokao, an annual college entrance exam that dictates a student’s college prospects, thus his or her future career. As most Chinese parents only have one child, it becomes all the more important to ensure their children do well and get high-paying jobs, so they can one day take care of their aging parents.

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But a batch of brave souls are bucking the status quo by creating their own education options, in some cases homeschooling their children, opening Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) schools that use a self-paced English Christian curriculum, or starting Christian schools within their house church. The risks are high, as alternative schools could be shut down at any time, and the results are uncertain, as Christian schools lack accreditation. Yet for many Christian parents, it’s a risk worth taking.

“We felt we had no other choice,” said Matthew Su, who started a classical Christian school at Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu. “We couldn’t bear to send our kids to any other type of school.” (The relatively few parents who defy China’s one-child policy also have little choice: Second and third children often don’t have household registration and aren’t allowed to attend public schools.)

The exact number of unregistered Christian schools is unknown, although one person in China familiar with the issue said a conservative estimate puts the number in the 200 to 300 range. Some of these schools consist of a handful of students meeting in an apartment, while more established schools have more than 100 students gathering together. Yet the movement is in its infancy, with most schools open for less than 10 years, and it faces numerous roadblocks ahead.

Two big challenges arise even before children step into the building: Finding teachers and finding curriculum to teach. As many in the Chinese church are first-generation believers, most have only experienced public-school education and few understand how to incorporate a Christian worldview into the classroom. Public-school teachers are often well-paid and must take a significant pay cut to join church schools, which often run on donations and meager tuition dollars. To combat the lack of experience, a couple of organizations have developed Christian teacher trainings, borrowing from the experience of veteran overseas educators. Trainings vary from weekend workshops to year-long programs, with one group providing instruction at a master’s degree level.

Yet for Peter Johnson*, who works at one of these training centers, the bigger deficit is the lack of Chinese curriculum. Some schools translate material from English sources, such as Veritas Press, a producer of classical Christian curriculum. Others use public-school curriculum for subjects like math, then create their own curriculum for other subjects. Many schools start with only kindergarten or first grade, and write curriculum as they add on new grades. “What’s needed,” Johnson says, “is an indigenous curriculum in China, by the Chinese, for the Chinese.” 

At Su’s school, teachers use material from Veritas Press in the three grades they’ve started last year. The school follows the classical Christian education model—based on grammar, logic, and rhetoric—because Su believes “if what the Bible says is true, then the only way to change and grow and find truth is through Christ. Then Christian education is the real education.” From a young age, students learn not only Chinese and English, but also biblical Hebrew and Greek so they can better understand the Bible and one day become leaders in seminaries and house churches.

*name changed to protect security


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