U-C: What I See

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Church Transformation Work in Taiwan

Sisters and Brothers,

We arrived at Tek Tung Presbyterian Church well after one o’clock in the morning. The church is located in a small, rural community a few kilometers south of the city of Changhua, about halfway down the west coast of Taiwan. After arriving on a flight from Seoul at the modern airport south of Taipei, we were greeted by Stephen, the Ecumenical officer from the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan. We got into a Toyota minivan and headed south on a six-lane highway for the two and a half hour drive to the church. Upon arriving, we were greeted by Pastor Chuang, a pastor in his mid-forties, who led us to our rooms on the third floor of the new community center and retreat building that the church recently completed.

For my money, this pastor has created the textbook example of what a church transformation project should look like. He arrived at Tek Tung eighteen years ago, fresh out of seminary. All graduating seminary students are assigned their first parish for the first three years of their ministry. That means that they go wherever the Presbytery believes that the need is greatest. (I know this is anathema in a land of choice and opportunity, but this practice would go a long way toward supporting our small congregations in the U.S. that can’t attract pastors.) After three to five years, they are permitted to seek their next call, but Pastor Chuang has consistently rededicated himself to this little congregation. He is the best of what I think a pastor should be – ambitious in the sense that he spins out ideas for how to build a strong church faster than one can record them, and committed to staying long enough to do the hard work of implementing those ideas.

When he arrived, he found twenty members, and he tells me that they had pretty much given up on themselves. Sound familiar? What isn’t similar to our situation, though, is that he is trying to pastor a Christian Church in a country that is ninety-seven percent Buddhist. His little church had a high wall built around it, fortress-like, in an attitude of protection as it confronted the larger culture. Pastor Chuang’s early moves would strike fear into the hearts of Presbyterian pastors anywhere. He tore down the walls so that people walking buy in the street could see what was going on inside. Then, he realized that the huge tree, sculpted as a cross and planted right in front of the entrance to the sanctuary, made it impossible to see the front of the church.

Now he had a problem. The tree was planted by one of the older elders who had been a member forever. He went to the elder and explained that the large tree was “in the way.” “No problem,” the elder replied, “I’ll move it.” So that’s what they did. They dug up the roots of that huge tree and replanted it thirty feet away where it allowed unobstructed access to the church.

Finally, he took all of the wooden doors off the sanctuary and replaced them with glass, and he built a concrete ramp so that there was easy access for disabled persons. Inside, he lit up the large cross on the front wall of the sanctuary, and he left it lit up all night long. Now, there was no mystery left. Anyone passing by on the street could see everything that was taking place inside.

Of course, my first question was, “How in the world did you convince your members to let you do this.” “It’s simple,” Pastor Chuang replied, “they were so near death that they were willing to try anything.” That would confirm my own thesis about one of the primary criteria necessary to jump-start a struggling church in our own country. It’s not enough to be a small church in need of renewal. The church must be cognizant that, without bold action, they are probably at the end of the line. Simply put, they must be willing to take risks. This pastor makes it sound deceptively simple, but I’ve seen many churches that simply refuse to come to that realization.

So, here’s a laundry list of some of the other creative projects taken on by Pastor Chuang and his congregation. Right next to the sanctuary across the small parking lot there is a tree house. It is three stories high, and it is used not only to attract kids and teenagers, but also by adults who like meeting around the table on its high platform for their own classes. There’s also a climbing wall mounted on the side of the pastor’s house to the left of the driveway – easy to see from the street and a beacon to teenagers who might walk by. Behind the sanctuary there is a brand-new, state of the art, education and retreat center. It boasts a computer lab for the community, a high-school on the first floor for more than a dozen kids who are at risk of dropping out entirely because of their behavior problems, and rooms for up to thirty adults who come to participate in programs offered by the Presbytery.

As we spoke, the pastor emphasized that part of the secret for this church has been to band together with other small, rural churches in the area and to provide support for one another. The goal of creating teams of pastors and lay folks from the small churches in the presbytery are pretty basic. They are to promote holistic mission and ministry, empower the local churches and their ministers, support one another in taking risks, share resources with each other, take on mission projects together wherever feasible, and to transform their communities.

It helps that the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan requires that all elders and pastors participate in continuing education every year in order to keep their congregations vital and healthy. Pastor Chuang is clear that his task is to support the church in ministering to the broader community. “We care for our neighbors,” he said. “The goal is to show them the love of Christ, and to build relationships that will make us the place they turn for support when they face a spiritual crisis, or any other kind of crisis.”

Tek Tung Presbyterian Church is a model for transformation, but it clearly isn’t alone. Later in the day we visited with the PCT Moderator, Rev. Chen, in his church of mostly poor, aboriginal folks who have migrated to the Changhua to look for work. His congregation founded a business to offer diversified cleaning and environmental services in order to offer meaningful employment to their members and others who came from the villages looking for work. Now, the company employs three hundred people and half a dozen members of this struggling little inner-city church have found enough financial security to purchase their own homes in the church neighborhood. It may be slow and painstaking work, but this looks like a pretty creative model for church transformation work as well.

Members of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan have attended the PC(USA) Church Transformation conferences for the last several years. Their leaders were quick to offer their gratitude for what they have learned, but as I spoke with Pastor Chuang and Moderator Chen, it was obvious to me that we ought to be intentional about learning from them as well. They have been bold and unapologetic in pushing their agenda to revitalize their small congregations. Their support is backed up by a strong commitment at the level of their General Assembly to do whatever it takes to support Presbyteries and local congregations when they commit to the hard work of church transformation.

Maybe we should send a delegation from the U.S. to look at what they are doing in Taiwan.