Trip to China Gives Student a Glimpse of the Emerging Global Church

As a fellow with the Fund for Theological Education, then-M.Div. student (and current alum) Michael Powell traversed the cities and towns of the most populated country in the world – China.

Michael Powell, left, with classmate Jake Lehman outside a Christian church in rural Anhui Province, China.
A fellow recipient of a $5,000 Fund for Theological Education fellowship, Michael chose to use his award to study the global emerging church, Christianity’s movement from North America and Europe into the two-thirds world.

He completed his initial research as a student in Professor Tim Huffman’s Global Emerging Church course last spring, and through additional independent study projects with Dr. Huffman. This laid the ground work for his six-week visit this summer. “I picked China as a developing country that is up and coming, and because it has some peculiarities,” he said. It is large, diverse, and has several minority areas. Many know China for its practice of Buddhism and Taoism, but a growing Christian movement also exists there.

“The church is growing quickly in China, which is significant not just for China, but also for the world,” said Michael. “In a changing world, not only does what happens in China impact the world, but more significantly, this is big because this situation is actually typical of Christianity today. An average Christian in the world lives in a developing nation, often in poverty, as someone who has either converted or lives in close contact with people of other religions. So their lives are often complicated by complex relationships with governments, other religions, or both.”

Christian churches in China are required to register with the government. However, some of the registered churches downplay their numbers so as not to appear overly organized. “Anything that appears too large and organized puts up red flags for the government,” said Michael.

The Christian church in China is comprised of two denominations: Catholic and Protestant. “What is the difference between the church in China and the church in the West? I’m still in the process of processing all that,” he said.

The visit offered Michael confirmation of many of the lessons learned in his classes and independent study. Fellow M.Div. student Jake Lehman also traveled with Michael during the first three weeks, as part of Jake’s own independent study.

Michael ultimately traveled to places such as Inner Mongolia, with its vast grasslands and diverse ethnic groups, and to Beijing, where residents were building and preparing for the Olympic Games. And he often was aided in his journeys and research by his brother, David, who had been living and teaching English in China for two years. Michael and David are the sons of Dr. Mark Allan Powell, Trinity’s Robert and Phyllis Leatherman Professor of New Testament.

As part of the FTE fellowship, Michael attended a follow-up conference with other grant recipients in August to share stories and reflections. He also will submit a report of his findings. Most projects have few constraints. Students can use the funds to learn an instrument, write a paper, or travel; anything above and beyond their seminary study that will benefit their ministries.

Michael became interested in the global church while in India in 2004-05, as part of the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission. He also will spend his internship year this year at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer’s English-speaking congregation in Jerusalem, under the supervision of Pastor Mark Holman (Hamma, 1976). Michael’s ultimate goal, however, is to do “global mission work” here in the United States. “People talk about the ‘emerging church U.S.A.,’ and some talk about ‘the emerging global church.’ Do they fit together? Don’t they? I’ve been trying to get my head around these particular trends. I am trying to get a glimpse of what is coming, and get ready for it,” he said.

“I want to help the church…to interact and think globally, and to develop a broader perspective. We tend to see things from the American perspective; that has been our privilege. With the American power declining we’re going to have a tough time transitioning, letting go of some of the authority we have had and open up to criticism and challenge.”