Pastor, Scarborough Mandarin Alliance Church

September 2016

Current Volume 6

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Mandarin Ministry in Metro Toronto

Mandarin ministry in Metro Toronto has gone through three phases. It began in the early 1990s, flourished from the year 2000, and has reached a plateau since 2010. Since most Mainland Chinese have an atheist background, this ministry started small and grew slowly in the 1990s. It was not until the year 2000 when it started to reap fruit. Many new immigrants walked into churches by themselves. Many others came to Christ through Bible studies, evangelistic rallies and personal evangelism. This exciting phenomenon continued for almost a decade. Starting in 2010, however, the conversion rate began to drop. Today Mandarin ministry in Toronto is facing numerous challenges, some of which include stagnant spiritual life, high mobility, a lack of workers, and tensions between the Cantonese and Mandarin leaderships.

I have personally experienced many of these growing pains. A first-generation Mainland Chinese immigrant, I tried to adapt to the new Canadian environment and culture. A first-generation Christian, I struggled with my own spiritual life. A first-generation pastor, I stumbled over how to shepherd God’s sheep. I believe it is time for Mandarin-speaking Christians in Metro Toronto to reevaluate our spirituality and church ministry. By the grace of God, most of the past 25 years have been an era of evangelism. Before going further, however, we need to assess the quality of our ministry instead of just the quantity, look deep instead of just the width, and examine our inward spirituality instead of being driven by the outward reality.

With this purpose in mind, I conducted a survey of Mandarin-speaking churches in Metro Toronto.1 This survey assumed a model of Christian spirituality having three dimensions: Heart, Head, and Hand (the 3H’s). The objective was to understand Mandarin Christians’ personal spirituality and church ministry through the lense of these 3H’s.2 After a preliminary analysis of the data, I conducted a focus group discussion with pastors from a few major denominations. We not only tried to interpret the data, but also challenged some of the survey outcomes. At the end of this evaluation process, I concluded that the Mandarin congregation has “a frustrated Hand, caused by a confused Heart.”


One survey question asked participants to complete this thought: “When I read the Bible, my most natural inclination is this…” Among lay people, close to 48% chose “I am inclined to apply Biblical principles into real life situations” (i.e., the Hand). Thirty percent (30%) selected “I am inclined to understand the meaning of the Bible” (i.e., the Head). Twenty-two percent (22%) chose “I am inclined to develop a more intimate relationship with God” (i.e., the Heart). Pastors follow the same pattern as the laity: 46% are inclined to the Hand, while 27% to the Heart, and 27% to the Head.

When asked to rate the level of difficulty they experience in each of the 3H’s (zero as the easiest and ten being the most difficult), lay participants gave a weighted average of 6.4 to the Hand, 4.1 to the Heart, and 3.3 to the Head. Once again, pastors display a similar pattern. They consider Hand the most difficult of the 3H’s (a difficulty level of 5.1), followed by the Heart (3.6), with the Head being the least difficult (2.9). A summary is shown in Table 1:3

Question Role Hand Head Heart
When reading the Bible, I am more inclined to: Laity 48% 30% 22%
Pastors 46% 27% 27%
I weight my difficulty levels of the 3H’s as follows: (0 as the easiest, and 10 as the most difficult) Laity 6.4 3.3 4.1
Pastors 5.1 2.9 3.6

So what are some key findings from the survey analysis and focus group discussion?

The big Head. Of the 3H’s, both clergy and laity are less inclined toward the Head than the Hand, but more inclined toward it than toward the Heart. At the same time, both groups report that the Head is the easiest of the three areas to practice. Our discussion group was not surprised by this strong Head. Most immigrants from China came to Canada as professionals. They are highly educated intellectuals. As a matter of fact, 95% of the survey participants received at least a Bachelor’s degree.

The frustrated Hand. Not only are the largest number of participants inclined toward the Hand, they also consider it the most difficult task. This trend is consistent across ministry roles. In addition, the difficulty level of the Hand is significantly higher than that of the Heart and Head. Furthermore, the results from other survey questions show that the laity is unhappy with the current church ministry, complaining that the teaching they receive on the Hand dimension are both inadequate and ineffective. All of these suggest that people are frustrated with their ability to pursue Hand activities.

The focus group tried to interpret this situation from the perspective of Chinese culture. The high percentage inclined to focus on the Hand may have to do with the pragmatic mentality of Mandarin Chinese. In recent decades, we have been trying to “unite knowledge with behaviors.” Xiaoping Deng, Chinese Paramount Leader after the Cultural Revolution, took this ideology to an extreme. He said, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is a black one or a white one. It is a good cat as long as it can catch the mice.”

Fenggang Yang describes Chinese Christians well: “Most CCC [Chinese Christian Churches] members accept Confucianism, or Confucian moral values. Normally these “Confucian” Christians are conservative in theology, traditionalists in ethics, reserved in behavior, and rationalistic in beliefs. They emphasize family life, moral education of children, and successes in the world.”4

The confused Heart. The Heart is the dimension of spirituality toward which respondents were least inclined. There are a few possible reasons for this. First, whatever one does when focusing on the Hand is both tangible and measurable. Whatever happens in the sphere of the Heart, however, is nearly impossible to see, let alone measure. Second, it has become hard for mainland Chinese people to open their hearts after experiencing so many wounds and so much betrayal during the Cultural Revolution. Third, our evangelical tradition has placed primary emphasis on the Head, thereby leading us to overlook the Heart in our spirituality. Finally, the fact that the Heart has lowest level of inclination but the second highest difficulty rating of the 3H’s seems to suggest that most participants are not familiar with Heart practices.

I believe that the frustrated Hand is caused by the confused Heart. Most Mandarin Christians are highly intellectual as opposed to relational. Many of them have baggage and wounds from the past and do not know how to build an intimate relationship with God. Because of our cultural, historical, and educational background, the Heart has become unfamiliar territory. And because of our Evangelical tradition, as well as our efforts to separate ourselves from Pentecostalism, the Heart has also become the most neglected and even prohibited area.

Pastors see these issues differently than elders and deacons do. For one thing, these groups have different views on the current state of Mandarin church ministry. Regarding the impact of this ministry on the Heart and Hand, elders and deacons think more negatively than their pastors. These two groups also have different perspectives on future ministry. Half of pastors want to focus on the Heart, yet 65% of elders and deacons want to see improvement on the Hand. In essence, these two groups have significantly divergent views about both the current status and the future of church ministry. These tensions pose a challenge to that ministry in both the short term and the long run.

To summarize, when it comes to the 3H’s Mandarin Christians in Metro Toronto have a very frustrated Hand. I have suggested that the root cause of this frustration is the Heart. Our history tried to kill the Heart, our culture tried to hide it, our education made it a stranger, and our evangelical tradition considers it a taboo. Yet it is primarily because we are lacking this true encounter with God through the Holy Spirit, i.e., the Heart, that we are frustrated with the Hand. Fortunately, many pastors in this survey have acknowledged this problem. But this realization is often still superficial. Even if the pastors have fully comprehended the problem, and even if they decide to do something about it, pastors may encounter resistance from elders and deacons. Thus, within the Mandarin-speaking churches in Metro Toronto, the problem of “a frustrated Hand, caused by a confused Heart” poses a significant challenge both to the fostering of individuals’ spirituality and to the development of God’s ministry.


  • 1 A survey was begun on August 22, 2013 and closed on September 15, 2013, conducted online through Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com). I received 260 responses, of which 221 were valid. My own estimate of Toronto’s Mandarin-Speaking Sunday worship attendance is approximately 4,500 individuals. Therefore, these 221 valid responses represent approximately 5% of Toronto’s Sunday worship attendance.
  • 2 I first learned this model of the 3H’s from a Chinese Ministry Symposium organized by Canadian Chinese Alliance Churches Association (CCACA). Biblical support for this model is found in the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which was reaffirmed by Jesus in Mark 12:29-30. For a detailed study on this subject, see “Integrating the Heart with the Head and Hands in Mandarin ministry in Metro Toronto”, (Peter Qian Zhang, Doctor of Ministry Thesis-Project, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, 2015).
  • 3The survey involved a total of 29 questions designed to examine the 3H’s from a variety of perspectives. This article only deals with the answers to 2 of 29 questions.
  • 4Fenggang Yang, Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 161.

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