The spread of Christianity across China has given many people hope, faith and succor. But the boom has also left churches with a shortage of trained, educated leaders. This imbalance has naturally sparked the birth of a private theological education system, one that could potentially lead to greater religious freedom.

Most Christians in China are Protestant, and this Protestant population has expanded by more than 60% in the last 15 years to 23 million in 2010, according to government estimates. If we include those worshipping outside the official churches, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimates Protestants number 58 million.

Beijing attempts to control religious practice, requiring churches to register and overseeing religious education and appointments. But it sanctions fewer than 25 Protestant seminaries and Bible schools, most with fewer than 10 full-time faculty. Students often attend for less than four years, and each school graduates fewer than 200 annually. The shortage of officially trained pastors, among other factors, is drawing converts to house churches, vibrant and informal communities that operate outside the law.

If supply can meet this demand, a whole generation of Chinese Protestants can be schooled in values and ideas over which the Communist Party has little control. The trick then is to make sure there are enough house churches, and more importantly trained pastors, to welcome in new believers.

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