This post is the first in a series of three related to the issue of Chinese students and scholars returning successfully after their time abroad. Spoiler alert: This is a critical issue that affects the way you do ministry among Chinese (so listen up!). Shameless plug: Our Returnee Roundtable is designed to address the very issues at the heart of these posts.

I recently heard statistics that radically changed my perspective. Every year 18,000 Chinese Christians return home from abroad… 80-85% of these confessing Christians never commit to any form of Christian fellowship back home.

Heidi Ifland

staff, China Outreach Ministries

Eighty percent. Let that sink in.

Four out of five. Let it percolate.

How does that strike you? Does that make you squirm in your seat a little? It probably should. (For the record, these statistics come via this post at the China Partnership Blog).

If these statistics are true, and I have no reason to doubt that they are, then we ought to think very carefully about the nature, approach, and long-term effectiveness of our ministry to students and scholars from China. If the end goal of our ministry is to see students have an intimate, vibrant, growing relationship with God, to live out their calling (whatever the particular vocation) for God’s glory, and to bring the gospel to bear on the people and culture around them, then these statistics have to figure into our plans and practices.

Identifying the Obstacles

In order to solve this problem (or at least address it as best we’re able), the first step would seem to be identifying the various causes that contribute to it. In this regard, I’ve found an article by Lydia Song, “The Expected and the Unexpected Journey of Homecoming,” in the ChinaSource Quarterly to be quite helpful.  A returnee herself, Song lays out a few of the obstacles facing those who will return to China after a substantial amount of time. Her article is worth quoting at length here:

As with many returnees, Christian returnees have to face all sorts of problems. There is reverse culture shock, environmental pollution, traffic congestion, medical care, education for children, complicated relationships, work pressures and so on. However, there are some problems that are specific to Christian returnees.

The first one is to look for a home church. In China, the current church situation is this. Three-Self Churches are publicly open. Owing to their size and things like pastoral care, it is difficult for the returnees to find the same feeling of “home” and of the presence of God as in the overseas churches. House churches are plentiful and widespread. They have nice pastoral care and warm fellowship; however, most of them operate underground and are difficult to find.

The next question is living with unbelieving family members. Most Christian returnees were converted while overseas; most of their family members remain nonbelievers. Some brothers and sisters are despised and harassed when they try to evangelize their family members. They are misunderstood and are teased, and this gives them an acute sense of frustration. Other brothers and sisters, especially those who went for a short-term as visiting scholars or exchange students and were converted during that short period, have difficulties professing their new faith in front of their families who hold strongly to their traditions. Some may face strong opposition from their families and even threats of severing their relationship from parents and spouses.

Professing their faith publicly is another challenge. Due to the lack of respect for individual religious preferences at some work units, it is difficult for returnees to reveal their faith publicly at these places. It is especially tough for those who work in government departments or public institutions. This has become a challenge for them as some of these brothers and sisters have faced severe pressure after professing their faith.

Spiritual “homesickness” is another problem facing us. Those who became Christians and then returned to China usually had treated the church and fellowship as their homes while overseas. The churches, especially in North America, usually gave so much pastoral care to these overseas Chinese that they tended to be on the receiving end all the time and could hardly stand on their own. After returning to China, even though they have a “home” church, it still takes much time to adjust. To some who lack close church brothers and sisters, especially those having similar backgrounds, they find little encouragement and few opportunities to air their frustrations. They have a sense of spiritual isolation which accounts for the “homesick” feeling. Some even backslide and disappear from the church.

The next problem is the need to assimilate into the local church. Owing to security measures, the Chinese church tends to adopt a closed or semi-closed model regarding its members. Usually it takes a newcomer three months, and in some cases up to six months of commitment to apply for membership. Most churches will not open ministry opportunities to these new friends during this grace period. On the other hand, these Christians were free from such constraints while overseas. Now, they consider themselves to have been given the “cold-shoulder” treatment. This adds to the difficulties in assimilating into a local church and they feel a lack of belonging spiritually.

Lydia Song

author, "The Expected and the Unexpected Journey of Homecoming"

To this list, let me add a few other things. First, returning Chinese may have unwittingly absorbed a faulty western ecclesiology. The individualism prized by Western culture has undoubtedly had a certain effect upon Christianity in the West. In particular, an emphasis on the personal relationship with God can sometimes minimize the corporate dimensions of faith. If “me and my Bible” is what’s paramount, then church becomes optional. To be sure, the individual dimension of faith is radically significant, but the corporate dimension is equally so. Though the NT spends most of its time talking to “you” plural, I suspect in the English-speaking West, our default reading of “you” is singular. The presence of the church and the involvement of individual Christians in church is the undergirding assumption of all the NT. From the perspective of the NT, a Christian who isn’t involved in church is an anomaly. From a theological perspective, our faith-wrought union with Christ has the inescapable correlative that Christians are also thereby objectively united in communion with one another. The idea that we would somehow progress to maturity in Christ outside the community of the church misses both the significance of the means of grace and the way that God often uses others in our sanctification. But unfortunately, in the West, the message, if not explicit, is often that your personal relationship with Christ is more important than church (or worse yet, that church is more or less optional). If this is the takeaway for Chinese returnees, then it is little wonder that once they return and face all sorts of pressures, going to church gets put on the back burner, only to be forgotten there.

Secondly, they may have unwittingly absorbed a cancerous western consumer mentality. In America, we’re taught that the consumer is always right. We expect to be treated as royalty when we go shopping or eat out; the customer is king, right? Sometimes, though, I think we approach church in the same way; we expect all of our desires to be catered to. When we go church shopping, we figure out which one has the programs we want, the preaching we like, the worship style we prefer. That’s not necessarily a problem unless we’re serially church hopping because we’re always on the lookout for something better. Even if we’re not church hopping, this consumer mentality still exists among churchgoers in America. I have a church planter friend who told me that in his church planting boot camp he was summarily informed that he needed to have a really good nursery–not necessarily the thing he had been thinking of when he got into church planting. The reality is that no matter how great his church was, people with kids simply weren’t going to stay without a nursery. Whatever you think of church nurseries, the point is that we’ve come to expect (and perhaps tacitly demand) certain things from church. My fear is that Chinese who come to faith here and have only experienced church here will have unwittingly absorbed these expectations, because when they go back to China such expectations will not serve them well. House churches in China are not generally so consumer oriented, with a plethora of programs, an outstanding preacher well-trained in theology and homiletics, and a gifted music director. This isn’t a dig; it’s an honest assessment of the situation. So if returnees are expecting to be able to find a church that will fit their needs perfectly (i.e., have this program or that, serve up just the right musical style, and have excellent expository preaching), they’re likely to be disappointed. But with the right expectations, a recognition that every church is imperfect (made up, as they are, with imperfect people), and a determination to commit to a church, engage fully, and employ their gifts (whatever they may be) for the building up of the body, the situation may be quite different.

So these are some of the obstacles. Doubtless there are others as well. In our next post, we’ll begin to think about how to address some of these obstacles.