This post is the second in a series of three related to the issue of Chinese students and scholars returning successfully after their time abroad. Spoiler alert: This is an important 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.
In our first post, we considered the various obstacles that Chinese Christians who have studied abroad and are returning will face. The list was by no means exhaustive, but I think it can serve as a useful point of departure. In this post, we’ll give some attention to potential ways of addressing the obstacles returnees face. Remember that these reflections have been spurred by the jarring statistic that 80%-85% of these returnees never commit to any form of Christian fellowship upon returning to China. If these figures are accurate, then it must be a clarion call to us to consider how we approach ministry to Chinese students and scholars who may well return to China.
Criteria for Success
My thesis here is that the right place to measure success in our ministries is among our returnees, not among our students in the UK. We must look for the long-term, enduring, positive changes in our returnees that came about because of their time with us. In John 15:16 (NIV), Jesus said to his disciples, “I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.” Is this lasting spiritual fruit apparent in the lives of our returnees? If not, then perhaps we need to rethink what we are doing with students here.
Perhaps the place to start here is with the end goal in mind. I think that there’s something to be said for the above quote from an article by Stuart Bullington. If our concern is only to minister to Chinese here without thought of helping them, insofar as we’re able, to prepare for a lifetime of walking with the Lord and of fruitful ministry, especially when that may well entail a return to a notoriously difficult environment for them to thrive spiritually, then it seems that our focus may be misplaced. We may be doing really good things to help them grow spiritually, but are those things that will stand them in good stead when they return to China?
Permit me to make an analogy. As a parent of young children, I think often of how I am preparing them spiritually for the time when they will leave our watchful care. There are lots of things that we do that we hope will help them to grow in faith, wisdom, and maturity now. But there are also specific things that we do to try to help them for later on, because even if we don’t know the specifics, we know the general contours of what they’ll likely face. When my daughter is caught up in what she’s wearing, we try to talk about the underlying and enduring issue of seeking praise and approval from people, and we try to direct her to the God who accepts us fully in Christ. When my son is afraid of the dark, we try to help him understand that there will be lots of things throughout our lives that we’re tempted to fear, but that our fear often displays a functional lack of trust in God, and we pray with him that God will help us to turn away from our lack of trust and lean on the God who truly is worthy of our trust. When our kids don’t want to go to church, we try to help them understand that we were both made and redeemed for worship, so that going to church, in a sense, is at the heart of our very purpose, and that the hour and change we spend there each week helps orient the rest of our week, and all of our lives, for worship. Is some (or most) of this lost on them? Definitely. But at the same time, I can envision a time when my kids are away at college and my daughter is wrestling with making the wrong decision to gain acceptance, or my son is afraid to take a step of faith to which God is calling him, or when it’s easier just to stay in bed than to get up and go to church. I pray that these frequent little conversations that were had with the end in mind will stick with them in just such moments. But if I wait until a few weeks before they’re packing their bags and heading off to college to try to impart all of my pearls of wisdom, it seems a bit late (though better late than never).
Toward Some Solutions
Bullington proposes three phases to consider in preparing Chinese Christians to return home: (1) training and discipling students for the home context, (2) preparing students for re-entry, and (3) connecting students with Christians back home. The first phase makes up the bulk of our time with them, while the second and third phases come as students prepare to return.
What might be some specific examples of how we could train and disciple students for the home context, rather than for here? I read an article with a case study that I thought was helpful for beginning to think through this question. There were three general categories that I noticed: language and culture, particular challenges, and the church. First, we need to help new Christians to become comfortable and proficient in reading the Bible, praying, and expressing matters of faith in their mother tongue. For example, you might ask your friend to read the Bible and pray in Chinese when you meet together. I’ve been in a situation in which Chinese who had come to faith in America couldn’t pray in Chinese even when everyone with them could speak it, because they’d never been in that environment before. Even here that’s awkward, but imagine if that happened in China! Or if they’re constantly needing to fall back on English to talk about their faith because they’ve never had those conversations with other Chinese speakers, it will be quite odd, and likely embarrassing for them once they return home. Secondly, we need to help them consider how to address the particular challenges they’ll face back home. The case study mentions giving the student small but concrete challenges in areas like time, relationships, and finances to help them get used to some of the sacrifice and difficulty of walking in faith. It also mentions helping the student think through how he would face certain situations if he were in China to help prepare him better for his return. And thirdly, the case study mentioned getting the student authentically engaged in the church life of a Chinese church here. The article is definitely worth a read for some fodder for how to train students for the home context.
While thriving may require many spiritual disciplines and skills, a foundational aspect is returning with a sense of purpose. Returnees who sense God’s call to return, who return on a mission, who know why they must go back—like Moses or Nehemiah—can find strength in God to accomplish great things. Part of our task as disciplers, then, is to guide and inspire them, in the words of William Carey, to “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.”
In addition to these three categories, I think that helping them return with a sense of mission is key, as the above quote asserts. God, in his providence, has brought them here where they have heard the gospel, become a Christian, and grown in their faith. And it’s no mistake (from God’s perspective) that they’re getting ready to return. It may be a job or a family situation that is the particular occasion for their return, but if we believe that God is sovereign over details like these, we can help them see that God has something larger at work than merely the job or the family circumstance. Rather, we can help them see that they have a chance to participate in God’s work to proclaim Christ, expand his kingdom, and influence those around them for his glory. I can imagine how that perspective would make a marked difference in the way a Christian returns to China.
The second phase of preparing students for reentry is more focused that will provide some information as they prepare to go back that will help reduce some of the disorientation (and even shock) of the return. It might involve something like our Returnee Roundtable that is specifically designed to meet this need. It might also involve providing them with some helpful books to read, like the Returnee Handbook, Think Home, or Home Again.
The last phase would be connecting returnees with Christians back home. Obviously, this can help with getting them involved in church. As Bullington notes, returnees who involve themselves in a good church within three months of returning tend to thrive spiritually. Of course, not everyone has that sort of network of contacts on the ground in China to be able to make that connection. If you don’t and you want to help connect your friend with Christians back home, we can help! Go to sendingpad.com and fill out the information and we’ll help facilitate the connection.
As with the first post, this is the beginning of the discussion, not the final word. Much more could be said, some of which will be in the next post, which will talk more specifically about the importance of the church.