Another Perspective on Ministry with Returnee Chinese Christians

On February 28 and March 7, Chinese Church Voices posted a two-part article about ministry to returnee Christians from Chinese social media that triggered considerable discussion among Chinese Christians. Such thought-provoking discussion gives a look into some of the complex issues and thorny debates within the Chinese church today. Yet, the author’s view represented only one extreme view of ministry with returnee Chinese.

Our translation of that article stimulated good discussion and feedback from our own readership, including Chinese who are currently involved in ministry among returnee Chinese. Several Chinese readers offered a counter-narrative to the writer’s experience. To continue listening in on voices within the Chinese church, we asked one experienced worker to share about his own experience as both a returnee and as a worker currently involved in returnee ministry.

Prior to studying abroad “John” was involved in indigenous house-church planting in China. While studying in North America he was involved in international student ministry for about four years. After returning to one of China’s largest cities for marketplace work, he founded a ministry working with returnees. He has worked with international students and returnees for the last 10 years. He is currently an advisory board member for a ministry that works on collaborative efforts among Chinese students and returnee ministries. 

John gives a different take on returnee ministry. He describes the complexities of this ministry, the positive impact the Western church has, and notes how the Chinese church can learn from Western Christians. He explains how everyone is still learning about this type of ministry. He goes on to give practical tips for each group of people involved in ministry among returnees: Chinese returnees themselves, Western churches and organizations, workers in China, and for the church in China. Finally, he notes the importance of returnee Chinese for the church in China.

We interviewed John and asked him to respond to the article with his own impressions of ministry with returnees. Our conversation with John (here represented by both summaries of his thoughts and direct quotes) provides an alternative voice from the Chinese church.

Another Perspective on Ministry with Returnee Chinese Christians

The Complexities of Ministry with Returnee Christians

“John” has worked with a variety of returnees: those who been disciple or mentored, trained leaders, those who are not trained at all, and seekers, including those who have never heard or understood the gospel. When you look at all of it, he says, people are people and churches are churches. They are all different. You cannot summarize all of their situations neatly. It is necessary to look at individual cases. Returnee ministry is a global-church need and is related to the global-church movement. Returnee ministry doesn’t fit into one basket and it won’t be solved with one solution.

It is difficult to make generalizations about returnee ministry. When it comes to China and ministry with Chinese, there is no one-size-fits-all perspective. Multiple views are necessary. This interview gives another perspective to help round out the topic.

There are “some cold, hard truths” talked about in that article, says John. Although what the author talked about could be valid in his experience, yet it does not summarize the entire picture. It’s more nuanced than just his view. In fact, you can present the truth of what happened in your experience in two ways: with scorn or with grace. In his article there was less grace.

To start with, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture that God is working through many Chinese and the Chinese church together with Christians from around the world. So many Christians around the world are reaching overseas Chinese. Returnees are stretching and growing the ministry capacities of the Chinese church. These are good things that at the end of the day should build cooperation, increase learning, and give cause for celebration.

Yet, returnee ministry is a young ministry field and it is very complex. Returnee ministry is a “cross-ocean problem” that involves multiple stakeholders: returnees, churches overseas, student ministries in various countries, local churches in China, etc. All of them have a responsibility to understand this as a cycle of ministry. They need to work harder to understand each other and partner together. The big wave of returnees has only occurred in the past 10-15 years, which is still a very short time. So, when it comes to ministering to Chinese students and returnees, everyone is still growing and learning. “No one has mastered it yet.”

Patience, Collaboration, and Learning Together

Working with returnees requires patience, collaboration, and learning together. John notes that we can learn from each other in several areas and better understand the situation with returnees. For example, one of the strengths of the Western church that the Chinese church can learn from is the gift of hospitality and accepting people as they are. And one of the responsibilities of the Chinese church is contextualization of the gospel.

Do you know why there are so many Chinese students who walk into churches? Do you know why so many Chinese students are attracted by genuine relationships and people who care about them and love them, which then leads them to an interest in the gospel? It is the people’s genuine love and grace. You can criticize how much they are being discipled, but [hospitality] and relationships are how you attract them in the first place. On the other hand, if you look at the Chinese church there’s not much grace, there’s not much hospitality, not much of a welcome for new arrivals. If these students never went overseas they would never even get interested in the gospel. . . . It’s not that people don’t care about their souls. If you look at the body of Christ, we all have different strengths. Certainly God has given the churches overseas the gift of hospitality and welcoming and grace and cross-cultural friendliness. That is a part that, instead of criticizing, the Chinese church should say, “I am so glad that you are doing that. Maybe the contextualizing and teaching them in their own language—that is the part that we should do.” … We all have roles to play and this is the cycle of ministry. If these [Westerners] are good at converting and reaching out to Chinese, then the next stage may be that the Chinese church says, “We can help feed their souls and contextualize [the gospel] for them when they return.”

If there is more awareness of issues with returnees among all the stakeholders, then returnee ministry has a better chance. We all need to have humility with this issue to acknowledge that “we have ownership in this. We are part of the problem.”

John notes that most churches and organizations think that they can solve this problem by themselves:

I rarely run into leaders who step back and say, “Hey, we can’t solve this on our own. This is a problem beyond our organization (or church).” The reason God created this problem is so that we learn to work with each other, to trust each other. We’re willing to work with partners in this ministry to see the whole process through. It’s like what the Bible talks about—one person will plant the seed, another will water, and another will help growth. We all have our roles to play. No one can say I can do everything myself.

Of course there will be people who are deficient in their understanding of the gospel, but that doesn’t mean God’s work in their lives ends there. In the process of planting, growing, and harvesting it takes many people along the way to nurture a person throughout life. Who are we to say when the gospel work has ended?

Typically when people look at these issues they blame another party. Perhaps there are times that warrant directly calling people out. For example, showing people that they aren’t discipling at all. Or, that they are doing too much hospitality. Some will take that better than others and some will feel offended by comments like that.

Good Stewardship, Learning Compassion

But, there are times when churches and ministry workers are just simply trying to do the best with what they have. Perhaps all they can do at the moment is provide good hospitality. How can we have anything against them when they are offering all that they have?

Yet, if you understand and have capacity for discipleship then you are called to a higher standard. Those churches and ministries need to ask themselves, “Are we being good stewards of what God has given us? Is this good stewardship of God’s resources?” Nevertheless, there are tactful ways to raise these issues.

John raises the question, “How much can we expect the Western church to do? It’s easy to criticize them for what they don’t do. But, can we do what they are doing? Maybe not. Hosting people, training people, ministering to people is not easy to do.” Especially because reaching out to Chinese students is not their primary work. As a local congregation, they minister to local people and shepherd the local believers.

The quality or amount of training that people working with Chinese have received varies wildly. People could be young college students or retired couples. Some might have ministry training, others may have less. Each church will be different and each situation will be different. Mega-churches will have professionals who are trained in discipleship. But, many smaller congregations don’t have any trained workers on hand. If you ask Western churchgoers if they are trained disciplers or have even discipled someone before, the majority of them would say “no.” Also, the majority of them have no idea what the Chinese context is like, they have no idea what Chinese culture is like, they have no idea what these students will face when they get home. Perhaps the pressures of China are not accurately described. They don’t know about mianzi (face), family relationships, peer pressure, workplace culture, etc. There are so many problems that Chinese face when they go home that people working with them don’t know about.

Similarly, how much can we expect the Chinese church to do? It’s easy to criticize them as well. But, says John, many churches are still adjusting after having undergone a “survival stage” when they were persecuted.

So, if you are an inward-looking house church, how much do you know about hospitality? How much do you know about outreach? How much do you trust other people whom you don’t know and are sent to you? So, they are learning too. They are just opening up. Their own pastors are just starting to study abroad and go different places. They are starting to understand diversity. Maybe down the road, ten or twenty years later, most Chinese churches will have returnees. By that time the majority of churches will have worked with foreigners, will have some type of training, and will have some travel overseas to understand what it’s like to stand in other people’s shoes and live in other culture and experience reverse culture-shock.

It takes time for people to understand what it’s like to come back. Once pastors and church workers go overseas and experience it themselves, they will have more compassion for returnees because they will have been one. It’s not until we stand in their shoes that we can relate and have compassion. That takes time.

Practical Tips for Those Working with Returnees

John also offers practical tips for various stakeholders in returnee ministry.

Message for Chinese students abroad:

Learn about the church in China. Visit Chinese churches when/if you go back home for vacation. Gradually adjust your expectations. Understand what’s healthy and the key elements for community and relationship-building in your Christian faith so that when you come home you don’t try to replicate people, relationships, worship experience, a spiritual journey, and foreign culture. Rather, when you come home you can establish contextualized community and relationships at the stage of life God has led you to. These are things that will help keep a person from drifting away.

Message for foreign churches and organizations:

Update your knowledge about China. Many of you are working with outdated knowledge about China and the Chinese church. In the worst case, some churches present Chinese students with an outdated picture of the persecuted Chinese church that scares Chinese students. If you have never been to China, you can learn more about the home cultures of the students with whom you work.  Go visit your returnees and their cities, meet with local believers, and ask and learn what it looks like to be a believer in a Chinese situation and setting. When you go back home, you may find you need to adjust your strategy and way of doing ministry with Chinese students.

Message for workers in China working with returnees:

We are still babies in this ministry. We are still learning. But, you can act as a bridge between these foreign churches and organization, and the church in China. Update your sending organization, churches, friends, family, and people back home about China. The more we are equipped about our ministry, the more productive we can become. China is always changing, so we need to keep learning. Maybe some people can visit China and learn, or we can go back to the West and share. Work collaboratively. We need more of this type of catalytic work all over China, working alongside Chinese local churches. They are the key to providing a soft landing for returnees who might drop out instead.

Message for the Chinese church:

Returnees are unique people—not because of their degrees or diplomas, but because they took a special journey. They lived in another culture and lived as a minority in another culture. They have a unique experience that they can bring to the church in China that can be used for kingdom expansion in China. The church needs to look at this as an opportunity rather than a threat. They will bring their leadership, cross-culture experiences, skills, and knowledge that they have learned overseas to be a blessing to you.

If the Chinese church is to expand its work abroad, they need to learn more about cross-cultural work. “You can be a strong believer, but you can be a horrible cross-cultural worker,” John notes. Cross-cultural work requires a lot of training. Chinese returnees can bring that experience of cross-cultural work back to China. This is a gift of God that the church can tap into and be blessed by.

No Such Thing as “Failure”

Finally, no one can say that they can completely solve these problems on their own. China is so big and the problems are so vast. We need multiple groups and partners to work together and share this work. We need collaboration.

There are certain things we can change about our ministry and there are things we can do better. But, we can’t change people’s overall desire for God because that is God’s role.

In God’s kingdom there’s no such thing as “failure.” We are all babies and we are learning and growing. When can you really say that ministry failed? We are all learning about this ministry. This is a process. Let’s learn together and grow mature in the kingdom work God has invited us into.

Image credit: by Jirka Matousek, via Flickr.