Have We Failed Returnee Christians? (Part 2)

Last week we posted the first part of an article about returnee Christians who fall away from the church that was originally published on the blog The Gift of the Magi. The article discusses how Chinese living abroad come to Christianity but struggle to remain in the church after they return to China. Part one focused more on the overseas church, while part two looks closely at the church in mainland China. This week we post the rest of the article with Chinese readers’ comments from the original blog.

Reasons Why a High Rate of Returnee Christians Fall Away—A Lack of Care for Souls (Continued)

2017-01-26 Brother Sang Shang

The Simplistic and Rough Chinese Church

[Edited for brevity]

Just being able to receive returnees is an act of grace

Oh, Chinese church . . . we all need to weep for the many returnee Christians!

Let’s not talk about pastoral care and support; for many Chinese churches just being able to receive returnee Christians and have them stay in their church is an act of grace. If they can occasionally show you some concern, you should be thankful! Don't have high hopes that they will be able to care for your soul!

What's strange, however, is that many Chinese churches don't show much concern for returnees' souls, but they really care about one thing: Where did you come from and can you commit to serving in their church. Make no mistake: their so-called "church commitment" is not the same church commitment that the Bible teaches. What they are asking is if returnee Christians will be stable in their church, regardless if their teaching accords to God's will. They don't want them running off to another church. If someone runs off to another church because of wrong teaching they not only don't examine themselves, but others will say that they are church shopping.

There are many churches in China that pay special attention to returnees' background. Returnees must have someone's "recommendation." They will also vet people who want to go to the church. Some churches (especially in Shanghai) are quite simplistic and rough. Before the person even arrives, they interrogate the recommender about every last detail of the person, almost like the police station investigates a person's residence permit. They'll interrogate to the extent that it will make your blood boil.

Of course, the church will openly say that the purpose is to know the person’s situation and to facilitate pastoral care later on. But, this simply isn't what many churches do after they are finished questioning them. How can someone not trip up with such simplistic and rough practices?

The minority are pious; the majority are simplistic and rough.

For various reasons, many church pastors and staff have never been to seminary. They have never received rigorous, systematic theological training. Their understanding and application of the Bible is very one-sided. I don't believe I need to explain the objective reasoning why this is the case. I think you understand why. We need to empathize with them in this regard.

Although many of the older brothers and sisters never received rigorous, systematic theological training, they were imprisoned for the Lord. They were detained during the Cultural Revolution, and suffered a lot of persecution. They have led blood-soaked and tear-stained godly lives. They rely on their piety and devotion to the Lord to serve him. God is especially gracious to them. He has used wondrous ways to compensate for their deficiencies in theology and to bless their ministry.

Dear returnee brothers and sisters, if you return home to a church like this, I believe you should obey and respect these older servants of the Lord. If you think their church doesn't suit you, you can choose a more suitable church to commit to. But, you must love, respect, and honor them.

However, the most heartbreaking thing is that a number of church pastors not only are not theologically equipped, they also don't live godly lives. They govern the church simplistically and roughly. They govern the church according to their own one-sided understanding of the Bible. It's this kind of church that primarily causes returnees so much pain.

Their simpleness and crudity are primarily displayed in the following ways:

"If it's not from my group, it must be strange."

In this church there is a strict order of seniority. This thinking of "If it's not from my group, it must be strange" is a deeply rooted problem. They select their own people to serve. They don't see who is suitable to serve, but whoever does what they're told is their man. This kind of selection makes the church look like a secret society. It's as if they are the ringleaders of the church. They leave the church in the dark; they have no spiritual cover; and no one oversees them.

If they do any wrong they usually make excuses like, "We need to love, tolerate, and accept one another. We need unity." "Don't argue and give the devil a foothold." "Don't split the church." They leave the matter unsettled. There is absolutely no church discipline. If someone thinks differently they do not first examine themselves for biases or mistakes. Rather they attack you and label you as "proud" and "judgmental." You can't defend yourself. Once you defend yourself you're labeled "disobedient."

It's difficult to integrate into the community.

Many of these churches speak and act in deeply set ways. They are neither hot nor cold. Even when brothers and sisters communicate, their interactions are very lukewarm. Perhaps it's because of the church's high-level of importance—people are afraid they will get hurt so no one wants to open up. So, even if returnee Christians are sincere and want to integrate in with passionate enthusiasm, it will be difficult for them. They will feel like they don't belong.

It's a lot like the PRC's Ministry of Education.

In our middle school literature class, we'd often be asked strange questions like, "Students, what does the third sentence of the second paragraph in ______ essay by Lu Xun mean?" These kinds of questions tormented us to no end! We're not Lu Xun. How do we know what he meant when he wrote those words?! If you want to know, go ask Lu Xun! But, the really strange thing was that the Ministry of Education actually knew the answer! Even stranger is that the Ministry of Education's answer, surprisingly, is the only possible one. You must accept it!

In terms of Bible interpretation, Bible study, and preaching, these churches have the same characteristic. They are a lot like the Ministry of Education.

Most unbearable is the peaching. Some are like the Ministry of Education; some are like the village party secretary making a report; and some are like seminary classes. I returned to China almost four years ago for various reasons. I went to dozens of big and small churches, but I only found two in which the pastors were actually preaching. So many pulpits today in Chinese churches lack God's Word (but they don't lack theology)!

Unbiblical rules.

Some of these churches have their own private set of rules, many of which are unbiblical teachings.

For example, a church in Shanghai has an unwritten rule that newcomers must be recommended by a known person in the church before they can attend small group activities. Only after attending a small group seven times can they join the church's Sunday worship.

One poor brother came back from the United Kingdom and went to this church. He attended six punishing small group sessions. Unfortunately, his company sent him on a business trip during the seventh small group meeting time. After he got back, he was told that his previous attendance record was wiped clean and he had to start over again. He stewed through four more weeks of the small group, but the fifth week he was sick. Once again he was informed that his attendance record was wiped clean. After being tossed around for six months, he was finally able to attend the church's Sunday worship. In the end, as soon as he heard the Sunday sermon, he was really hurt and disappointed. He never thought that he'd painstakingly waited and suffered for six months only to encounter that type of preaching.

I don't have the space for it here, but there are so many instances of over-the-top shady activities like this.

No opportunities given to serve.

Normally, when returnee Christians go to these types of church they are not given an opportunity to serve for a very long time.

But then again, returnee Christians shouldn't think of themselves as returnee Christians. It is a very remarkable thing that they were baptized at church abroad. Most returnees do not have a good foundation in the Christian life (including myself). So, it makes sense that people would not give returnee Christians a chance to serve immediately.

But, it also isn't right to not give opportunities to mature returnee Christians! Many returnee Christians have only believed in the Lord for a short time. When they get back to China they are not mature in their spiritual lives. But, to refuse to give them an opportunity after they have been back and have matured is wrong!

In China, there is immense pressure in work life.

Work pressure in China is quite heavy. There is often a lot of overtime. For Christians in such an environment, if they want to make a stable commitment to church they need to really put in more effort than they did overseas. They can't really have the same type of fellowship in China as they did overseas. In China it's not possible to have so many church activities and potlucks where goodhearted brothers and sisters can pick you up with their cars and drop you off again.

That leaves many returnee Christians feeling lost. After they return home to China they don't want to go to church anymore.

In China, no religious freedom; government persecution.

There is no religious freedom in China. The government has always persecuted Christians. Some very shallow returnee Christians leave the church after they return to China because they are Communist party members, civil servants, or work for state-owned enterprises. This is also one of the reasons why [there is a high rate of returnees who fall away].

Summary: Complete Trust and Support

The high rate of returnee Christians who fall away is indisputable. I believe that the overseas church shares most of the blame for creating this situation because so many overseas churches simply have not brought them to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord. They simply did not plant the true gospel seed in their hearts. The Chinese church also cannot shirk responsibility for this because so many Chinese churches are very simplistic and rough.

Yet, my returnee brothers and sisters, the Lord calls us to glorify him, to be light, to be salt. The Lord allows suffering and persecution to increase grace for every person who truly follows him. Since the Lord called us back to China, we should put aside that cozy and easy foreign [life] and prepare everything for the Lord.

Even though the foundation of the Chinese (house) church is very shallow and weak and there are many problems—many returnee Christians have been hurt—and yet, she is the Lord's church and Christ is her head. We still need to obey her, love her, and commit to her.

After I returned to China, even though I was hurt I still was willing through my tears to say that I wanted to commit to the church. I am willing to accept the church's imperfections because she is the Lord's church.

We don't need to stare at our environment. We need to keep our eyes on the Lord! No matter where we go, God's power will always be with us. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ!

Offer your life to the Lord!

The following is a selection of readers’ comments. The article received mixed reactions and stirred some emotional responses. Readers offer counter opinions and responses to the author’s views.

After reading the whole article and thinking it over, the problems and phenomena do indeed exist, which is not a death blow to say that all churches are doing poorly. This article is more about discovering the problems, asking questions, and hoping all church workers will solve the problem. I think this is the primary focus of this paper!

I don't know much about the situation of the church in China, but there are big problems with the gospel ministry of overseas Chinese churches. Those who evangelize don't have a deep foundation in their faith, even entire churches are not stable enough in their faith foundations. A pastor joked once that, of faith, hope, and love only love is left. There is no faith or hope, and the people's love is very limited.

It's not just returnees, a lot of college students commit to student ministry during university. After they graduate and go off to work in other parts of the country, after they leave their former student fellowships and churches, they don't commit to another church. It's so regrettable. I think this is one of the reasons why we need to share the whole gospel, to stress faith and repentance, and not to endorse a momentary "sensation" to make the sinner's prayer. Any Christian group that really wants to preach the gospel of sin and forgiveness, if they don't exalt Christ and his salvation, woe to them. There is also the basic Christian truth that every one of us Christians should learn. The church really should practically love one another. But, shouldn't it care about the salvation of believer's souls above all else?

As a returnee Christian serving in ministry, who attends a house church, and at the same time participates in ministry to returnees, I feel this article is full of unfounded assertions. Although the objective phenomenon of various returnee Christians falling away exists as the article says, the author's assertions of what are the causes of the problem and his out-of-touch, reckless attitude is truly regrettable. It makes one wonder how many cases the author has in fact investigated to arrive at the conclusion that "the overseas church does not care for the salvation of foreign students' souls and the Chinese church is simple and crude?"

Can the amount of responsibility between the overseas church and the Chinese church be divided so neatly? Aside from this article's objective description of the phenomenon, it only finds fault with the overseas church and Chinese church. There is no sense of sympathy for the loss of returnee Christians, and no constructive feedback for solving this problem. I fear this will leave the overseas church, returnee Christians, and the Chinese church feeling bewildered and defeated. Those brothers and sisters who are truly concerned about this problem do not need this kind of critic and commentator, but kind guidance, warm encouragement, rational analysis, and firm support.

Original article: 海归基督徒高流失率的原因  (麦琪的礼物- The Gift of the Magi

Image credit: by Anne Worner, via Flickr.