I am concerned about a phenomenon that has been growing in the ten years since I’ve been living in China, and maybe even long before that. Many Chinese believers are moving to the U.S. and other Western countries for theological education, and many who go overseas are not returning to China. Many of them have a short-term mindset when they first leave for the U.S. for education, saying that they will probably stay in the U.S. for a few years and then will certainly return to China to serve after that. But, after their theological education is completed, many stay in the U.S. and never move back to China.
In Nik Ripken’s book The Insanity of Obedience he hits hard on the topic of believers who go abroad for theological education. Ripken writes that 80% of those believers will never return to their home country. He’s referring to Muslim background believers, but I think it may be nearly the same for Chinese believers. Ripken emphasizes that believers will be most effective serving in their own cultural area, but unfortunately that advantage is not utilized well because after they complete their theological education they never return to their own country or town to serve.
Why does this happen? I think there are several factors.
Firstly, often there’s nothing in China that they are obligated to that will guarantee their return to China after they complete their overseas education. I think that if Chinese churches formally sent these believers overseas for education with the clearly expressed expectation to return to China to serve long-term afterwards, then those believers would be more likely to follow through on their intentions to return to China.
A house church in our city currently helps financially support potential leaders to go to seminary abroad, and those individuals know they will return to the house church here in China when they graduate. When I was on campus at Southern Seminary in the U.S. for a year, very few of the Chinese students I met there had any job at their home church in China to return to. Rather, they had come to the U.S. mostly independently, with no expectation from their church back home that they’d move back to China to serve.
Secondly, life in the U.S. is, in many ways, more comfortable than the typical living standard in China. I think it’s hard to blame Chinese believers for being attracted to remaining in the U.S. after finishing their education. There are fewer people, and things are cleaner and less chaotic than in China. Also, many Chinese believers who go to the U.S. can’t help but be attracted to the prospect of having their kids receive an American education and being able to speak both English and Chinese fluently. I can relate to that benefit because we are very thankful that our daughter goes to a local kindergarten in our city in China. She can learn both Chinese and English well. So I can completely understand how a Chinese family would be attracted to the idea that their children would be able to get an education in the U.S.
Thirdly, Chinese churches in the U.S. also play a part. Rather than putting pressure on Chinese believers to stay in the U.S. to serve, they need to encourage Chinese believers going to the U.S. for theological education to return to China after they graduate. Certainly there is a real need for better-trained leaders in Chinese churches in the U.S., but those who stay to serve in Chinese churches in the U.S. should be the exception, rather than the majority. The norm for Chinese believers doing theological education overseas should be to return to China [or possibly to serve as missionaries in the 10/40 Window] to serve long-term in house churches .
The house churches in China are in serious need of theologically-trained leaders. So it seems that those Chinese believers who do theological education abroad should be highly encouraged to return to China to serve long-term. And for those of us who live in China, we need to think twice before we encourage our local brothers and sisters to go to the U.S. for seminary.
Image credit: Jetway to China Air flight by Curt Smith.
Tabor Laughlin (pseudonym) is a PhD student in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He received his MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Missions and his bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from Oklahoma State University. He has been serving in China for ten years, and is president of a... View Full Bio