Two important dynamics at play in returnee ministry are movement and connection. Each year several hundred thousand Chinese move between China and countries around the world, leaving China to go abroad to study and work and later returning to cities across China. As they leave one place to move to another, they leave the relationships they have established in that place and begin to make new connections in their new location. This provides opportunities for Christians around the world to connect with them, help them know Jesus, grow in faith in him and, together with Christians in China, help them after they return home to China to connect with Chinese churches and continue their spiritual journeys.
COVID-19 has struck right at the heart of these two important dynamics of returnee ministry. The movement of people between China and other countries has been impacted by border closures and travel restrictions reducing the numbers of Chinese moving to places such as the United States and Australia and increasing numbers moving to places such as the United Kingdom and Japan.1 Social distancing measures have made it much harder for people to gather and deepen relational connections with one another although the rise of online connections has provided new opportunities. The impact of COVID-19 on returnee ministry has been widespread and diverse with some places and ministries experiencing significant disruption. While the key factor causing these changes may be the coronavirus, other factors such as geopolitics and political developments within China have played—and continue to play—an important role. Yet even these factors, to various degrees, have been influenced by COVID-19.
Below are a few observations about returnee ministry during a global pandemic.
The disruption caused by COVID-19 has resulted in adversity in returnee ministry.
Increased Difficulty Connecting with Chinese Students2
One impact of COVID-19 has been fewer Chinese moving overseas to study. Many, because of health concerns, visa restrictions or border closures, have delayed or changed their plans to move abroad, choosing instead to take a gap year, study online, or remain in a Chinese school or university. This decrease in Chinese students has been particularly significant in countries such as Australia and the US, which during the pandemic have largely restricted Chinese students from obtaining visas and entering the country.
COVID-19 prevention measures and social distancing have made it more difficult to meaningfully connect with Chinese students. Many classes have moved online, and restrictions on in-person gatherings have prevented orientation and other outreach events from taking place. Although online meetings have provided opportunities to connect with students, they are not as good for establishing and deepening relationships, particularly with new contacts.
Ministry Worker Stress
The large drop in international student numbers in some universities has meant that many ministry workers have found themselves with very little ministry to engage in. This, along with uncertainty about the future and the need to quickly adapt to new styles of ministry, such as online meetings, has caused stress and discouragement for many of them.
During the pandemic, countries such as the US restricted visas to Chinese students while continuing to welcome students from other countries, resulting in a shift in the dominant demographic of international students on many campuses. Consequently, some staff workers and volunteers, whose primary ministry focus and experience in the past was with Chinese students, have had to rapidly adapt and learn to minister effectively to students from other nations, such as India.
Connecting Returnees to Churches in China
Throughout the pandemic, large numbers of Chinese have continued to return to China. The fact that COVID-19 has been much better controlled in China than in many other countries has encouraged many Chinese students and workers to cut short their plans to remain overseas and return to China earlier than expected.
Helping returnees connect with and join local churches after they return to China is an important aspect of helping returnees to continue in faith. COVID-19 has made this more difficult. Many churches in China have needed to meet online or transition to smaller scale gatherings because of the pandemic. In addition, there has been increasing tightening on religious activity in China these past few years. Joining a new church and establishing relationships in this context is challenging. Helping returnees to be aware of these issues before they return can aid in preparing them for the pressures they will face as Christians after they move back to China.
In addition to adversity, the disruption caused by COVID-19 has also opened up opportunities for returnee ministry.
Online Meetings and Connections
Restrictions on in-person gatherings have resulted in a proliferation of online meetings. Although online interaction is not as deep or effective as face-to-face interaction, it has enabled ongoing connections during the pandemic and provided some new opportunities.
One of these involves the prereturn preparation retreats that are an important way Christian returnees can be equipped and prepared for their upcoming return to China and the challenges they will face after they are back. Being unable to hold in-person retreats because of COVID-19 has forced the ministries that run these retreats to quickly develop and transition to online retreats. The ease of access, and reduced costs and resources involved with attending and running these retreats online has resulted in a number of benefits including:
- A significant increase in the number of participants.
- The ability to run these retreats more frequently, providing more opportunities for returnees to attend and be equipped to return to China.
- Allowing ministry workers and returnees who are in China to more easily be involved and help with these retreats.
- Providing for a smooth and natural transition to online follow-up after the retreat and continuing online discipleship with returnees even after they have moved back to China.
As a result of the pandemic, people around the world are increasingly comfortable with the use of online platforms. This has made it easier for ministry workers and volunteers to stay connected with returnees even after they have returned to China. This ongoing contact and support from more mature Christians overseas can be a great help to returnees, particularly in the first six to twelve months after returning to China when the stresses of re-entry and transition are at their most acute, and the returnee has not yet developed good connections with a Chinese church. Staying connected with returnees also helps to remind ministry workers overseas that the returnee journey is a long-term one. It does not end when the returnee goes back to China. Even more important than their brief period of discipleship overseas is how they continue their faith journey in China for the rest of their lives.3
Learning and Improving
God in his wisdom and grace often uses hardship and adversity to help us learn and grow. The global pandemic has disrupted our usual way of doing things, forcing us to pause and evaluate what we do. Rather than just continuing what they have always done in the past, many ministry workers have been pushed to think deeply about what is most important and foundational to their ministry, to adapt, and learn new skills. Examples of this include finding ways to use online meetings, such as the online prereturn retreats mentioned above, to complement other aspects of their ministry, and being more deliberate in working out how to go deeper in discipling Chinese and preparing them to return.
The disruption and adversity caused by COVID-19 has resulted in an increase in collaboration between different groups. At some universities, different groups reaching out to Chinese students have started meeting together regularly for prayer and mutual support and are exploring ways that they can better partner together. Online platforms have made it easier for organizations in different countries, and for Chinese and overseas groups, to connect with one another and share resources. Could this be a turning point for growth in partnerships between Christians in China and Christians overseas as they work together on strategic projects such as prereturn retreats? Could this smaller scale and scattered rise in collaboration in returnee ministry be the start of a larger global movement in this area?
A Strategic Group
Returnees are still a strategic group for ministry to China. The movement of large numbers of many of China’s future leaders to countries around our world provides opportunities for Christians in those countries to connect with them, share their lives and faith with them, and help send them back to China to have an impact for Jesus in their workplaces and communities.
Returnees are even more strategic during this global pandemic and into the future. Although China’s borders are currently closed to foreigners, Chinese citizens are able to return and are continuing to return in large numbers. And even when COVID-19 becomes better controlled globally, and China reopens its borders, the increasing restrictions on religion in China will make it harder and harder for foreign Christians to live and serve there. Hence, returnees are an increasingly important group for Christians around the world who want to engage with China.
What opportunities can you undertake during this pandemic to connect and journey with a Chinese person who, by God’s grace, may one day make an impact for Christ in China?
For more information about the importance of returnee ministry see: “A Key Way that Christians around the World Can Contribute to Gospel Growth in China: Returnees.”
- The following article gives more information about how COVID-19 and other factors such as geopolitics have changed the distribution of countries that Chinese students are going to, as well as reasons why the number of Chinese going overseas in the future will rebound and even increase: “How will the coronavirus affect outbound Chinese students?” The Economist Intelligence Unit, 25 Sept 2020. https://www.eiu.com/n/how-will-the-coronavirus-affect-outbound-chinese-students/ (Accessed 15 July 2021).
- Returnees as a category are broader and more diverse than just Chinese students studying abroad. However, this article focuses on students as they are the primary focus of most returnee ministries due to their large numbers and strategic nature as future leaders and influencers in China.
- The following article emphasises the importance of having a long-term perspective in discipleship of international students: Stuart Bullington, “Walking the Second Mile with International Students: Discipleship Issues for Returnees,” Insight Issue 11 Winter 2013/2014, 2-4. https://www.friendsinternational.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/insight_issue-11—winter-2013-14.pdf (Accessed 15 July 2021).