Before and After They Go Back to China

The Practical Challenges

Many who return to China do not get deeply involved with a church but instead are greatly influenced by their surrounding secular culture. So, how can we equip them not only to survive as believers, but to be life-long, fruitful church leaders?

To understand how to build a scholar into a healthy returnee, we must consider the kinds of experiences and attitudes pre-returnees have and compare them to the real situations they will face in China.

Second, we have to consider the process we are using in building these scholars up in their faith.

Part 1: A Case Study—Wang’s Story

By God’s grace and through the efforts of a campus minister, a visiting scholar from China, Wang Hui, had just given his heart to the Lord. Yet, in less than two years he will return to China.

Jim, the American campus minister, continued to meet with Wang Hui one-on-one to encourage his faith and took him to an American church for six months. Wang was happy, comfortable—and not very ready to go back to China. Indeed, neither Jim nor Wang Hui gave much thought to what he would soon face.

Wang got busy with studies and wanted to continue with just a one-on-one relationship to learn the Bible. Church was not the most important thing, he reasoned; it was his own personal relationship with God. (He had heard the American believers say that often.)

Wang felt deep gratitude towards the Lord and the messenger who shared Christ with him. It was a helpful and satisfying situation. He had a friend, a personal Bible teacher, and his English was improving by reading the Bible and praying in English. Wang felt a sense of closeness to God in this situation. The only challenge he felt was that he preferred not to get baptized; he did not want to upset his older parents.

Then something happened to change all of this. Jim went to China to visit some of his former students—those who had become Christians during his campus ministry in the U.S. years before.

Jim was stunned by what he experienced. Sure, it was great to be reunited with old friends, but not one of the seven he had discipled had become significantly involved in a local church in China—neither in a house church nor a Three-Self church.

Each of them had their reasons. (Here it is good to know the Chinese words because much of their inner attitude is revealed in the following phrases. We should not focus just on the actual expressions themselves but on the meaning behind them). The returnees told Jim that they were not a part of a church because it was “not convenient” (bu fangbianting mangdefanduijingji yalihaize de jiaoyu). All these meant that their heart was not truly in it.

However, it got worse from there. Jim could tell there was very little spiritual life going on inside them. They confessed to feeling far from God and to spending little time with him. Not only had they not influenced anyone else to think about God, instead their attitudes, values and lifestyles had been greatly influenced by those around them.

In the end, Jim saw that his old friends had fit right back into life in China. Their faith was occupying only   a very small part of their minds and hearts. Their conversion had happened in a place far away, in their second language, two to five years ago.

In China, almost no one had a personal Bible teacher. The returnees had forgotten most of the English songs, and they did not feel comfortable around the native Chinese believers who seemed to express their Christian lives so differently than they had back in the U.S.

After Jim got back to the U.S. and met with Wang Hui, he shared how God had moved him. The purpose of his ministry would no longer be to lead people to become Christians who could study the Bible, but to become followers of Jesus with all their hearts, souls and minds. He would now aim to build people holistically so that they could both survive and even lead others in the urban church of China.

In his one-on-one times with Wang, he asked him to pray in Chinese and read from the Chinese Bible. Then he went with Wang to the Chinese church and got him into a group of scholars who would likely return to China someday. Jim told him that this was now his primary group. Gradually, Jim cut back on their one-on-one formal study times. However, he kept up with a lot of personal informal time. He began helping Wang Hui not just to know the Bible but to be able to apply it in the situations of his life.

He started giving little challenges for Wang to do in the most practical areas of his life—his time, relationships, and money. He even threw hypothetical situations at Wang Hui and asked him what he would do in that situation if he were back in China.

In personal time with Wang Hui, in prayer, in ministry together, in giving him personal challenges and in getting him engaged in the real life of the church, Jim intentionally built the life of Christ into the life of his returnee disciple. In short, he was not just teaching Wang Hui, he was building him into a healthy believer, in community, who could influence and lead others.

Part 2: Analysis of Our Method of Building Returnees into Servant Leaders

The battles are real for returnees, and the basic “programmed” approach of encouraging church attendance, fellowship and some one-on-one Bible study will not truly prepare them for what is coming.

Jesus knew what was coming for his disciples after he left them (trouble, kunan). So, he spent time training his followers for the challenges of real life and ministry without his physical presence. In John 13-17 he taught, modeled and prayed that maintaining union with the Father and loving each other were the most important things in life. This impacted them forever. No matter what ministry design or materials we use, if we are not truly revealing the living God to our disciples, we are not giving them what they need.

Jesus also knew that character is not transformed by instruction alone; it is shaped by real life experiences. As you read the New Testament, you see that Jesus was intentionally challenging his followers to do things that stretched them—even allowing them to fail. His challenges were specific to the personality and faith of each disciple.

He was also constantly building into them a deep sense of calling, as he most obviously did with Peter. All of this was done in a community where they had a living, breathing leader who modeled a healthy life and oversaw their development. He fervently prayed for them and in the end conferred on them a kingdom.

We have the opportunity to follow Jesus’ example. It is the only method that has proven successful, over time, to transform the world. Plenty of other methods have proven, over time, to bring about only small changes.

May our prayer for our ministries be that through us, God our Father will bear fruit that will last.

Note: The church-integrated model for building healthy leaders described in this article is called “ConneXions.” To learn more about it go to:

Originally published in China 20/20, Vol. 71, April 2009.

Image credit: Shanghai, China by Thomas Depenbusch via Flickr.

Brent Hoover

Brent Hoover has 30 years of cross-cultural experience and is fluent in Mandarin. He has a master’s degree in intercultural studies from Wheaton Graduate School and a master’s of divinity degree from Michigan Theological Seminary. Currently, Brent works in the area of leader development. He also contributes articles at this blog: Full Bio