For more than one hundred years, campus ministry in mainland China has developed in a variety of ways. Through periods of civil war and world war, and through the ebb and flow of government restrictions, students and faculty have remained resilient.
Throughout these years Christians from many nations have come to China, working alongside local believers as they share the gospel on university campuses. As the Chinese church has grown, the role of foreigners in campus ministry has also had to change. What roles have foreigners played on mainland Chinese campuses over the decades? How should foreigners serve now as campus ministry in mainland China continues to develop post-Covid-19? This article will focus on the role of foreigners as campus ministry has developed in mainland China from the early twentieth century until now, concluding with some suggestions about the road ahead.
Pre-1949: Flourishing Amidst Difficulty
More than one hundred years ago, as modern university campuses in mainland China became established, Christians from other nations came to China and preached the gospel on campuses. Groups like the YMCA and Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) sent missionaries to China during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Many of them saw much fruit in their ministry on campus during those early stages, but after that early period of flourishing, an anti-Western backlash during the 1920s contributed to the weakening of these ministries.
Like in other parts of the world, campus ministry expanded in mainland China during the 1930s. As Christian students on campuses around the country began to organize Bible study groups and prayer meetings, missionaries with the China Inland Mission (CIM) began to see opportunities for outreach on campuses. With the invasion of eastern China by the Japanese in 1937, many university campuses were forced to relocate to western cities such as Chengdu, Chongqing, and Kunming. Since so many universities were located in close proximity at that time, Chinese and foreign workers could easily reach out to multiple campuses. CIM workers, including Paul and Mary Contento and Eric and Edith Liberty, found opportunities to teach English on university campuses and also join evangelistic activities.1 Foreigners partnered with Chinese itinerant workers like Zhao Junying (Calvin Zhao) as they preached on these relocated university campuses. Even as the war with Japan raged in China from 1937–1945, university campus fellowships flourished. By the mid-1940s, China InterVarsity had become organized as a national movement.
After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, university campuses moved back to their own cities. Though the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists intensified during these years, the China InterVarsity ministry continued to grow. A key CIM worker who partnered with this movement was David Adeney. As an itinerant staffer throughout eastern China during the late 1940s, Adeney built trust and relationship with Wang Ming Dao, Calvin Zhao, and other key leaders of the China InterVarsity movement.2 Like other CIM workers before him, Adeney came alongside the Chinese church leaders as they preached on campus. While the movement was Chinese-led, Adeney and other foreigners provided valuable assistance and encouragement.
As China InterVarsity became further established, campus workers organized significant national student gatherings in the latter half of the 1940s. China InterVarsity joined the US, UK, and seven other national student movements to form the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) in 1947. At the time, China InterVarsity was the only Asian student movement within IFES, and it was the largest national student movement in the world. Even with the backdrop of civil war, Chinese and foreign workers serving China InterVarsity felt hopeful for the movement’s future. The events of 1949 radically changed that picture.
1949–1979: Foreign Missionaries Depart, Campus Ministry Goes Dormant
When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, campus ministry in mainland China initially continued moving forward. With the CCP’s stated promises of “religious freedom,” there was hope that the CCP would allow the ministry to continue on campuses.
Sadly, that hope proved to be unfounded. China InterVarsity’s students and staff workers soon faced increasing pressure under Communist rule. Campus fellowships either disbanded or moved to meeting in secret. Key leaders including Wang Ming Dao and many others were eventually arrested. All foreign missionaries had to leave mainland China shortly after the CCP assumed power. David Adeney himself left China in 1950, leaving behind many connections and relationships. Though a founding member, China InterVarsity could no longer be a part of IFES. All outward signs pointed toward a disappearance of the student movement in China.
For 30 years after foreign workers left mainland China, very little information could be found about life within mainland China. Many wondered if the church would survive. Would campus fellowships be able to continue their ministry? After more than ten years of seeing fruitful ministry among students, foreign workers could do little more than wait for news about their friends and pray for them.
1980–Present Day: Gradual Opening Up; Many Opportunities and New Challenges
With the onset of the CCP’s “Reform and Opening Up” policy in 1979, the world outside China could finally start seeing a clearer picture of life inside mainland China. By the early 1980s, foreign workers had again started to live and serve in China, especially on university campuses. As China welcomed more teachers and students from overseas, various international organizations sent workers to study Chinese or to teach English. Foreign Christians saw opportunities to share the gospel on university campuses, and many Chinese came to faith.
By the 1990s, it was apparent that there was a revival taking place on university campuses. Though the restrictions on “proselytizing” were quite strict, many foreigners found ways to share the gospel discreetly at a relational level. Varying levels of partnership were formed between foreign workers and Chinese believers. Some of these partnerships led to fellowships that still exist on campuses today. In many cases, though, these partnerships led to the formation of campus fellowships that were not well contextualized. Chinese students were often more inclined to relate with foreigners and learn about Christian faith from them rather than in Chinese church contexts. With foreigners often being an attractive draw for friendship and relationship, translating those relationships into a truly indigenous student movement could be a very tricky thing. In any case, for about thirty years foreign workers in mainland China were able to find ways to navigate university campuses and participate in the work that God was doing there.
The last decade or so has presented new challenges for foreign workers serving at university campuses in mainland China. Under Xi Jin Ping’s leadership, the CCP has brought increasing restrictions to many areas of society including universities. Local Chinese fellowships have been forced to adapt to the changing environment. Foreign workers have also had to adapt as their opportunities for ministry on campus have decreased. During the past few years there has been a major exodus of foreign workers. Some have likened this wave of departures to that of the early 1950s. For the foreigners that remained, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 made the environment for ministry even more challenging. Again, outward signs point toward a bleak future for foreign involvement with campus ministry in mainland China.
Future Hopes: How Can Foreigners Stay Involved?
Even before these recent years of tightening restrictions and the departure of foreigners, the church in China had already begun to stand on its own. Indigenous campus ministry networks have become more organized, raising up more full-time workers and volunteers to work with campus fellowships. In recent years, these campus ministry networks have also gained a vision to send students and staff as cross-cultural workers. They are also becoming more aware of the need to reach international students who come to China, many of whom come from majority-Muslim countries and other places where it is hard for them to hear the gospel. While they are seeing these ministry needs, Chinese church leaders have also recognized their need for assistance in these areas of ministry.
Foreigners today have an opportunity to come alongside the Chinese church as they seek to grow in these new areas of cross-cultural ministry. Whether to minority-dominated areas of western China or to other countries, Chinese young people are seeking opportunities to serve the Lord cross-culturally. Chinese leaders are asking for people who can help mentor students and young graduates who are from their networks and feel called to cross-cultural ministry. As they are invited by campus ministry networks to get involved with this kind of mentoring, foreigners can have a great influence in empowering the Chinese church.
The role of foreigners in campus ministry within China has constantly evolved over the years. The opportunities for foreigners today will not look like they did even just twenty years ago when the current campus ministry was still taking shape. With more mature campus ministry networks now serving on campuses throughout China, foreigners should listen well to the Chinese church leaders and see where they could use support. Much like the CIM missionaries serving on campuses in the pre-1949 era, foreign workers can see much fruit by coming alongside the indigenous campus ministry networks and empowering them in their work on campuses and beyond. May it be so!
- See Tell Us a Story: John and Edith Bell, which describes and shares photos about the campus ministry in Lanzhou that Eric and Edith Liberty joined (pp. 161–2, 174–5).
- See China: Christian Students Face the Revolution, by David Adeney, published in 1973 and reviewed in this issue,https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/campus-ministry-in-pre-1949-china.
Image credit: Tim Brookings
Tim Brookings (pseudonym) grew up in Massachusetts and went to university to study engineering, but soon felt God’s call into student ministry. He has lived in western China for most of the last 11 years, with a four-year gap from 2011 until May 2015 to study theology. Beginning in August …View Full Bio