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Challenge of Returning Chinese Scholars

Zhang Hua’s* year at the University of Iowa’s Physics Department was wonderful. His experience there was enjoyable and was influential in his getting promoted when he went back to China last year. However, more importantly, he will tell you, it was during that year that he came to know Jesus. Through the witness of a relative in the U.S. and the prayers and efforts of the Chinese fellowship that befriended him, he was a “success story” of the international student ministry.

However, when Zhang Hua returned to China, he struggled in his faith. It was hard for him to find a good fellowship in his area, and he went without for months. Finally, he contacted the Chinese brother I introduced him to, and he found a fellowship at which he has become a leader and has grown in his walk with God. Still, he told me last week that if it were not for the brother I had introduced him to, he probably would not be in a fellowship right now.

Why is it so hard for Christian returnees to continue in their faith once they have arrived back home? Is there anything we can do about it to help? First, let’s look at some of the problems returnees face.

Four Problems for Returnees

  1. Busyness: When I talked with Zhang Hua about his difficulties finding a fellowship back in China, he said that he was quite busy, and that the fellowship he heard about at first was quite far away. We concluded that if it is not a priority for the returnee to make time for a fellowship and take the initiative to find and become active in a fellowship, it just will not happen. Another friend involved with returnee work wrote me about the “killer hours” that many businesses require of their workersroughly twelve hours a day. He wrote, “In North America we might think of this kind of schedule as an emergency overtime situation; for Asians it’s a normal work week.” Clearly, these hours make it hard to find time for fellowship or personal Bible study and prayer. At the same time, foreign and Chinese Christians who are involved with fellowships back in China are also overwhelmed themselves, and even if they hear about some returning believers, they may not make the time to follow them up.
  2. Faith/Life Conflict: Living out the Christian life in China is tough! At work, for example, supervisors may not only demand extra hours from the returnee, they may also expect that they would be willing to do immoral or illegal things for the sake of the company. This may mean dishonesty in negotiations or taxes, or perhaps encouragement towards sexual immorality or greed. In the face of this pressure, it is easy to compartmentalize one’s faith as being separate from the “real world,” and this erodes one’s walk with God. Similarly, these stresses and temptations can destroy marriage and family relationships. One Chinese returnee wrote, “I underestimated the situation when someone told me in general terms about this when I was in the U.S. The returnees need specific admonitions on what to avoid and how to live a victorious life.”
  3. Fitting in: This is especially true for those who have lived overseas for a number of years. In one sense, they have always felt that in their hearts they are Chinese, and this is largely still true. However, after learning a new culture and becoming more Westernized, they may not like the Chinese ways of worship, of leadership, of decision making and so on. Imagine a Chinese Ph.D. candidate who, after a period of searching, comes to Christ in the U.S. and becomes a part of a mainland scholars’ fellowship at a local Chinese church. This individual may be used to a level of sophistication and education of believers that will be hard to reproduce back in China. So, a returnee may go to a nearby fellowship and conclude that it is not really an appropriate one for him or her.
  4. Security: Although this area seems to be improving in general, it is still an important factor. Though the Three-Self Churches are legal, they are often crowded and may have other problems. Many house churches are officially illegal gatherings, especially if they have an outward ministry focus. Returnees may hear in the West a somewhat exaggerated version of the level of persecution in China and stay away from fellowships out of fear of this persecution.

The bottom line for returnees facing these difficulties is that too many of them gradually fall away from the Lord after returning to China. Following are some current efforts and suggested areas for improvement to help more returnees find fellowships and continue to walk with the Lord.

Current Efforts

  • Resources and literature: There are many good workbooks and resources for returnees such as Lisa Espineli-Chinn’s Think Home or ISI’s DVD Welcome Home. These are excellent heart preparation resources for returning to China. My informal survey of some international student workers indicates that the three keys to someone having a successful return to his country are: A close walk with the Lord; experiences in service/leadership; and good heart preparation for what is ahead. Churches and international student ministries need to provide environments for the development of these keys as they launch their returnees back to China.
  • Networking: Frequently, I receive emails from international student ministry workers or Chinese church pastors asking me to help a Chinese believer find a fellowship as he/she moves back to China. Multiply this by many other China-focused ministries and churches, and clearly there is a lot of networking going on. Even so, this is admittedly touching only a minority of the crop of believers returning to China. Also, the better the relationships are between the sending groups and the receiving groups, the more likely it is that the returnee will be brought into the local fellowship. International agencies have the potential to broaden the scope of this work, but it all comes down to trust and relationships.

Suggested Areas for Assisting Returnees

  • Paul exhorted the Thessalonian church to, “excel still more.” We need to continue to provide training and resources for our Chinese friends who return home and to connect people to fellowships in China, just as we are doing. However, we also need a shift in our emphasis. Our goal is not just to send believers back and help them get plugged in; rather, can we instill in these returnees a conviction that God is sending them back to China for a purpose? Can we help them to see that they are an important part of God’s plan to turn China to Christ?
  • We need to gather to pray and discuss how God may want to use us to be a blessing to the Chinese church and the returnees God sends back to China. By “us,” I mean the senders (Chinese churches, international student agencies) and the receivers (international agencies in China, Chinese church representatives) and even returnees themselves. Several agencies involved in Chinese student ministries are teaming up to discuss the issues involved with Chinese students returning to their country. I strongly believe that God has already raised up the resources and structures to allow for good communication of information about returnees to get back to fellowships in China. He has blessed many of our agencies with resources to set up safe communication channels. So, we should be able to increase greatly the percentage of successful handoffs of returnees to fellowships in China.
  • We should develop some structure to coordinate the efforts of our various ministries. If we do this, more senders would know how to connect their Chinese believers with fellowships in China through safe and trusted channels. Even if we do this, however, we need some kind of “filter” so that we send only the information of the most solid believers through this method, at least at first. As the receiving fellowships/ministries in China have time allocation and security concerns, we need to send the information of those who are the most likely to become leaders in the ministry, not just members. We need to establish that referrals they receive from senders are worth their attention and can influence their entire ministry.
  • We need to pray for wisdom. There are so many unknowns involved with this, and we do not want to jeopardize any indigenous fellowships. We need God’s direction and wisdom.
  • There must be commitment levels for each group involved.

Senders: Many are called to cities or universities, and the priority is to reach out to the Chinese intellectuals in these places. We need to be committed to provide the best encouragement and exhortation for returnees before they get on the plane and then to follow through with them after they return to China.

Returnees: These must be the most committed of all to their spiritual health upon their return to China. They must be committed to finding a fellowshipeven though they are busy and even if the first few fellowships they encounter are not what they are looking for. Hebrews 10:24-25 needs to be etched upon their hearts.

Receivers: The laborers in-country need to be committed to following-up the returnees in a timely manner. Yes, these individuals are busy. However, returning Christians can be effective witnesses and communicators, they can be donors who have a vision for the ministry, and they can be cross-cultural bridges that can help make the whole ministry more effective. We need to let the in-country laborers see different returnees who have become coworkers at some level so that they can understand that they are mobilizing potential ministry leadersnot just bringing another person into their lives that they will have to care for.

Around the time of the American Revolution, there was a flag with several disconnected pieces of a rattlesnake on it. Each piece had the name of a state of the nascent U.S. The motto on the flag read, “Unite or die.” The obvious point was that if the states could unite, they could be powerfulbut if they could not, they would all die. We can make a difference in the spiritual lives of many China returnees if we can find a way to integrate our networks in a safe, timely fashion.

Note: If you are interested in networking for the purpose of following up on returnees, please email:

*Names and places have been changed to protect the people and ministries involved.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published as “The Challenge of Returning Chinese Scholars” in the ChinaSource Quarterly, Winter 2009.

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Jeff Mennen

Jeff Mennen served in China for nine years and continues to work with Chinese international students who are in the US. His favorite activity is helping returnees successfully connect with other brothers and sisters back in China upon their return.View Full Bio