Supporting Article

Functioning as the Body to Build the Body

Working Together for Chinese Returnees

In many countries, churches in cities with universities have seen students from China profess faith in Christ. Sadly, although some returnees to China settle in churches there and contribute to God’s kingdom, many do not. They encounter challenges including: family and work demands, materialism, lack of Christian contacts, and differences in church experience. Misunderstandings occur too, with their foreign friends, about what each believes. Happily, there are ways to avert misunderstandings and prepare people to overcome challenges. However, individual churches, even individual agencies, cannot usually do this alone. We need the wider body of Christ.

Working Together Helps

Cultural misunderstandings occur both ways. Non-Chinese friends can misinterpret positive answers to questions and enthusiastic church attendance as faith, whereas the real motive may be politeness or enjoyment of the church atmosphere. Chinese students can perceive these meetings of kind people to constitute Christianity, and the attention showered on them as blessings from God without understanding what Christ achieved on the cross. As missiologist Brian Stanley said: “Not all conversions to Christianity represent conversions to Christ.”[*] We need help from cultural insiders to identify and avert such misunderstandings.

Networks exist, abroad and in China, to help returnees connect with churches. Christians abroad who disciple new Chinese believers can search these out and seek contacts for returnees. Also, those with contacts in China can contribute to networks; we may know someone in a city where there is great need.

Few churches outside China understand the Chinese church, workplace, and family. Ideas about the church in China are often out of date. Those with China experience, including returnees, can cooperate to help prepare returnees for the reality of Christian life in China. Although it is initially daunting when we identify gaps in our preparation of returnees, it is thrilling to see fruit when gaps are filled because people, churches, and agencies work together.

Example 1: Agencies working together

The staff of Agency A had a vision for improving returnee preparation by running retreats for returnees prior to their leaving. They also wanted to establish mentoring relationships with the returnees between the retreats and their returns. This would make the returnees aware of the challenges, give them a vision for building God’s kingdom in China, and start them praying about these things before returning.

Immediately, it was apparent that while the team from Agency A had many gifts, they lacked others. Several team members had lived in China and spoke Chinese; others had researched Chinese returnees; all had experience discipling Chinese students. However, they lacked mainland Chinese staff with personal insight into students’ thinking. So, they asked two mainland Chinese workers from Chinese Agency B to lead sessions, and they also involved former returnees via Skype.

Even with these additions and good feedback from the first retreat, there were still issues to address. Participant numbers were low; the planning team lacked mainland Chinese as well as personnel under 40 who could really share perspective with the students. In addition, Chinese Agency B had grown and gone through significant changes recently. We needed to talk!

Representatives met and agreed to pilot a retreat together. However, some things needed clarifying first. Each agency needed to get up-to-date with the other’s current vision and work. Agency B now had a greater focus on mainland students. In addition, the number of those attending their evangelistic and Bible-training camps and doing more in-depth service was greater than Agency A had realized. Likewise, Agency B leaders needed to hear what was on Agency A’s heart and understand the discipleship gap they perceived.

The outcome was the best retreat so far. Participation of Agency B Chinese staff in planning, leadership, and support contributed greatly, as did their facility with its Chinese atmosphere, bookshop, and food!

Still, most new Chinese Christians are in cities where the team lacks contacts. Most of the previous participants had been from cities that team members had visited in the past, getting to know local workers and raising awareness of Chinese returnee issues. However, a Christian international student organization, Agency C, has staff countrywide. The team hope to deepen their relationship with Agency C’s workers—gatekeepers to many more who would benefit from the retreats and preparation.

Example 2: Churches working in partnership

I know a British church with a Mandarin-speaking congregation that is blessed with gifted people who can provide China-focussed preparation and impart to students a vision of the global nature of God’s mission. However, they are unusual, and even they do not go it alone. They build partnerships with returnees and churches in China; they visit China and receive visitors from China thus helping their ministry remain appropriate for returnees.

Few churches, though, have the resources they have. In 2005 my own church tried a different approach. Being in a city with many mainland Chinese students, we had many church members welcoming international students into their homes. Chinese made up the majority who joined international student social activities. They also filled most of the seats at a weekly evangelistic Bible overview. We had volunteers who could teach Chinese students the Bible in small groups or on a one-to-one basis. However, only two of our volunteers could teach the Bible and speak Mandarin, and they had day-time jobs that kept them busy as well.

In 2001 and 2004, I had visited China and had seen the challenges that returnees who are new believers face. Both British and American student ministry colleagues were observing the same thing: the large numbers of Chinese students found in churches abroad were not translating into large numbers of returnees in churches in China.

A dialogue occurred between my church and Chinese Agency B, which resulted in their sending us a trained mainland Chinese worker, Hope. This was an experiment: Hope was not coming to the local Chinese church; she was coming to work with local British churches which attracted many Chinese. Crucially, she has been given freedom by these churches. The Mandarin-speaking fellowship she leads is promoted and prayed for by these churches, while Agency B provides access to its specialized resources.

This relationship has greatly benefitted us as well as the Chinese who return; that became clear on subsequent visits to China. Now, while not all those returning to China commit to churches and persevere, many more do so than previously. Hope, with her language ability, cultural insights, and access to specialized colleagues and resources, can offer a depth of discipleship that we alone cannot. Likewise, she alone cannot build all the relationships that our church members can. Nor can she alone provide the international mission focus and sustained expository Bible teaching that a large university church can. We complement each other.

Students can meet her and other Chinese Christians and, in their own language, freely discuss what they heard in the British church; they have someone who understands them and can present the Bible in a way which connects more deeply with their lives. These meetings are also opportunities for people brought up in one-child families to practise serving “brothers and sisters.”

Example 3: Individuals working together

Recently, within a church context, Hope and I did training for people who meet non-Christian mainland Chinese. They wanted to understand Chinese people better and know how to avoid typical misunderstandings which arise when non-Chinese share Christ with Chinese.

Working together occurred in two ways. First, we two trainers were affiliated with different agencies and were of different nationalities. Second, we invited Chinese Christians to join the British Christians for whom the training was originally intended. We felt that the Chinese would benefit from our input and that their contribution to group discussions would help their British friends—and it did.

Hope and I knew everyone would benefit from her cultural insights and experience. But the cultural insights were not only from Chinese to British. During our planning meetings, Hope commented on the usefulness of insights that I brought as a cultural outsider. Having worked with Chinese, visited returnees, and researched Chinese culture, I had observed things which had passed her by; sometimes we do not question things about our own culture. I asked her questions like: “I observed people doing x; my reading about differences between British and Chinese cultures suggests that they may do x because of y. Do you think that is really the case?”We shared the teaching because we brought different insights.

Example 4: Working together internationally

Can agencies outside China cooperate better with each other and with those serving returnees inside China? Could others in China, with suitable church contacts there, liaise with Chinese in China who lead receiving networks? Together they may be able to support those key returnees who act as contacts for new returnees, by encouraging them and helping them find returnee-friendly churches.

Those of us in countries which have an agency specifically developing contacts with churches in China to connect with returnees could support those agencies better. Those visiting China regularly could help by liaising with such agencies beforehand, to ascertain which Chinese cities lack good contacts, then identifying and sharing our contacts with them.

Could we share other resources more? Recently, efforts to build a website for those working with Chinese returnees stalled because of a lack of expert technical help and shared resources.

Why People Do Not Work Together

We can be blind to gaps in our ministry. Sometimes this is because we emphasize evangelistic activities but do not really make disciples, let alone consider what it means to follow Christ in a different socio-cultural and church context. Sometimes it is because we do not follow up on Chinese students after they go home. The Apostle Paul kept in touch by writing and visiting (for example, he revisited Lystra and Pisidian Antioch). Visiting returnees can be a real catalyst for change in the visitor’s ministry. Witnessing the challenges they face, or observing how misunderstandings about Christianity have led to disappointment, helps us identify what we need to do differently.

Others of us know we need help in working with returnees but are unaware help is available. Finding help could start with a simple email to an agency or international student worker, asking, “Who knows about helping Chinese returnees?”

We may hear of a course for returnees, but are nervous because we do not know the organizers and are unsure they hold the same beliefs as we do. We rightly feel responsibility towards Chinese who come to Christ in our church. We can identify our concerns and talk to the organizers; it may be that our concerns are unfounded, based on misunderstandings, false assumptions, or out-of-date information.

Occasionally churches have a policy of only using internal resources. Church leaders might review whether that policy is best for the Chinese students in their midst, or indeed for any cultural group in their church. Does long term fruit from their ministry confirm that they really have all necessary resources internally, or do they lack something? “For the body does not consist of one member but of many…. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (1 Corinthians 12:14, 21)

Working with people from other organizations or churches, with ways (or cultures) different from ours, is not always easy, but that in itself can contribute to the refining of the individuals involved and the services they offer: “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17) We “…are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:22)

A Concluding Story

Some student workers in Britain sent new believer, Jing, to a retreat for returnees to China. They did not know much about it so they asked the organizers questions first. At the end of her university course, Jing’s UK church asked her to stay a few months to help with their student ministry. The church worked in partnership with an organization that gave Jing specialist supervision.

After returning to China briefly, Jing came back to another British city for PhD studies. She continued working one day a week for her previous church, training a team to help Chinese students prepare for return. She has a mentor, from a second organization, who specializes in returnees to China. Jing recently took team members to China to visit returnees and learn about China, liaising with a hosting church in China that provided learning opportunities.

God is working in Jing’s father, who recently visited her in Britain. Lacking suitable Mandarin-speaking Christian support, she prayed and sought help. A British friend led her father in an initial prayer of commitment but staff workers from Chinese Agency B are visiting to help him move forward. Everyone involved recognized their limitations and sought help.

Jing’s story illustrates well the value of working together. Her church looked to workers of an international student ministry for help with international student outreach, and later with supervising Jing. Those workers in turn looked to an agency specializing in return to China to help Jing prepare. Then Jing, the workers and her church together sought partnership with returnees and a church in China, to equip her UK church team.  Jing herself has clearly learned the value of partnership: when an Iranian student turned to Christ recently she identified that her church and organization lacked the knowledge to prepare him to return to Iran. With their agreement, she found and contacted an Iranian organization to work alongside them. Working in partnership can be catching!

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Debbie (pen name) lives in the UK and did her doctoral research on Chinese students. She has been involved with students from China for 20 years and has visited many returnees. Affiliated with two organizations which support the British church in this work, she liaises with others, raises awareness of …View Full Bio