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Ministry Among Minority Students

In 1921, Shu Qingchun started attending English evening classes at the London Missionary Society West City New Church (Gangwashi) in Beijing. These classes were part of a program of activities supporting the poor and disadvantaged Manchu residents in that area. Before 1912 the Manchu minority were the ruling people in China. Now, in the capital, they were often destitute. Those in other parts of the country were despised and occasionally faced violent attacks. The pastor, Bao Guanglin, took Shu under his wing, and a year later Shu was baptized. Soon after this he was recommended for a teaching position in London where he wrote his first novels. Little did he know that the pen name he chose then would become one of the best-known names in twentieth century Chinese literature: Lao She (老舍).

The account of the young Manchu Lao She coming to faith in Beijing a century ago is instructive for ministry among minority students today. Interestingly, it shows that minority student ministry is not new, having a history of at least a hundred years, and that similar methods of outreach (English classes) were used then as now. More importantly though, it illustrates at least three insights that we should remember as we reach out to minority students:

    1. the typical context of minority student ministry: that of the students’ relative poverty and facing discrimination,
    2. a methodological key: that of long-term compassionate engagement,
    3. a necessary attitude: that of seeing students through God’s eyes, eager to see them discerning God’s calling on their lives and living it out.

Poverty and Marginalization

The areas in China where most minority peoples live, the Northwest and Southwest, are generally poor. One area with many Hui Muslims in southern Ningxia, Xihaigu (西海固) has been a byword for aridity, poverty, and suffering for centuries.1 The Tibetans live in the highest and most hostile plateau in the world with many obstacles to economic development. It is often difficult to recognize minorities living in more coastal areas of the country since their clothing and culture have become almost indistinguishable from the majority Han people. However, in more mountainous, northern or western areas, minorities have often been able to retain their distinctive dress, language, traditions and religion. The most prominent examples of these would be the Tibetans, Mongolians, and Turkic language speakers such as Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyzs. Many of these students come from agricultural or sheep/cattle rearing backgrounds with few educational resources. At the best of times, they face significant challenges to get into university; more often, they face discrimination in schools and especially in the workplace. Recent media reports have highlighted the painful plight of Uyghurs. Other minorities are facing similar issues (especially Tibetan, Kazakh, Mongolian and Hui), but their stories have not been so widely disseminated.

Need for Long-term Relationships

The general impression of minorities as being different from Han (even exotic), but poor and needy, has attracted all kinds of mission outreach activities. Short-term mission trips (previously from overseas, now increasingly from more coastal areas domestically), sponsorship programs, and longer-term stays are just some of these activities. Where short-term trips have continued year after year to the same cities, and where sponsorship programs have been combined with regular family visits and vacation tuition programs, these activities have often borne fruit. Individuals have come to faith and fellowships have been established even in Qinghai, Tibet and Xinjiang. However, an unfortunate tendency is for visits to be just one time or for sponsorship programs to be only about money.

As the Chinese government promotes the pairing of richer and poorer provinces, highlighting stories of rich, resourceful outsiders being givers and poor locals being receivers, mission activities may fall into the same narrative. Because the poverty and lack of resources is so obvious, even long-term Christian workers can think that they know what needs to be done and how the locals need to change. Money is brought in, along with trainers and handbooks. The locals may see outsiders merely in terms of what they can bring economically (this is less the case for local missionaries, since their lifestyles tend to be closer to that of their students). The locals lack the confidence to challenge the outsiders when training is not contextually appropriate. What is needed is real relationship with the outsider showing that he/she is genuinely interested in hearing what the local has to say.

This is where language learning is key. Even though university students are all able to function in Chinese, they open up at a whole new level when they see that you know their heart language. Generally, we have found that foreign, long-term workers are more willing to put in the time to learn minority languages. Perhaps because they feel they can function with Chinese, only a few Chinese, long-term workers pick up enough of the parent language to engage minority students in their heart languages.

The need for long-term, in-depth, heart-to-heart relationships is even greater for adherents to the “whole person” religions of Tibetan Buddhism and Islam. For these students, even if they do not seem to be particularly religious or even know much about their religion, it is an identity that cannot easily be given up. This is a major difference from ministering with Han Chinese, and one that is often neglected by both foreigners and mainland workers who are used to working with Han Chinese students. We have often heard about foreign mission organizations or mainland churches remarking that evangelism and growth in Tibetan and Muslim areas is very slow. Sadly, the response of these agencies and churches is often to move workers to where they can be more “productive” or even to blame the cross-cultural workers for the lack of fruit.

Seeing Students through God’s Perspective

Children in poor minority areas are continually being exhorted to work hard so that they can get into better schools and escape poverty. Primary school children in rural parts of Tibet and Xinjiang are encouraged to study hard so they can get into special “Tibet classes” or “Xinjiang classes” in prestigious high schools in other parts of the country to break away from privation. High school students remaining in poor areas are encouraged to get into universities in the coastal megacities so they can flee poverty.

However, the fact is that the vast majority of students will not be able to “escape” to better pastures and will be forced to stay in their own province for university. For these students, talk of working hard and escaping poverty no longer works. They know that those able to escape left long ago. This “learned helplessness” is often a source of frustration to those ministering to minority students and is compounded by the fatalism of Islam. Common complaints are: “These students are not willing to dream!” or “I don’t know how to motivate them!” After repeatedly trying and failing throughout their academic careers, many students believe that the life they have has been assigned to them and it is pointless to imagine anything else. Sayings such as “God loves you and has an amazing plan for you” do not mean anything to them unless the person who says them has shown appreciation and belief in the students themselves.

One source of frustration when ministering to minority students is their slowness of growth as disciples. This slowness is understandable when considering how they have learned to compartmentalize their lives. Young minority believers have at least three life compartments: the Marxism-affirming, Communist Party-loving life they present in the university; the mosque/temple-going life they present to their families; and the Christ-worshipping life they present to the fellowship they have just joined. It takes time for them to work through what their new faith means for each part of their lives. What often happens, though, is that the student minister is in a rush to see students taking part in what they define as important discipleship activities, whether that is 7am prayer meetings, inductive Bible studies, or evangelizing fellow students. If participation in these activities is used to measure the student’s progress as a disciple, there is a danger of this serving more as a filter of their personality than as actual growth of their love of Christ.

Because of tensions between minority peoples and the Han majority, often with complicated historical roots and many more recent manifestations, foreign and mainland workers tend to see opposite facets of their students’ stories. Foreign workers tend to sympathize with minority students’ feelings of being discriminated against, seeing them as those being sinned against. Students may be attracted by reassurances that God is a God of justice and cares for them. However, there is a danger that the students’ own sinfulness and personal need of salvation through Christ’s work on the cross is downplayed. Mainland workers often see minority students’ plight as their own doing or due to the “backwardness” of Tibetan Buddhist or Muslim culture. Students may be forced into faster repentance and putting away the “old man.” Yet, this creates a danger that the students are left with deep struggles concerning their minority people group identity and an inability to see how Christ can redeem their culture. One solution can be more fellowship between foreign and mainland student workers allowing each to have a more complete picture of how God sees these students.

Minority Christians, especially from Tibetan Buddhist or Muslim backgrounds, are quite rare. They are often fluent in either their minority language (if they went to a minority language-speaking school) or Chinese (if they went to Chinese-speaking school), but not both. Christian students fluent in both their minority language and Chinese often find themselves in great demand and even more so if they speak English as well. Fluent in two or three languages, they are needed to teach language to cross-cultural workers, help translate the Bible and other materials, dub audio-visual evangelistic tools, and interpret for visiting speakers. While all these activities are very meaningful, the focus can end up being the completion of other people’s ministries rather than the spiritual growth of the student or helping him or her to discern God’s calling and equipping them to live out that calling. There has also been a lack of leadership training. In the last two years, following the mass exodus of foreign workers, many student fellowships have been left without leaders and young believers without mentors.


Minority student ministry is a rich combination of fun, challenges, frustration, seeking the Lord for wisdom (and patience and love), praise, and gratitude for being able to partner with the Spirit in this work. We do have many models that have gone ahead of us, inspiring us and giving us confidence, not least that of Bao Guanglin and Lao She a hundred years ago. Bao Guanglin and his church reached out to the poor and marginalized Manchu community, walked alongside Lao She for a season and did not keep him in Gangwashi Church. Bao helped Lao She expand his horizons and facilitated his studies in Yanjing University which in due time led to the teaching invitation in London, and eventually to his becoming one of China’s most prominent Christian novelists.2

We are grateful for the large number of foreign workers who have poured out their lives for minority students, often in very tough environments. We grieve with them as many have recently been forced to leave. At the same time, we are thankful that more and more mainlanders are gaining a heart for minority student ministry. Pray that God will call more long-term workers with compassionate hearts who are committed to language learning. Pray that God will open their eyes to see how he is shaping these students into beautiful creations.


  1. The Hui author, Zhang Chengzhi (张承志), tragically details the history of the Jahriyya Sufi Order in his History of the Soul (心灵史), with the latter part of their story set in Xihaigu. The continual suffering this sect has faced both through violence and the aridity of the land is seen as communal penance, offered up on behalf of humanity.
  2. Lao She’s faith journey is not easy to discern. Some commentators claim that he was a “rice Christian,” drifting away from Christianity soon after arriving in London. However, in Lao She, China’s Master Storyteller, Britt Towery stresses the importance of reading between the lines of Lao She’s apparently cynical treatment of missionaries in his novels. She believes that, in fact, Lao She was describing what Christian living should be like. Wang Ming Dao records in his memoirs that Lao She was in prison with him at one point for the “crime” of listening to his sermon.
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Image credit: Tim Brookings

Nyima Rongwu

Nyima Rongwu (pseudonym) developed a heart for students when teaching secondary students in 1997. Since then, he has been serving in various university fellowships around China. In the past decade he has been mainly in the Northwest part of the country, ministering locally as well as networking with other campus …View Full Bio