The issue of reentry is a sensitive subject for Christian Chinese students and scholars who return home following time spent outside of their country. Only a national currently living in his country, or one who is thoroughly committed to returning home, has the right and the credibility to call a fellow international to join him in returning. While it is not our role to try and make this decision for them, we can help prepare them for this challenge. If we desire to see internationals prepared to reenter their home countries as solid, effective Christians, I am convinced there must be a paradigm shift in the way we view and work with internationals here. There are five foundational ministry concepts that I believe are significant.
We need to “think reentry” from the first day we meet internationals. Reentry needs to influence everything we do in evangelism and discipleship as well as in the final stages of reentry preparation. To be able to “think reentry,” we must first clearly understand our own worldview—the cultural lenses through which we see and evaluate the world. It is critical that we remember that our own culture is not the standard by which China, or any other country, is to be measured. By holding our own culture up to the measuring stick of the biblical standard, we confront our own cultural idolatry. Until we begin to relinquish that idolatry, it is difficult for us to truly understand and appreciate another culture, let alone help someone think through how to function in it as a Christian. As we consider evangelism, unless we recognize that our evangelistic tools may be culture-bound, we cannot hope to help internationals think through contextualized evangelism within their culture.
Internationals’ views of our attitudes toward them have a radical impact on reentry. Our attitudes toward internationals need to reflect the changes in today’s world. Two critical areas are changes in the new generation of students and changes in the Christian world. Many who have been in ministry to internationals over the years have found themselves surprised—and not a little intimidated—by the new generation of students coming to our universities. As a result of modernization and globalization, these students are often sophisticated, technologically savvy, and more ambitious than internationals of the past. Unlike previous students who were comfortable in ongoing care-giving ministries, these students are very sensitive to relationships that they may perceive as unequal.
Changes in the Christian world are immediately clear; the church is moving south and east while declining in the West. The world to which we once took the gospel is now clearly in a position to come back to help us.
Understanding the changes in international students and in God’s working in the world must shape our attitudes towards internationals. The growth and maturity of the global church, together with cultural affinity, make Christian internationals on our turf far better equipped to reach their own people than we are.
Our commitment to partnership with internationals is a critical factor in adequate preparation for reentry. I am indebted to Chinese Christian nationals who are my cultural informants. From them I have begun to understand the prevailing pragmatism of Chinese scholars who consider discussions about issues such as truth, human rights, and sinfulness far too abstract. Rather, they see God in the same way they would any other god—as someone to manipulate to get what they want. If we do not understand this cultural way they view god, our incorrect assumptions about their motivation for knowing God can have significant implications upon their return to China.
Equal partnerships between Westerners and Chinese nationals can help alleviate some of these misunderstandings. When our partnerships involve internationals in a context where Christianity is modeled in their own cultural style, the very real danger that hampers reentry—the taking on of so much of Western Christian culture—is lessened. Because partners from other cultures understand things about their culture that we can never hope to, partnership makes sense.
Why do we not make developing these partnerships a top priority? I believe that the fear of losing our role in ministry—of losing power and control—is often at the heart of the matter. I wonder if, subconsciously, we believe we can do things better than internationals, talking about partnership but still seeing ourselves as “in charge” and internationals as “helpers.” I am convinced that pursuing partnerships of mutual respect, equality and honor will bear fruit greater than anything we could imagine.
Leadership development that involves Christian internationals as equal partners is irreplaceable reentry preparation. I have never forgotten the words of an African brother who said, “You Americans are always telling us that we should go home to our countries with the gospel, but rarely do you give us the leadership experiences and testings in ministry that would help us believe we have the gifts and skills to face such a calling confidently.”
We also have a difficult time serving internationals because we do not want to let go of our need to lead. We may have many excuses for not letting internationals lead; however, if we truly desire to be servants, we will give up our need to lead and make room for them to learn.
The international fellowship is the ministry structure that best prepares internationals for reentry. A Taiwanese graduate student, who had been a Christian most of her life, recounted that she had often asked to help lead a Bible study in the Christian group she was a part of but was refused. She felt the Americans who always led the studies thought she had nothing to offer. International fellowships, on the other hand, offer a place where internationals can belong without being made to feel like curiosities. They offer a place where internationals can learn—in fact, are expected—to lead. They offer a place where internationals can give and receive mutual support.
The more we understand the university and its impact on internationals, the more our understanding of the value of these fellowships in providing community for international students and scholars grows. Thousands of internationals currently experience a lack of community on university campuses. The need for community, especially for this new generation of internationals, is best met through international fellowships.
International fellowships provide an invaluable opportunity for cultural blindnesses to be brought to light through interaction with other cultures. Every culture has its strengths and weaknesses, and what may be seen as strength in one may be thought to be weakness in another. Growth comes as blind spots are worked through in interpersonal relationships. As understanding comes, internationals from each culture are better able to appropriately and authoritatively address those issues within their own culture.
Several months ago I sat in a Mandarin Bible study and listened to a Mainland Chinese leader: “We Chinese never think about whether or not a leader deserves our obedience. Rather than cause a problem by disagreeing, we simply follow. However, only God really deserves that kind of obedience. First we must obey him and after that we can obey man.” Here, from a Mainland Chinese, was truth spoken very directly in a culture that often chooses more indirect communication—a right he had in speaking to those of his own culture.
Chinese students who returned to their homeland have made their mark repeatedly in recent Chinese history. Many of the current generation studying abroad may be expected to do the same. Our ability to partner with them now will help determine what sort of mark they leave on China’s future when they return.