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Recent Student Ministry in China

Adapting to Present Realities

Campus ministry in mainland China developed along two tracks: through the work of international organizations, and through Chinese church networks. During the 1990s and the 2000s, one particular international organization played a major role in reaching huge populations on campuses over all the major cities across China. A whole generation of rootless young people with profound longings for ultimate truth encountered the well-trained and quickly growing movement of confrontational evangelism. This resulted in an overwhelming explosion of campus ministry. This evangelical explosion brought many to faith, and it also challenged and equipped many young believers as leaders. In turn, many urban churches greatly benefited, and many more churches were brought into existence.

While this wave of ministry brought great renewal to the church in China, it also led to some long-term impacts on both the church in general and the student evangelical movement in particular. Many churches found it hard to adapt and partner with this movement’s style. The disconnect has been so serious that even some of the churches started by the movement’s graduates and ex-staffers show negative attitudes towards the movement’s philosophy of ministry and even the whole idea of student ministry. These attitudes have become especially pronounced as many of the emerging churches in urban settings are struggling to figure out their theological identity. These tensions increase even more in the area of church politics.

Their obvious task-oriented strategy of evangelism and discipleship, coupled with the high demand for loyalty to the movement itself, also resulted in serious tensions between the movement and local churches. Their high “drop-out” rate after graduation has also long been recognized as a problem. Many graduates found it hard to adjust to a church context that was significantly different from their campus fellowships which had clear “vision” and “mission” as well as structures and mechanisms to achieve them. 

While the ministry of this international organization was happening, many indigenous churches in both urban and rural areas were also deeply moved by their own commitments to the Great Commission, leading them to start indigenous ministries among local students. Even as early as the late 1970s, churches in urban settings restarted small-scale house gatherings. After some church leaders were released from labor camps and prisons, some had a desire to reach the younger generation, especially those youth who had grown up in Christian families. Leaders like Wang Ming Dao, Lin Xian Gao, and Yang Xin Fei lived and served in major cities where there were many young people, including those in newly reopened college campuses.

Gradually the special needs and great potential of students were recognized, and specific groups for ministry to them began within the unregistered urban churches. They inherited many of the Chinese house church traditions, and while they usually started small, some of these groups later became sizable and quite influential.

There were also younger people who grew up in regions like Wenzhou, where local churches not only survived but even thrived through the dark ages of the Cultural Revolution. These young people became Christians and developed a passion for reaching intellectuals. One group started a medical professional fellowship in the 1990s that then started serving among medical students on campus as well as other target groups.

There were Christian students who had been saved while on campus, and then developed a great passion for their fellow students. One particular case led to the formation of a local indigenous student ministry organization which has been serving on campuses in Wenzhou and other places for over thirty years.

Some traditional rural church networks even sent out staff teams to do campus ministry in different cities around the country. After caring for youth in their Sunday School classes, these rural churches sent out campus ministers to go along with these youth to the various universities they attended.

A church-based network of student ministries also developed during this time. It grew very quickly from 2000 to 2010, and it still exists today. Many of its groups tend to focus on the students who have Christian backgrounds.

After so much activity on campus, there has been a decline in campus ministry in China during the last ten years as the whole society has gone through dramatic changes. Looking at the current situation, it seems that the message and strategy which worked so well three decades ago have become dramatically less effective. Today’s younger generation feel much less interested in ideological debates. In a society with more wealth and cultural confidence, the “advanced Western civilization” seems much less appealing. At the same time, the gospel, which is often seen as coming out of that “advanced Western civilization,” starts at a disadvantage in the minds of many young people today.

With China’s fast economic growth and passionate narrative about a bright future, a certain version of the Chinese national dream is surprisingly popular among the contemporary, younger generation. At the same time, the social Darwinian anxiety to be successful is squeezing out their passions for other things. Today, even undergraduate students are worried about their residence registration (hukou 戶口) and their property location (related to school districts which are tied to property ownership). This constant struggle with anxiety among college students was hard to imagine ten years ago.

However, this does not mean the gospel itself is less powerful. We have observed that numerous students who have grown up in local church settings are going back to church after wandering around in their faith while on campuses. Countless seekers are coming to faith after long interactions with believers in daily life settings or through more long-term, interactive styles of seekers’ programs hosted in churches and fellowships. Reflecting these trends are the increasing percentages of second-generation believers in fellowships in most types of campus ministries.

In the past few years, some major churches and church networks in China have started paying attention to student ministry due to a growing passion for global missions. As these churches and networks come to understand that student ministry has historically fueled many great mission movements, they have again placed a major emphasis on campus ministry. My hope is that we discern why we are doing campus ministry and then consider how we can do it for the glory of God.

I have deliberately saved for last the ongoing concerns about political pressures. For many decades, the church in China as a whole and campus ministry in particular has continually dealt with these pressures. But the questions are what such political pressures might take away from the church and why the church should be afraid that their rights might be taken away by an earthly power.

In a social Darwinian society, both individuals and entire people groups and nations are dehumanized in many ways. It is also true that a person can even treat him- or herself in ways deprived of human dignity. Deep down the human mind knows this is never right. There are multiple, competing narratives these days, but there is only one Word Incarnate who lives within and through his people. He is the answer, and his people are to emphatically proclaim that answer through their faithful lifestyle of following in his steps. 

Governments can take away earthly “rights” that Christians feel they possess, but our Lord determined to enter a world full of authorities depriving people of their rights. He called us to follow him, apart from the world, and sent us into this world as his fellow sojourners and witnesses of the real kingdom he has proclaimed. The most critical challenge to the church and to campus ministry is always how deeply we realize and appreciate this kingdom that is already, but not yet manifest, and our citizenship in it.

Today there are many different issues facing Chinese society compared with what previous generations experienced. How the church in China makes the hope of the gospel manifest through our transformed lifestyle is more crucial than ever. An incarnational approach should have an impact on our way of doing theology, our strategy, our practices, and lifestyle. With these ideas in mind, the equipping and empowering of Christian students is critical.

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Image credit: Tim Brookings


CHEN Xin (pseudonym) came to faith on campus at the end of the 1990s. After three years of a master’s degree program in preventive medicine, he moved into full-time campus ministry. He and co-worker started a medical student fellowship while working with an international ministry organization. He later started a …View Full Bio