View From the Wall

Returnee Ministry at Home and Abroad

On the heels of China’s 1970s Reform and Open Policy, Chinese students have joined the ranks of those studying abroad in increasing numbers. The earliest group was primarily self-supporting. In the mid-90s, the China Scholarship Council (CSC) strengthened its financial support of students and scholars who study overseas which has led to their yearly surge. Among these have been government-funded students, visiting scholars, and exchange students. Now in the twenty-first century, more and more high school students are joining the ranks as young, overseas students. The study-abroad student population is now diverse and increasing dramatically. The annual number of overseas students quadrupled over ten years and reached 523,700 in 2015.[1]

In recent years, the number of Chinese students returning home has increased with the developing Chinese economy, China’s progress in meeting international standards, Western countries’ financial crises and immigration policy reforms, and other factors. The number of returnees was 364,800 in 2014, an increase of 40 times in fifteen years. The total number of study-abroad returnees has reached 1,800,960 which is 74.48% of the entire study-abroad student population since the Reform and Open Policy.[2]

Christian Returnees: A People Easily Lost

Thanks be to God that many overseas churches and organizations have recognized the tidal wave of returning Chinese students. They have responded to God’s call and become greatly involved in the gospel work among these students. While overseas, a considerable number of Chinese students and scholars have been exposed to the gospel, believed in Jesus and followed him. Those of us who are working with returnees believe a significant percentage of the overseas students return as new Christians. So currently, while exact numbers are unavailable, it is reasonable to assume that thousands of these Christian students and scholars return to China annually—a number and group not to be ignored. Based on our past six years’ experience of serving returnees within the country, however, we regret to find that at least 75% do not have a consistent spiritual life, and many have fallen away.

The reasons for losing Christian returnees are many. First, they face the challenges of reverse culture shock and the myriad of problems encountered in living in their homeland such as environmental pollution, food safety, housing shortages and exorbitant housing costs, traffic problems, difficulties in seeking medical help, problems in finding a mate and job, work pressures, children’s state registry/education, and others. Furthermore, it is usually difficult for Christian returnees to find a church and become part of it. There is also political pressure: fear of making their Christian identity public, objections from unbelieving family members, “spiritual homesickness,” and various spiritual “acclimatization” issues—all exacerbated by the Chinese political system.

However, the core reason for losing Christian returnees is their own weak spiritual faith. Most of these Christians are perhaps new believers or newly baptized and are merely believers—not disciples; their lives have not been transformed. They are still arrogant, judgmental, uncommitted, insensitive to sin, and lacking a sense of mission.

Returnee Ministry: Domestic Strategy

We believe that appropriate preparation, linkages, and reliable support in their transition will effectively help Christian returnees maintain a consistent spiritual walk and attain spiritual growth as well as bless the churches and society in China.

Whether Christian returnees thrive or languish depends on three relationships in their lives: their relationship with God, with the church, and with other Christians around them (networks). From their inner to outward being, these three relationships form a unified “spiritual community.” The nucleus at which all decisions are made is the relationship with God. Next is the involvement with the church. If Christians have good relationships in these two areas, their spiritual ties are strong. The third relationship is an outward expression of the previous two that work together to give an abundant life. Many Christian returnees, following their return, have not established a strong relationship with God or with the church; thus they have to greatly rely on their overseas network or other local relationships which is a rather alarming situation.

Finding a church is the most important issue for Christian returnees. For many of them, the existing house church structure, especially those of the emerging urban church, is a good choice.  At the same time, they need a multi-channel, diversified church base such as international churches, returnee (primary attendees) churches, or traditional house churches. Over the past six years, we have been committed to establishing and improving the internal church network. Our goal is to have a network for connecting returnee-friendly churches with returnees in first-, second-, third- and even fourth-tier cities.[3]

Seeing returnees integrated into a church is a challenge for returnee ministry in China and depends on both the returnees’ efforts and initiatives from local churches and their pastors. Helping local churches, especially the pastors, see the returnees’ limitations and needs and accept the challenges of pluralism in the development of the church is key—along with having a kingdom strategy for returnee ministry. Relentless communication of vision and wonderful testimonies by returnees are a means to that end, but most crucial is God’s guidance. Some local pastors feel that the church, as it tries to welcome returnees, should set up a contact person and establish special ministries within the church, introduce the new returnees to the pastors and elders who meet with and welcome them, encourage them to participate in “returnee activities,” and actively support ministries undertaken by returnee ministry organizations.”[4]

Returnees who are not yet rooted in church networks require a lot of companionship, encouragement, and guidance. Returnee ministry plays a key role at this stage. A multifaceted returnee ministry aims at meeting these needs and includes organizing a welcome party, providing a returnee salon, facilitating peer support, setting up professional small groups as well as building a returnee network in different cities. This type of work requires the participation and involvement of a great number of coworkers.

Returnee ministry also needs to strategically identify and cultivate future leaders from among the large Christian returnee population being served as well as instill in them a sense of mission. Not only are leaders the foundation for future returnee ministry, but they are blessings to the Chinese churches as well.

Returnee Ministry: Overseas Strategy

In returnee ministry, involvement of overseas churches and organizations is essential. The diligent work of local churches and returnee ministry at the broken link or end of the “production chain” cannot fundamentally resolve the returnee’s “quality” problem. Unfortunately, returnees’ churches and institutions overseas have not been aware of this for years. To a certain extent, they have overly depended on the returnee ministries and local church in China. Some North American pastors feel that as the church in the United States has not solved the problem of losing believers, how can one hope that the church in China will solve it?[5]

The returnee problem should be addressed at its root when the gospel is shared with international students and in discipleship training. Prevention is far better than remediation. Overseas churches and organizations need to clearly and thoroughly communicate a holistic gospel to international students and scholars, help them establish a firm spiritual foundation after leading them to Christ, and systematically prepare them to face the challenge of contextualization upon return to their country. They should assist them in transitioning and making contacts with local churches, maintain contact with them for a while to care for and provide companionship after their return, and urge them to find and become involved in a local church. These are ways to address the returnee problem effectively and efficiently, but they require significant investment on the part of the overseas churches and organizations in collaboration with the mainland churches and especially with returnee ministry organizations. 

A Standard of Procedure (SOP) of Christian recommendations, referrals, and follow-up, along with a feedback process is important in facing the surge in the population of returnees being served and in seeking sustainable ministries. It requires collaboration between domestic and, particularly, overseas churches and organizations.

Returnee Ministry: Kingdom Vision

Returnee ministry is not just an extension of the gospel work overseas but more a kingdom vision. Due to their educational background, professional knowledge and skills, cross-cultural experiences, overseas contacts, language proficiency, and other advantages, Christian returnees can foster a multifaceted development in Chinese churches, extend the reach of the gospel into Chinese society and become a significant force in global evangelism.

Serving Christian returnees needs concerted cooperation among overseas and domestic churches and institutions. Returnee ministry in China is still in its exploratory and growing stage. Its continuing development requires still more involvement from members of the church body and support from internal churches as well as overseas churches and organizations.

Translated by Ping Ng.

Image credit: England, Yorkshire, York – April 2015 by Peter Dunne via Flickr. 
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Lydia Song

Lydia Song (pen name) lived and studied in the US for six-and-a-half years. While there she became a believer in Jesus Christ. She returned to China in 2000. In 2010 she responded to God’s call to serve in returnee ministry and now lives in Beijing with her husband and two …View Full Bio