My mind goes back a few years ago to an auditorium in a country neighboring China. I was present at a six-day China Youth Mission Conference attended by 1200 students, young adults, church leaders from China, and invited guests. On the last evening of the conference, when the lead pastors made the altar call for missions, I saw young people stepping out from their comfortable seats and coming to the stage, one after another. It was like streams flowing from every section of the auditorium, converging to form a river, and then a sea. As the conference organizer, I was so excited to see youth being mobilized, through this event, for the future of the mission movement.
Yet, it is not just about the future. The mission force has already emerged through student ministry within and without China. Although this was the first initiative by Chinese churches to organize a youth mission conference, particularly for students and young adults, the long existing impact of student ministry has already contributed to China’s mission movement.
On the stage, there was Renai,1 who shared her testimony of serving in Central Asia with a well-known campus ministry. Renai is the fruit of that ministry and had served on its staff for a few years before going to Central Asia. She represents one of many young, Chinese missionaries who have been well trained in campus ministry and continue to serve in campus ministry overseas.
There was also Du Liang, a minority student, who caught the vision for mission through a local student ministry and decided to serve as a teacher for another minority group.
Yanwei was a volunteer on the conference logistic team as she had already spent one year in the country where it was held and could communicate well in the local language. Yanwei had gone there as an intern for two years with an international agency that intentionally trained fresh graduates to serve overseas. This kind of internship provides cross-cultural experience and shapes an intern’s understanding of mission that has a life-long impact. Like many other participants, Yanwei decided to stay on for long-term service after the mission conference.
On the conference planning team, there was Xi Le who came from one of the student ministries that is more influenced by national churches. Xi Le was on staff with a pioneering, local, student ministry in the mid-2000s. There she caught the vision for world missions and was later sent by her mother church to work in Africa.
Last, but not least, are Linyu and Anmei who were both plenary and workshop speakers; they are fruit of student ministry from other parts of the world. Both Linyu and Anmei became believers when they were studying overseas as international students. Among their peers, many were willing to go back to China as returnees to serve in ministry. Yet God also called people like Linyu and Anmei who were willing to serve in other countries and with other people groups.
In all their stories, catching the vision for missions or serving in missions through student ministry is a common theme, just like what we have heard from other parts of the world. Expanding vision for mission is a key element in student ministry. Whether it is through independent campus ministries, local church-initiated ministries, international agencies, or overseas Chinese student ministries, focusing on the next generation will require continually introducing the mission aspect of faith practice. All these different streams eventually contribute to the wider mission movement from China.
A few years have now passed since that first China Youth Mission Conference. What has happened to those young people who stepped forward at the altar call and committed themselves to God’s mission? Some have started their cross-cultural internships. Some, after a few short-term trips, are now working on a theological degree and preparing for long-term service. Some are now serving in local mission agencies, and they continue to mobilize and draw people closer to God’s heart for missions.
This conference is just one of many mobilization events happening in China today through which young peoples’ hearts are being touched and stirred. Yet, from the day they sincerely commit themselves to missions, they start an uneasy journey in the context of today’s China.
As different groups try to follow up with these young people, we notice some significant challenges. There are not enough follow-up efforts or mission fellowships to sustain their passion. Mission conferences are onetime mobilization events. With the limited capacity of hosting large youth mission conferences in China’s context, only select students and graduates have had the chance to participate in such an event. Many young people left those conferences with a great passion for missions, yet afterwards found few people to share their passion with or to join them in taking action in missions. Mission mobilization and mission education are still far from routine activities in the agenda of a church or student ministry.
It is widely understood that from the day they make their commitment, it may take a few years for young people to actually get to the mission field. Who can be responsible to do missional discipleship along the way and make sure that these young people are growing in the spiritual disciplines that will prepare them for cross-cultural missions? Most local churches and student fellowships do not have the capacity to give full attention to these young people and help them grow in understanding missions. At the same time, mission organizations are not yet in a place to journey with such young people.
Family expectations and the pressure to get married are among the most significant day-to-day issues facing young people when they think about missions. In the end, if they discern that “going to the mission field” may not be God’s calling for their life (or not at this stage of life), but they are willing to be part of God’s grand mission, what can they do? There are no easy answers to these challenges. Many more mentors are needed to help develop these young people as they journey toward missions.
Another question to consider is: “How are these young people going to be sent out and supported”? Many of them were discipled and caught the vision for missions when they were at university, often far away from their home. For those who grew up in small rural churches, it is almost impossible to expect that their home churches will have the same vision for missions as they do or be willing to support them prayerfully and financially. Some churches would also expect that if these young people, who have had more training in the city, really want to serve the Lord, they would go back to serve their home congregations. At the same time, many young people will not have established strong relationships with a local urban church during their college years since most of their time will have been spent in a student fellowship. There is a gap that needs to be addressed for deeper relationships and support systems as they transition into the local church after graduation.
These challenges can be seen anywhere in the world, but they are seen more often in China. Most churches have not established any organized structure to support missionaries, let alone support a newcomer who is a fresh graduate. Other than the well-known, established, campus ministries that have a much longer history of support staff, some local student fellowships have tried to send and support fresh graduates with the support of their alumni. Such models are still being tested as they consider the supervision, financial sustainability, and member care needs (especially for reentry) that must be addressed without a specific mission department that focuses on such matters for the long term.
One other challenge is the limited experience that most young people have in both life and ministry. Like in a typical Chinese family where youth only need to focus on their studies and do not need to take on much family responsibility, in most traditional church settings the young people are carefully “protected” and are not given much opportunity to serve. A lack of life experience limits the ability of these young people to adjust and survive well on the cross-cultural mission field. For example, it is frequently reported that young interns only start learning how to cook when they get to the field—and many of them struggle. As they grew up, all their meals were taken care of. At the university, they either had meals at the campus canteen or easily had food delivered. These amenities are nowhere to be found in the country where they serve.
In addition to cross-cultural challenges, a lack of ministry experience limits their full engagement in serving the local communities. It is definitely hard for young people to move forward in cross-cultural missions without gaining certain experiences in their home setting first. In a culture that does not really encourage innovation and adventure, young people in China are not given much leeway to explore missions as are those in the West. Young people need to be given more opportunities for service at home in order to prepare them for the mission field.
Despite these challenges, the passion for missions continues to grow among young people. In the summer of 2020, the second China Youth Mission Conference was held as an online event during the pandemic. Quite a few alumni from the first conference came to serve on the planning team and brought in new perspectives. The highlight of the event was the participating small groups giving reports of the mission projects they had completed during a two-day practicum. Some studied the history of missions in their own church; some researched the working conditions of city cleaners; others interviewed Muslim restaurant owners and recorded their daily work routines. The presentations spoke loudly of what God had put on their hearts for his glory in this generation. We anticipate with great optimism that the stories of the Haystack Prayer Meeting and the Student Volunteer Movement will be repeated in China. Perhaps they already are!
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on July 16, 2021 to correct an inaccuracy.