Supporting Article

The Church’s Role with Returnees from China


It takes time for a Westerner to adapt to living in China. Learning the language is an arduous task. Chinese food is fantastic, but it takes time to appreciate the breadth of Chinese cuisine. The crowdedness of Chinese public spaces and the complexity of China’s collective society challenge the individualized culture the Westerner is accustomed to. But for those who choose to live in China for a significant period of time, adaptation happens, and what is more, one frequently grows deeply attached to the Chinese culture and people. 

What often catches people off guard is that, after returning to resettle in their passport country having lived in China for an extended period of time, the degree of difficulty in readapting can be as great as the original transition to China. Adapting to China was difficult, but the enthusiasm and novelty of the country provided energy and focus that made adaptation tolerable. Every day was a challenge and an opportunity to grow in understanding and cultural competence. 

Returning to one’s original country, on the other hand, seems like it should be easy. After all, one is returning to a place where one once thrived. How can it be so difficult? The language and culture are familiar. One is often returning to a location where family and friends reside. It seems as if after unpacking and taking a few weeks to settle in, one should be “home,” and able to resume life. Why is this experience actually quite rare? This paper will reflect on the role the sending church plays in helping the worker transition back to their “home” country. Attention will also be given to some of the issues that make transitioning back difficult, with some advice on how to make it go smoother.

By living extensively in another country, a person has the opportunity to become multicultural. Cross-cultural workers become comfortable living in culturally diverse settings and grow to prefer it. Then, upon returning to one’s home country, it is frequently a return to a culturally monolithic community with a relatively small number of multicultural people. This is particularly true within the church. It is distressing to find friends and family in one’s home country to be more provincial in their thinking than most of the friends one had in China. This is one of the sources of stress upon returning to one’s passport country.

Ideally, transitioning back and adjusting to life again is overseen by the sending organization and supporting churches. Unfortunately, the local church lacks the capacity and the cross-cultural skills to oversee repatriation of the returned worker. Supporting churches do not necessarily understand what the returning missionary is experiencing, or what they need, so they do not know how to help. From their perspective, “You’re home,” so other than helping to find a place to live or a vehicle, they do not realize these individuals and families have other needs. Having said that, for those churches who want to better support their returning workers, there are things they can do to help with the transition.

The first priority for the returning worker is finding a job. This is extremely important in order to provide for one’s own or the family’s financial needs. Equally so, finding a job helps to reestablish one’s sense of belonging in the country. Finding work should happen prior to leaving China. The sending church can help look for job opportunities. The returning worker may not have a resume that looks impressive to potential employers, so church friends can help to strengthen the resume or offer to write recommendation letters. Once back, the ease of finding work will also depend on the type of work the person was doing in China. Some of the roles the individual filled in China may not easily translate to the types of jobs available back in their passport country, so church members and friends can help bridge the gaps that might exist. Finding work, whether in a secular job or ministry, is important in transitioning back to one’s home country, and there are many things the church can do to help with this.

A second priority is arranging for basic life needs. Housing will be needed. Church members can help identify an affordable place to live and stock the place with food prior to the worker’s return. The family will need a vehicle. Again, lending a vehicle for a period of time could tide these individuals or families over until they are in a position to purchase an appropriate vehicle of their own. If they have school-age children, they will need help to determine where to educate them. Arranging for a parent with children of a similar age to talk through the process of identifying a school and enrolling the children would be a big help. These procedures are not obvious to a parent who is doing it for the first time—especially when the children are already in upper grades. The local church can do many things to help the returning family meet their basic life needs.

A third area of support for these “returnees” is emotional and spiritual. There are excellent reentry camps available for children. These can help them develop concepts and terms that allow them to understand what they are experiencing as “third-culture kids.” If they grew up in China, their passport country will be unfamiliar to them. The sending church can help pay for the children to attend as the cost may be prohibitive for the family during the time of transition.  Having members of the church offer to go along with the family the first time they send their children to Sunday School or youth group will provide a source of support and an easy source of answers to their questions. 

It is difficult for the supporting church to know what the returning family needs. The pastors of the church should meet with the returning individual or couple for a debriefing. At that time, they should identify any special needs the family might have so they will know how to support them. It is common for the cross-cultural worker to keep a stiff upper lip and report to be just fine, so it will be necessary to have several such times of pastoral care and counseling in order to allow space and time for genuine needs and issues to come out. Knowing local resources, the church can then facilitate meeting the needs that have been identified. Some of the negative aspects that might emerge include feelings of grief, loss, a sense of failure, regret over interpersonal conflict, and uncertainty about the decision to leave China. Other issues that might come up are difficulty integrating one’s spiritual experiences from China with life in the church back in their passport country, loss of professional expertise while overseas, and the nagging desire to return to China. The latter issue can delay healthy reacclimation if one languishes in a state of limbo regarding whether or not there will be a return to China.

Depending on how supportive the home church is, the spiritual and emotional health of the family will likely depend primarily on the family members themselves. Like the process of adapting to life in China, they will need to be patient, knowing that reacclimating to their passport country will also take years. There are habits that should be built into the family to nurture a healthy, on-going processing of this cultural adjustment. Family times can be used to initiate conversations that help process some of the things family members are experiencing.  Memories of China need to be revisited. Current positive and negative experiences need to be debriefed. For children, their third-culture identity needs to be nurtured and guided to ensure healthy self identify and positive interpersonal relationship experiences. There are many good resources available to help with this, such as the books Third Culture Kids and Returning Well (see Resource Corner for more resources).

An important part of the transition is integrating the best of what was gained from the time in China with elements of one’s passport country and culture. To help with this process, it is important to find others who have lived extensively in China and talk with them occasionally. However, this needs to be kept in balance. It is not healthy to create an exclusive network of friends who are all “China hands,” as this may stymie the reacclimation process. Nevertheless, being with these people occasionally to relish China experiences and discuss challenges one is facing is invaluable. To that end, be careful not to focus on the negative experiences or fall into excessive complaining. Likewise, beware of an idealized view of China that leads to unfair comparisons between China and one’s home country. Both places have strengths and weakness, and the goal is weaving the best of both into one’s sense of self and one’s worldview so as to develop into a healthy, multicultural, well-adjusted person.

Finally, while in China, a person develops unique skills in serving and ministry. These should not be quenched upon returning, and one should look for opportunities to use these gifts. At the same time, since these gifts were nurtured in China, they will need to be adapted to a new setting. It is important to show commitment to one’s local church by diving in and serving according to their needs.

Likewise, the church should invite returnees to use their spiritual gifts in ministry. One returned China worker volunteered to wash the toys in the church nursery on Saturday mornings, and three years later, that was still the extent of his ministry in that church. Being a servant is a virtue, but this was probably underutilization of that person’s gifts. Returning cross-cultural workers want to reclaim normalcy and feel that their gifts are being used, so it is important to give them opportunities appropriate to their gifts and experiences. Their time in China has given them a lot of unique perspectives and skills that can be a distinctive blessing in the church. For example, the returning person or family can use their China-acquired skills to help the church reach international students or New Americans. One will also want to seek opportunities to leverage one’s hard-earned global skills in a variety of ways.  If one looks for opportunities, one might be able to volunteer or join the board of an organization serving Chinese people, or serving in China. After having invested substantial time and effort to master the language and culture of China, a person will want to maintain that skill and use it in various ways.

Adapting to life in China was an exciting journey of growth and learning. Over time, the cross-cultural worker became successful and enjoyed his or her life and work in China. Returning to the home country requires the same perspective. If one is able to navigate this transition well, the process can similarly be a time of growth and learning and a continuing of the ministry that was started while in China. The local church has a large role to play in this transition and can be the critical factor in whether the process is a healthy one.

Image credit: Stephens City United Methodist Church by Josh via Flickr.
Mark A. Strand

Mark A. Strand

Mark A. Strand, PhD, professor in public health at North Dakota State University, lived in China with his wife and three children for nearly twenty years. While in China he was involved in medical research and development with a non-profit organization in collaboration with the Chinese government. View Full Bio