When Xiao Mei came to study in the UK, it was the first time she left home to study abroad. Like many students from China, she had mixed feelings. On one hand, she was excited about the opportunity to gain knowledge of British culture and traditions; on the other, she was worried about the challenges of living independently in a foreign country and studying in an English-speaking school setting. She longed for friends who could help her succeed in this new environment.
Xiao Mei visited a local British church nearby where she joined a Global Café for the possibility of meeting new friends and learning to speak English. The relaxed atmosphere encouraged her to return, and the friendly church people invited her to learn more about the faith sustaining them. Over the next few months, Xiao Mei made many friends and really enjoyed the worship services. She became a Christian at a gospel event, but she admitted that she was mainly attracted by the genuine love and care of the Christians she met at church and only had a superficial understanding of their faith. Lack of ability and confidence to openly express her thoughts in English due to the language barrier made it difficult for her to engage in conversations about deeper spiritual issues.
After getting to know some Chinese Christians, Xiao Mei attended a special event for Chinese students. For the first time, in her familiar language of Mandarin Chinese, she heard people’s testimonies of how Jesus had changed their lives and was touched by their real life stories. This connection led her to join a local Chinese student fellowship, and it was there that she began to truly understand the atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross for her sin. Through a series of Bible studies and discipleship courses, as well as regular discussions with other Chinese Christians in the fellowship group, Xiao Mei gradually came to grasp what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Throughout her short 18-month stay in the UK, she continued to attend the local British church where her spiritual journey began and was baptized there before going back to China. Because she had been well connected with Chinese Christians in the Chinese student fellowship group and with others through its network, she was able to join a vibrant, local, Chinese church right after she returned to her hometown in Southeast China. She has been serving the Lord ever since.
Outreach Challenges in the UK
There are currently over 80,000 mainland Chinese students studying in the UK with approximately 50,000 new students arriving from China each year. However, their relatively short period of stay coupled with the intensity of study presents a special challenge for local churches and Christian organizations to share the gospel with them during this time. In addition, those who become Christians while studying here are faced with the reality of returning home to a new church environment that is starkly different from their experience in this country.
Most mainland Chinese students in the UK will come into contact with both British and Chinese Christians. There is a natural partnership that can be forged between different outreach ministries. This situation can be illustrated as having the British hook to get the students into the door of faith, but needing a Chinese cook to feed them homemade spiritual food to nurture and support their growth afterwards.
The British Hook
Like Xiao Mei, many mainland Chinese students consider the British church an ideal place to experience British culture, practice English, and make friends. This is partly due to the students’ curiosity as well as their desire to explore and learn new things in a foreign country. Many British churches and organizations are intentionally reaching out to the international students—especially those from mainland China—through various friendship evangelism platforms such as Global Café and English Corner.
The friendship model is very effective in making initial contact with new students who are eager to befriend local British people. However, since friendship evangelism is usually low key and nonthreatening, the process tends to take a long time and is more fruitful when a student can remain in a place for an extended time. For those coming to study for a shorter period of one year to 18 months, it can be difficult to develop friendship and trust quickly. For mainland Chinese students in particular, English, as a second language, can be a barrier for more meaningful conversations in the process of gospel outreach and discipleship training.
The Chinese Cook
Many Chinese students converted in an English-speaking environment discovered that they were only able to deal with deeper issues in their faith using their native language and in a culturally relevant setting. Most of them craved and appreciated the chance of talking freely with fellow Chinese about subjects of mutual interest. Chinese believers receiving discipleship training in their native language of Mandarin appear to have achieved more significant spiritual growth. Understanding the Christian faith in more depth and applying what they learn directly to their own life situations solidifies their biblical knowledge. Using the irreplaceable Chinese language to express their Christian faith in activities such as worship, prayer, Bible study, and personal evangelism is especially vital for students who will return to China after graduation and will need to readjust to the Chinese church setting.
Providing a similar cultural background and using their native language are two very important factors in the willingness of Chinese students to open up and join in at any new place. Being able to connect and interact with fellow mainland Chinese Christians from the same generation and background help the students develop a deeper sense of belonging in taking on their new Christian identity. Because they are from the same background and at the same stage in life, they are more willing to learn and practice their faith along with fellow mainland Chinese believers. Such bonding and friendship among students from the same region in China can extend to include their families after they go back home and are crucial in the continuation of their Christian walk in China.
One outreach strategy could be to take advantage of the natural curiosity of mainland Chinese students towards British culture and bring them into contact with Christianity through local British churches. Then, partner them with a Mandarin-speaking Chinese student ministry to provide discipleship training so they can become increasingly grounded in their faith through their own cultural lens.
Reducing the Cultural Distance
In light of the students’ relatively short stay in the UK, we recognize that the shorter the cultural distance student ministry workers have to travel to reach mainland Chinese students, and the closer the identification with them through tailor-made programs that cater to their taste, the more effective is the outreach and discipleship process.
An outreach model using the student’s native language, coupled with a culturally appropriate program which the students can readily identify with, implemented through the familiarity of a Chinese environment by a local Chinese church or Chinese mission organization, can speed up the proclamation of the gospel and help mainland Chinese students make a faster initial decision to accept Christ. This advantage is strategically important when the student is only in the UK for a short period and does not have the luxury of long-term friendship building.
The native language advantage becomes even more visible to first generation Chinese believers when they witness to their close friends and family members who most likely are Chinese speaking with little or no knowledge of English. Being able to share their faith with confidence in their native language and within the context of Chinese culture encourages new believers to grow spiritually, as well as to become passionate in reaching out to their fellow Chinese whether they stay in the UK or return to China.
For students who will return to China after graduation, the best preparation will be to make sure they have a clear understanding of the Christian faith and the confidence to share their faith in their native language when they are back home. In addition to providing opportunities for such discipleship training and practices, it is essential to connect them with other Chinese Christians while they are in the UK and after their return to China so they will have a network of support to transition into local churches back in China.
Partnership in the Gospel
Local British and Chinese churches, English-speaking and Mandarin-speaking student ministries, all play different roles to support mainland Chinese students at different stages of their spiritual journey. Partnership will help maximize the effectiveness of efforts from all ministries to reach out to mainland Chinese students in the UK.
A British Christian might introduce the gospel to a mainland Chinese student; then a Mandarin-speaking ministry worker can nurture his or her spiritual growth. In a small Chinese Mandarin student fellowship, students might build closer relationships with one another, receive discipleship training, and gain in-depth understanding of the Bible; in a local British church they can become involved in diverse ministries, relating to and serving people of different ages, languages, and cultural backgrounds. Chinese students with strong language abilities should be encouraged to move out of their comfort zones and catch the vision for global mission; they can learn a great deal from British Christians in terms of cross-cultural mission.
I believe that mainland Chinese students are brought to the UK not just to hear the gospel and receive eternal life for their own sake; there is a far grander purpose in God’s plan for this new generation of Chinese Christians. Whether they go back to China, move on to other countries, or stay in the UK, I pray that God will use them to spread the good news of Jesus Christ wherever they are.