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The Road Home

Returnees Serving in China: An Interview

In the past few years, returning Chinese scholars have played an increasingly important role in China’s economic construction. At the same time, more and more of them are returning with the goal of spreading the gospel. Is this an easy or difficult path to take? What obstacles does one encounter, and how can these be solved? What should one do to prepare to return?

The following interview with Chen Guoguang addresses these questions. Originally from Beijing, Chen worked in the U.S as an electrical engineer and also spent three years in seminary. In 1993, he returned to work in China with the goal of spreading the gospel. Looking back on these years, he has much in his heart to share with those who also have this goal.

Why Overseas Scholars Need to Return

ChinaSource: Why do you believe that China at this time needs large numbers of Christian overseas scholars to return and spread the gospel? (As if China needs more evangelists?)

Chen: In reality, China lacks evangelists who can preach the gospel to China’s intellectuals. According to my experience these past few years in the Chinese church, most evangelists have not received a high level of education. Thus, when the gospel is preached, it is mostly among the grassroots population; there is no way for it, generally speaking, to penetrate the intellectual class. The few institutions in China capable of cultivating Master’s level seminary students have a relatively small number of students, compared with the more than 10 million intellectuals in China. Under these conditions, it is not only necessary for well-qualified students from abroad to return as evangelists or pastors; it is a desperate need.

ChinaSource: Besides their advanced studies overseas, do you feel the returning scholars’ experiences of having lived abroad can help them in sharing the gospel when they return?

Chen: Yes, this is a huge help. According to my own experience, my greatest learning took place while I was overseas systematically studying theology and laying a solid foundation for a lifetime of service. This enabled me to cope with all kinds of challenges. I gained experience serving in both Western and Chinese churches, including experience in church management and administration. The Chinese church, because its membership has increased so rapidly, is very weak in this area and unable to meet the need.

I also learned how to use literature in sharing the gospel. Literature work overseas has been very successful, and there are many outstanding literature resources which have had a significant impact on the spread of the gospel, such as Overseas Campus magazine. I could fully utilize these resources according to the need. The situation in China simply would not have allowed me to learn these things.

Preparing to Return

ChinaSource: You just referred to the need for returnees to have proper preparation. What specific areas of preparation are needed?

Chen: First of all, one needs to have a clear vision and sense of mission. This is most important. Without a particularly clear calling and the knowledge that God has called one to return and serve the souls of the masses, one will not last very long but will easily be defeated by various forms of attack.

Secondly, it is preferable to have had systematic study of theological knowledge, for example, hermeneutics, systematic theology, homiletics, church history, comparative religions and so on. If this is not possible, one should at least study the Bible and Chinese church history.

ChinaSource: Why do you emphasize these two types of knowledge?

Chen: Because people’s doubts and suspicions toward Christianity are often in these two areas. For example, “Why did God not allow man to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge?” Or, “Christianity was forcibly brought into China on gunboats by the Western powers .”

These are all sharp reactions to Christianity. If the evangelist has not prepared adequately in advance, he or she will definitely not be able to stand firm. In addition, the church in China desperately needs training in biblical knowledge. If returnees have studied systematically, in this way they will be able to be a great help.

ChinaSource: Are other types of preparation needed?

Chen: Of course. The third type is experience in serving. While overseas it is important to participate as much as possible in evangelism, discipleship and pastoral work. Furthermore, the broader the scope and the greater the experience, the better. I have a friend who after returning to China led a house church. This house church at the beginning only had three to five persons. My friend could handle this group easily, but then it quickly grew to 40-50 people. He did not know what to do because while overseas he had never had this kind of experience.

Fourthly, it is necessary to have more personal experience with the Chinese church. Before going back, get to know the church through visiting relatives or taking short-term trips. After returning, take the time to visit many different churches.

ChinaSource: In other words you must gain firsthand knowledge of the church through personal experience?

Chen: Yes, the goal is to gain firsthand information, not secondhand knowledge or hearsay. After I returned, I was not in a hurry to lead a church, but rather spent a year purposefully visiting different churches to understand their situations. I called this a year of acclimation. If one does not understand the situation of the Chinese church, how can one serve there?

ChinaSource: I heard one returnee brother say that once he returned and was dropped into the huge ocean of unbelievers, he felt extraordinarily lonely. Is this situation common?

Chen: Yes, and therefore the fifth area of preparation is to build a network of spiritual relationships. A network of spiritual relationships overseas serves as a means of support, both financially and through prayer. In country, a spiritual relationship network can help one understand the Chinese church and smoothly enter the field of service in China.

The sixth point is that those who have a heart to return to China for the gospel’s sake should preferably have a recognized status in society, a career, or an affiliation with a particular company. In other words, do not have as your primary public role that of an evangelist.Because the Chinese still are not used toand moreover do not understandthe role of an evangelist, they will ask a lot of questions. For example, they might pay special attention to the source of the evangelist’s income. If one has a regular status in society, such as an engineer in a particular company, this can prevent unnecessary difficulties. At the same time, one can keep from arousing people’s feelings of mistrust, thus making it easier to share the gospel.

I believe the above mentioned means of preparation are quite essential. Yet when all is said and done, even with all this preparation, those who return to China to share the gospel will likely still find themselves exhausted and worn out by various problems and difficulties.

Difficulties Encountered After Returning

ChinaSource: After having been back for these several years, you have no doubt encountered many of these problems and difficulties. Can you expound on those that are most critical?

Chen: I believe there are at least these five aspects. First of all, there is political pressure. The house church in China is a target of control and operates against the law. Nonetheless, the situation does not match the exaggerated stories about China we often hear about in the Westas if as soon as one turns around one ends up in jail. However, those engaged in cross-regional evangelism are liable to be detained, and one is not always free to speak as one pleases. So, there is still a degree of psychological pressure.

ChinaSource: So, how do you deal with this difficulty?

Chen: Have a renewed understanding of your own role. Do not see yourself as the target of government surveillance but rather as a normal citizen. In that way one’s mind and heart will not feel pressure.

The second difficulty is in one’s standard of living. For example, the air conditioning in China is still below standard. Busses are crowded. When shopping, one needs to know how to bargain. All these require a period of time in order to become accustomed to them. The biggest difficulty is with one’s family, the children in particular. There was a brother who returned to China with his family to take a position in a technical firm. Before long, he went away on business leaving his wife and child behind. The day after he left their new shower broke. The wife and child had no experience with this and did not know who to call to fix it, so there was nothing they could do. For exactly 20 days they did not take a shower, so the child every day complained, “I want to go back to America! China is detestable!”

Children’s education is also a problem. Christians are unwilling to allow their own children to receive atheistic education from an early age.

ChinaSource: So how does one solve this problem?

Chen: Both parents need to agree that, whatever the problem, they will face it and solve it together. Regarding the children’s education, the only solution is to supplement what they receive in school with teaching at home.

The third difficulty is the social and interpersonal environment. One often encounters this kind of situation: something unfortunate happens, and it is clearly the other person’s fault, but this person scolds you for whatever happened. Moreover, people in the Mainland often have unreasonable expectations of those who have returned and seek to benefit from these relationships. They may believe you have made a fortune overseas and are therefore very wealthy, or they might hope that you can help them develop relationships overseas. After a while, when they discover that you are unable to satisfy these expectations, they begin to speak badly about you. Just thinking about having to serve these kinds of people, one cannot help but feel tired and regretful.

ChinaSource: So, what to do?

Chen: The only solution is found in Hebrews 12: “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such hardship from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.””

The fourth difficulty is the spiritual environment. There is a great difference between the church environments inside and outside China, including worship traditions. The house churches of China often do not have sermons, only devotional sharing. For example, there might be a brother who stands up and says, “I have something from the Lord to share with everyone.” Also, there is not the liberty to sing loudly. This often causes returnees to feel uneasy, as if they have not really participated in worship, and their soul is unsatisfied. Given this kind of spiritual loneliness, it is easy to fall into a spiritual depression.

Some house church evangelists discriminate against evangelists from overseas. One reason is that they fear new things coming into the church, and another is that returnees have a higher educational level and may carry an air of superiority, thus creating aversion. It is easy for them to have an extreme response toward those who have different opinions. For example, if someone does something inappropriate in a training session, some house churches will immediately excommunicate the person. From that point on they will not greet the person or communicate with him or her but rather cut off all relations.

ChinaSource: How do you solve this problem?

Chen: Fully recognize the contrast between evangelistic work inside and outside China and consider returning to China to do the work of the gospel as cross-cultural (“near culture”) missions. Do not think that this is the same motherland where you were born and grew up, and therefore you are very familiar with and knowledgeable about everything. Actually, we still need to spend a lot of time to understand and to become accustomed to current conditions in China. Moreover, do not assume the posture of a teacher, but rather that of a studentor the heart of a servantto understand and serve the church in China.

An Easy Road?

ChinaSource: Is returning to China to do the work of the gospel easy or difficult?

Chen: It’s not that difficult. Some people see it as very much being a road fraught with hardships, but if the Lord calls you to take this road He will give you sufficient grace and strength. He said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” If you really take this road, you will discover it is not that difficult. “As thy days, so shall thy strength be.” (Deut. 33:25)

Used by permission from Overseas Campus magazine. Translation is by Brent and Jasmine Fulton.

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ChinaSource Team

ChinaSource Team

Written, translated, or edited by members of the ChinaSource staff.          View Full Bio