When Sojourners Return

Living in another country can be a life-changing experience. The longer the stay and the greater the immersion into that country’s social life, the deeper and more lasting the effects. Adapting to the new culture, making foreign friends, learning a new set of behaviors, and speaking in a foreign language shape the identity and values of sojourners in ways that can never be undone.

The changes that overseas sojourners experience may go beyond the necessary adaptation to a new language and culture; for many, the experience creates an openness to new ideas, new values, and even a new way of understanding life.

When the time finally comes to return home, the newly-arriving returnees often discover that the behaviors, identity, tastes, and values they acquired overseas do not transfer easily into the home culture. Many of the changes they experienced, including some that are highly valued, must now be reversed for the sake of fitting in.

Now what if, among the many changes experienced in a foreign land, some of the sojourners have converted to the Christian faith? This is certainly the case for thousands of Chinese students and scholars who have studied abroad over the past three decades. For those yet to return, how will their faith, acquired while overseas, and often learned from Westerners in a foreign language, be brought home to become part of their daily life in China? Will these new believers, as returnees, view their new faith as one of the changes that “must now be reversed for the sake of fitting in”? Or will they discover how to be both Chinese and Christian, finding their places of service in the churches of China, perhaps via returnee fellowships made up of others who, like themselves, came to faith while studying abroad?

These are some of the questions raised in this issue. The articles are all written by Christian ministry practitioners who either share the good news with Chinese students in the West or work with returnees in China.

Beyond simply raising questions and providing information, however, these articles contain, implicitly or explicitly, a call to action. There is much that we can and should do in the West and elsewhere to prepare students and scholars to thrive as disciples of Jesus in China, and there is much that the churches of China can do to welcome them home, while recognizing that their needs and perspectives may be a bit different from those who never went abroad. We should not be resigned to seeing, as we do now, hundreds of professing Chinese student believers returning home each year only to drop out of the Christian life altogether.

The theme of this issue is collaboration. As the various authors point out, providing the support that Chinese students and returnees need calls for new levels of collaboration between churches in China and those who evangelize students in the West, as well as improved local collaboration among those involved in student ministry in host countries, especially between ethnic Chinese and non-Chinese. This approach expresses the unity of Christ’s body, enables non-Chinese ministries to provide more culturally-appropriate discipleship, and has the potential to build a seamless network of support and encouragement to new believers returning to China.

Image Credit: Journal Entry (Joel Montes de Oca) by Chris Lott, on Flickr.
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Stuart (pen name) plays chess as a hobby and befriends Chinese students in the UK. After living in Asia for nearly 11 years serving in returnee ministry, he completed a doctoral research project on the struggles of Chinese Christian returnees in which he documented how much help they have received by participating in returnee fellowship groups.View Full Bio