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Discipling Returnees

From the series Key Issues Impacting Returnees

In collaboration with several partners, Return to China Partnership (RTCP) has identified three major issues as the foci of its returnee ministry. In our previous blog, we looked at pre-return preparation. In this blog, we turn to discipleship training. This is training designed to help returnee believers develop a deeper relationship with Jesus, gain a better understanding of the in-depth purpose of salvation and, for those with a serving heart, be trained to become disciple-makers. We will outline the problems to be addressed, efforts that have been made to deal with them, and the work which remains to be done.

The Need for Returnee Discipleship

Returnees are largely those who became new believers in Christ while abroad. It is fair to say that they are only beginning to learn Christian truth and values. Having initially been exposed to a different lifestyle and a new set of values, they may have high expectations for themselves and others. However, experience tells us that returnees will encounter problems on many fronts upon returning to their homeland. They may struggle at work, in the family, and with marriage and friendships. Most may not be able to handle the controversies these matters entail or navigate between the world’s values and those of Christianity—holding on to their new beliefs. A great number of these new believers fall away as a result. They need an environment that will help them continue their journey of faith.  

A Model for Returnee Support

It is generally agreed that returnees need a church or fellowship group upon return to their homeland to enable them to grow in faith in Christ. It is also believed that their “spiritual home” should have a discipleship model made up of pastoral support, peer mentorship, supporting fellowship, and Bible study.

  • Pastoral support must exist to support the leadership team. Team leaders (disciplers) may have certain situations which they cannot handle themselves. Such matters may include befriending, mentoring, coaching, counseling, home and hospital visits, and prayer. Pastoral care plays a short-term mentorship role in the leadership team. 
  • Peer mentorship helps build up a leadership team (a core, committed group) to run the ministry in an organized way. Among the leadership team, spiritual, peer mentorship naturally develops. This helps disciples grow, and ultimately they become disciplers.
  • Close and supportive fellowship among members of the church/group will help gather more returnees to join them. A healthy and supportive fellowship stands a better chance of generating dedicated disciples in service and evangelism.
  • Bible study is imperative for any discipleship model. Foremost, however, is to equip gifted Christians to become Bible study leaders. Such training serves two purposes: first it acts as a tool to nurture the team through biblical passages, and second, it provides support for leading a Bible study.

What RTCP Has Done to Date

Working with two returnee groups

RTCP facilitated two returnee groups, Group A in 2015, and Group B in 2016. Both groups are being developed according to the model’s principles and methods described above.


It is not easy for young Christian returnees to find mature mentors. Eugene H. Peterson reminds us that “. . . the best spiritual mentors are from friends.”[1] We believe that a healthy friendship will bring positive impact in relationship. We started by building up a core team to create opportunities for friendship. Thus, the Group A fellowship was not formed in a church setting. Rather, peer mentorship takes place between team members.

More mature leaders will look for mentors who are more mature to help them deal with more complicated problems. External pastoral mentorship is needed to satisfy these needs. The pastoral team is a support during times of need, often brief and short-term. Peer mentorship and pastoral team mentorship can work in parallel for a period. We call this double-line mentorship. A double-line mentorship fits better with returnee fellowship groups.

Setting goals for discipleship

Maturity is a goal for disciples. God wants us to be moving on a clear path of spiritual growth. This is the first and primary goal of discipleship. However, our goal does not stop there. We want to equip disciples to become disciplers. 

Equipping disciples to become disciplers

The Christian mission produces disciples. God desires that Christian faith will be passed from one person to another. The way to accomplish this is through discipleship. Only when the second generation of disciplers emerges to serve can we claim that this model is successful and our mission of developing disciplers has been fulfilled.

Preparing leaders for returnee ministry

RTCP’s vision is to see more disciples prepared to become leaders to serve in the returnee ministry of preventing believers from falling away. Only if this happens will we be able to begin talking about and expecting returnees, as a group, to contribute to the betterment of society and country.

Progress of the two returnee groups

We have put our model into practice for almost two years in the Group A returnee fellowship group. Although this may seem like a long time, this model takes time to develop because most of its participants are still very young Christians, and time is needed to grow in one’s spiritual life. Taking time helps the group’s young leadership team to grow in faith. Now they have about ten group leaders joining the Bible study training. Through this training we are building up a much closer relationship with group leaders. Meanwhile, our pastoral team is selecting some leaders from this group to train to become disciplers. We see that some of these potential disciplers already have a steady spiritual life, so much so that they are ready to provide support for newcomers.

Since September 2016, RTCP has been helping another returnee group, Group B. We found that the Group A model is also working well in Group B. Group B has set up a leadership team of eight returnees. Our next step is to help the group set up Bible study training and select a few potential and committed leaders to train to become disciplers.

Our goal for the second generation of disciplers to emerge was December 2017. While we made progress toward that goal, it is still in progress. Our ultimate goal is that the two groups can one day produce disciplers without the help of an outside pastoral team.

Success and Failure Factors

The following are likely success and failure factors for the model taken from experiences with the two groups.

Success factors

  1. Availability of pastoral support to the core team when the group is spiritually less mature and willingness to help the team grow.
  2. Helpful testimony and experience-sharing in the successful use of the returnee model; that is, Group B drawing on Group A’s experience.

Failure Factors

  1. Lack of a common vision in the core team (no focus in group development).
  2. No clear leadership in the core team (inhibits delivering results).
  3. No potential candidate with a heart for becoming a discipler and willingness to commit and submit to God.

Next Steps

If success in the two groups is further affirmed, we plan to validate the model in at least one other fellowship group, after which, we will recommend the model to returnee ministry partners for their reference in ministering to returnees.         

Any input from other organizations and churches to broaden our perspectives and to provide a more comprehensive survey on this issue is extremely welcome. For comments or suggestions about these articles or to contact RTCP, email us at or visit our web site Return to China Partnership.


  1. ^ Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989, p. 170.
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Return to China Partnership

The mission of Return to China Partnership (RTCP) is to serve returnee ministries and promote effective collaboration. For more information email them at or visit their web site Return to China Partnership.View Full Bio

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