The recent ChinaSource Quarterly, “A Call to Partnership in Chinese Returnee Ministry,” is essential reading for all who serve overseas Chinese students. It highlights the challenges faced by returnees converted abroad, as evidenced by the disconcerting number who do not continue their active profession of Christ, and raises the bar for those who serve them. Among the range of solutions proposed, I was particularly heartened by the high place given to the church, not just as a pragmatic tool but as a central feature of God’s purposes, with the implications this has for discipleship. Of course this impacts all Christians, not just Chinese—we may all need to take some planks out of our own eyes! I was also struck by the importance of partnership, subordinating organisational loyalties to the cause of Christ and the needs of returnees.
I want to add a footnote to the wide range of ideas and resources suggested: that we give credit to God’s ability to keep those he has touched, through the power of his word planted in them, even if the discipleship we have offered is less than ideal. Three brief stories (names changed) of returnees to first-tier cities illustrate this.
Jane was converted as a one-year postgraduate abroad, through an agency working with international students. Though efforts were made to prepare her, she was not ready for the battle she faced, and her faith was quickly submerged by the cultural, family, and work pressures so clearly presented in “Call to Partnership.” However, it did not die, and when she was preparing for marriage (to an unbeliever) some four years later, she persuaded him to be married in a (registered) church. This was the start of her return to fellowship, including both Sunday worship and a weekly small group.
Sadly, her marriage could not withstand the pressures; despite the prayer and encouragement of Christian friends, she divorced after about three years. Even this did not destroy her faith. Chastened and saddened, she remains in fellowship and is starting to rebuild her life. Her faith stands after 10+ years, despite the failures.
Mary was converted during two years overseas through a church’s international student ministry, where she gained some understanding, perhaps inadequate, of the challenges she would face. Under the pressures of return, she followed a similar trajectory to Jane, marrying a fellow-student from her overseas course who was not a believer. They started a business and had a child, which consumed Mary’s whole life and left no time for fellowship—one of the problems was finding a suitable church. However, her faith did not totally disappear and she maintained occasional links with believers from her time abroad, both Chinese and others, including my wife and myself.
Remarkably to me, some six years after her return, despite little regular Christian contact, Mary was able to discern and explain on a biblical basis the errors of a friend who had been sucked into a prosperity gospel diversion. As time went on she found more frequent fellowship, though the pressures of work and family mean her church attendance is still erratic. After 10+ years home, her faith is holding, despite the unfavourable environment.
George did post-doctoral study abroad when already established as a scholar in an elite university. He studied the Bible regularly with a church group and was mentored by a lady who served the Chinese community. However, on his return, the typical pressures caused him to “put his Bible away” and he did not consider it further for many years.
Around the time of his retirement, George was stirred again by what he had heard, and began to seek further. In due course he and his wife were baptised in a registered church and today are enthusiastic volunteer leaders, inspiring many younger people by their faith and love. In George’s case it was about 20 years before the fruit emerged.
After three years back home these were all part of the statistics of failure. Except for George, they are still not the kind of shining testimonies that we like to tell. But they are real. And they demonstrate the power and robustness of God’s word sown in the heart, even in the face of continuing intense pressures and, in Jane’s case, painful life outcomes. Our glowing hopes for our returnee friends may not always be realised, but God is able to make his people stand.
I give these stories because I think they say something important for both the past and the future of returnee ministry.
First, they are an encouragement to those who have previously served in this way and may now feel discouraged by bleak statistics and apparent lack of fruit. It is easy to see the shortcomings of past work and be disheartened. But with God the present discouraging situation is not necessarily the full story. In some arid places, seeds lie dormant for years waiting for favourable conditions to germinate with the coming of water. In the Lord our labour is not in vain. Perhaps discouraged workers may find fresh impetus to pray for their former friends and to continue or renew relationships with them. The harvest may yet be to come. And the conditions that now hinder growth may change.
Second, they are a reminder that the ultimate issue is the work of God, not our procedures, partnerships or resources. Certainly we should learn from mistakes; certainly we should serve with understanding; certainly we should change ineffective methods; certainly we should abandon parochial attitudes. “Call to Partnership” gives us many tools to make these adjustments. But at the end of the day, the Lord’s love and grace for China’s people is far greater than our efforts, and the fruit is finally in his hands.