“Every year China has several hundred thousand students studying abroad. Among them, quite a number become believers in Christ while overseas. However, unfortunately, when they return to China, less than 20% continue going to church for worship and Bible study. We are losing almost 80% of Christian returnees!” says Rev. Patrick So, Senior Pastor of EFCC Yanfook Church.
To help Christian returnees grow in their faith, integrate into the Chinese Christian community, and serve the Chinese church, Return to China Partnership (RTCP), working together with others, has identified, as the foci of its returnee ministry, three major issues that impact returnees. In this series of three blogs, RTCP shares their findings and proposes possible ways to deal with those issues in hopes that others who are working with returnees will benefit from their work.
The three major issues identified are pre-return preparation, discipleship training, and referral systems.
- Pre-return preparation is for the purpose of raising returnees’ awareness of the potential problems and conflicts they are likely to face upon their return to their homeland.
- Discipleship training helps returnee believers develop a deeper relationship with Jesus, gain a better understanding of the in-depth reason for salvation and, for those with a serving heart, be trained to become disciple-makers.
- Referral systems are for connecting new returnees to an experienced returnee who is already in the place to which they are to return. This person is able and ready to guide and help them adjust to their new situation so they can continue to grow in Christ.
To study each of these three issues, RTCP formed three Mini Consultation Committees. Its purpose has been that through open discussion, all participants will contribute their knowledge and experience in each subject area, will identify the major issues involved, and will come to agreement on “critical success factors.”
Each of these three blogs will outline the problems to be addressed, efforts that have been made to deal with them, and the work which remains to be done. This first blog deals with the issue of pre-return preparation.
Many returnees are not aware of the potential dangers facing them when they arrive in their homeland after a period of being abroad. Most of them have naive concepts about homecoming: “I am going back to my old stomping ground. A warm welcome is waiting for me since I came from there.” We call this idea “naive” because many things will have changed, and many new things will have taken place since they left. This is the reality confronting those who have resided outside of China for a period of time. Returnees are often shocked by progress and changes that they are not prepared to face. For Christian returnees, these mistaken expectations and lack of preparation often keep them from continuing with the practice of their faith once they are back home. This leads to a high dropout rate among returnee believers and is why pre-return preparation is vital for them.
What Has Been Done to Date
To prepare and equip Christian believers to cope with the challenges of practicing their faith once they are back home, RTCP has consulted with several returnee ministries and found that each works independently of the others and is trying to prepare returnees in different ways. Below are some strategies they are using:
- developed programs and tools to train returnees on what to expect when returning home;
- encouraged ministry staff to spend summers visiting former students;
- sent a couple to Japan to create a returnee network and vet returnee-friendly churches, working largely through casual referrals;
- used short-term mission experiences for Chinese students (about 25 students each year) to help them bond with Chinese believers;
- consistently addressed issues that returnees face—emotional, parental, sexual;
- established a returnee concern group in Hong Kong to reach out to Mainland students;
- organized returnee workshops on issues such as keeping spiritual growth after returning, dating (shifting the focus from “finding the right one” to “becoming the right one”), disciple making, and other topics;
- organized training programs for returnees similar to the five steps of discipleship program (spiritual, personal, relational, vocational, and kingdom priority);
- organized prayer groups and experience-sharing camps for returnee leaders;
- got students involved with partner churches;
- promoted prayer needs, shared in prayer meetings among ministry workers, organized discussion forums, seminars, and training for church workers;
- taught ministry workers and returnees to use the Returnee Handbook (海歸手冊).
- built trust by meeting with ministry workers in churches and organizations to get to know them, their work, and their difficulties; shared RTCP concerns with them.
In the course of ministering to overseas Chinese students and returnees, RTCP and its partners have encountered challenges of various types. Our experience and observations are summarized as follows.
Chinese Students in Western countries
- There is a general lack of awareness, on the part of both students and ministry workers, of the need for pre-return preparation. Ministries are not ready to supply preparation, and churches are not actively involved in providing discipleship for returnees.
- Ministry staff feel inadequate because of insufficient information and education as well as a lack of strategic planning and collaboration.
- Ministry work becomes more difficult when students have a sense of superiority/pride or a fear of persecution. Others who have become accustomed to “consumerism,” and have little experience of Christianity on a personal level are hard to work with.
- Returnee ministry work on behalf of Chinese students ranks low in church priorities. Organizations willing to provide returnee ministry suffer from a lack of workers and student ownership.
- Students respond more positively to Chinese ministry workers than Western workers.
- Students involved in Chinese churches have a lower dropout rate when they return to their homeland.
Mainland Students in Hong Kong
- In HK, it seems easier to reach out to post-graduate students than undergraduates.
- Many graduates find jobs and stay in HK for some years after graduation before eventually returning to China. This gives workers more time to disciple them.
- When Mainland students return to China, they are largely on their own. Most of them are eager to find a church, but find it difficult to settle in because of reverse culture shock (in church, in ways of life, in work environment, and so on).
- Returnee ministry is a sensitive issue in HK because it involves churches in China. It is necessary to keep it low-key and hard to find workers who feel comfortable joining it. Consequently, this ministry grows slowly.
- In Hong Kong, churches and workers tend to be cautious about getting involved or disclosing their involvement in work with returnees. It is necessary to proceed slowly, low-key, and with respect for different parties in order to earn their trust and become connected.
What More Needs to Be Done
It follows from the above observations that there are two different groups of returnees—one being ministered to in the Chinese language and the other in English. The latter group appears to have a harder time re-assimilating into the environment upon their return to China. It is therefore suggested that two different strategies be developed for the two groups to address their specific needs. The common end results to be achieved would be to:
- raise and sharpen returnee awareness of the potential dangers ahead;
- help them learn the pitfalls of “going home” so they are no longer ignorant about them and become reliant on God.
- impart to them a mission mindset of blessing the nations. (Send them home as missionaries, not just believers.)
We believe that if this issue is solved satisfactorily, the dropout rate of returnee believers can be reduced and even minimized. We surely hope and pray that the returning believers will continue to be salt and light to their families, their churches, and their society.
Any input from other organizations and churches to broaden our perspectives and provide a more comprehensive survey on this issue is extremely welcome. For comments or suggestions about this series of blog or to contact RTCP, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our web site Return to China Partnership.