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Learning from China about Student Ministry

A Reader Responds to the 2021 Summer CSQ

The summer 2021 China Source Quarterly is out, and the topic of student ministry is well started in the first of two back-to-back issues that feature this area of work. I can hardly wait for the continuation in September. In the summer issue I found the historical look at student work in China informative, and the update on student engagement in world missions inspiring. However, what attracted me most was Nyima Rongwu’s article on ministry among minority students.

I have been privileged to be involved in making disciples among university students in several countries for many years. Without spoiling the well-written article for those who haven’t read it yet, let me say that the author’s key principles for making disciples among minority students in China apply to making disciples among minority students anywhere. That is what makes them principles, of course. They translate across all cultures and all times, so he serves the whole church by laying them out in the Chinese context so effectively.

The first principle highlights effective contextualization for transmitting the good news, in this case by focusing on economics and discrimination as some of the most common barriers to receiving the gospel. These same obstacles are found around the world among minorities. He also highlights language instruction as a contextual means of engaging in relationship building.

He then moves to a second principle by gently pointing out how right-hearted followers of Christ can do harm rather than help by being too short term in their thinking or too program oriented in their work. This also happens in other contexts beyond the mainland where scholarships, sponsorships, trainings, and resources are provided for needy minority students. It is generally the rare church or full-time worker that is willing and able to walk with someone through the entirety of the spiritual journey to being a mature disciple of Jesus. Wanting to make the time we have with a student count, workers are tempted to measure success by external markers, like economics, education, or vocation. But are these effective indicators of spiritual maturity? And it isn’t just the workers who choose to measure growth in these ways. Those who supervise or fund the work can compel it with their own feedback tools that don’t adequately measure the nuanced nature of slow, complex, relational work.

Neither of these two principles are unique to China but show up in African, Latin American, Australian, and American campus ministries reaching ethnic minority student populations as well.

For me, the principle dealing with a minority student’s multiple identities is the centerpiece of the article. I have had African American students and Aboriginal Australian students describe to me precisely the same difficulty that the author unpacks for young Chinese minority students navigating “three life compartments:” the university identity, the family/ethnic identity, and the Christian identity. It is hard enough to discover and remember one’s true identity in Christ when one comes from a single, majority culture and has a Christ-influenced background. Even the disciples of Jesus, steeped in Jewish learning, struggled with this grace. How much more of a struggle is it for students discerning who they are as young adults, to sift through what being dearly loved children of God looks like at home, on campus, and within the church body. On top of that, two of those environments are often openly hostile to their identity in Christ. Impatience in the face of the ticking clock of only having four years to disciple a student before they graduate can compel workers to give up on minority students. No wonder some might feel like projects or trophies.

I have never been more convinced that the global church in the 21st century has much to learn from the Chinese church past and present. Not only has the church in China navigated being a minority population in a hostile public culture—as did our 1st century brothers and sisters—but she more broadly owns the Master’s model of making disciples though long-term relationships that look to develop the maturity of the soul. This example is urgently needed by student ministry workers around the world as they engage with young people on every continent who live with uncertainty from being told they must determine their own identity even to the level of gender, ethnicity, or sexuality. Nyima Rongwu has lifted my eyes to learn from my Chinese brothers and sisters anew, and I am thankful. I trust that others will benefit from this regardless of their level of involvement in China.

He or She Who Has Ears to Hear Let Them Hear from the Church in China!

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Image credit: Larry Edmond.

Larry Edmond

Larry Edmond (pseudonym) has spent 35 years helping make disciples of Jesus among university students. Twenty of those years were spent in four mainland cities, but his first, and thus his 老家, was among the Hui people. He is married to Lezlie and they have two daughters, one of whom …View Full Bio

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