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Returnee Referral Systems

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 blogs, we looked first at pre-return preparation and then discipleship training. In this third blog, we turn to returnee referral systems. These systems are for connecting returnees to an experienced returnee who is already in the place to which the returnee will go. This person is able and ready to guide and help the returnee acclimate to his or her surroundings for their continued growth in Christ.

The Mini Consultation Committees that RTCP formed to study each of these three major issues used open discussions. For returnee referral systems, all participants described their ways of handling referrals. They pointed out major issues in their model to understand different ways of accomplishing the same goal and to come to agreement on certain "critical success factors" for each type of referral system. These factors can then serve as checkpoints for future improvements.

In this blog, we will look at the findings, outline efforts that have already been made, and identify the work which remains to be done.

Returnee Referral Systems


Stranger in a strange land

Many returnees convert to Christ while they are abroad. In addition to exposure to a foreign way of life, they begin a new life in Christ and proceed on their life journey as a Christian. They start to learn the truth and unique values of Christianity. With time and maturity, their perspective on life will change.

Given the changes they have gone through while overseas, upon finishing their studies or business abroad and returning to their homeland, they may find themselves a stranger in a strange place. They have changed—and things in their homeland have changed as well. This feeling is likely to be more profound if their stay abroad has been substantially long. As they look for a suitable place in their homeland to continue their growth in Christ, they will experience difficulties and will need help. This is the point at which an effective referral system will be important to them.

Referral systems available

Broadly defined, three types of referral systems have been identified: word of mouth referrals, form-based systems, and computer-based systems.

  • Word of mouth referrals (person to person or P2P) is a natural and commonly-used way to connect a returnee to an experienced fellow returnee who is already in the place to which they are to return. It is an informal and simple way of attending to the need of returnees. It involves “middle men” and “receivers.” (The terms used need to be unified for better understanding and communication among organizations and individuals. In this blog, we will continue to use these terms.) Typically a middle man refers a contact—the returnee believer—to the receivers who are leaders in a church or returnee fellowship.
  • Form-based systems are ways of referring which rely on either Google Docs, online information sharing, or email threads.  
  • Web-based semi-automated systems are able to introduce people who have contacts in China with those wanting to assist returnees, without the need to hold sensitive personal data online. Such systems replace initial email enquiries of the type “Does anybody know anyone in this location?” with an automatic email response that introduces two people who have a mutual interest in a particular location. Users of the system are then validated and checked by personal reference, before they share any sensitive information about people in China. 

Pros and Cons of Different Systems

Word of Mouth Referral is an ad hoc, informal, less structured, and less organized system. It is simple to use but could lack depth and breadth. Security could be a concern. The dynamics between the middle man and the receivers could lead to mistrust, disappointment, ill impressions, and discouraging effects for either party. Given the informal nature of the system, insufficient or unmanaged feedback might also hamper its effectiveness as well as any opportunity for improvement to the system.

Form-based systems also have security concerns. The process is neither safe nor efficient.

Web-based semi-automated systems seem to be more reliable from the security point of view. They would also help with statistics consolidation. Yet they need to have enough trained gate-keepers, who are also trusted, to access and use the network. If web-based systems can utilize the network and resources of existing ministries, they would have a great advantage. However, they would require timely responses from multiple parties in one referral process.

Success and Failure Factors

First, security is the main concern for referral systems since information must be discreetly transferred from one end to the other. Mainland churches, overseas churches, and NGOs have varying knowledge of security levels. In addition, much freedom could be lost making the process secure. There is also a security concern when it comes to online data storage.

Middle men and leaders in churches working with overseas believers have limited resources available to them. They can become easily discouraged after a few cases of lack of response or interest from those in China who might receive the returnee. 

Feedback on referral efforts is also important for both the middle men and the field staff. The lack of feedback could affect the faith and devotion in follow-up and in processing further referrals. On the other hand, as the referral network grows, it will be challenging to keep up with the increasing number of feedbacks.

If referrals are to be embraced, it is important that field staff understand the returnee ministry: its aim and purpose, its challenges, and the difficulties faced by returnees upon arrival in their homeland. They will need to know what is available to enable them to help the returnees and how to gain access to different referral systems. It is also important to communicate properly that the expectations regarding referral systems may vary.

A concern is that a better way of screening returnees may need to be put in place. Knowledge about returning believers, the training they have received and their ministry service as well as a tangible description of their personal walk with the Lord is needed. To have a better screening method would help the middle men and receivers be more motivated and use their time wisely. 

In the final analysis, time efficiency is vital. Returnees need to be referred to suitable churches/fellowship groups as soon as they arrive home.

Next Steps

In light of the above findings, there is much work still to be done.

  • A screening system needs to be developed to help differentiate seekers from mature returnees.
  • Security should be further enhanced.
  • An effective feedback system needs to be developed to check if the referral process is successful.


It is not our intention to develop a "best" model for everyone to follow, nor do we deem it possible to have one model that fits every situation. Each place has its own, distinct characteristics and, for a variety of reasons, may not find it practical to follow someone else’s model. Rather than developing a “best” model, we aim at identifying key concerns so that we can focus our energy and attention on them. Enhanced security is one, and sufficient and continuous feedback is another. Identifying critical success and failure factors that are common to any referral system is also important. On a more general and less strategic front, it is advisable to unify terminologies used in returnee ministry, particularly as they are relevant to referrals since this will enhance communication. 

Input Welcome

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 website Return to China Partnership.

Return to China Partnership (RTCP) ministry will host a Returnee Summit in Hong Kong, October 3-6, 2018. These three articles will be discussed among other returnee ministry issues.

Editor's note: Some changes to the original text of this article have been made for clarity.

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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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