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Returnees and the Church in China

From the series Looking Back

As more Chinese living abroad are coming to faith, the question of how to prepare them for integrating into the church when they return to China becomes ever more urgent. In the winter of 2011, we published a ChinaSource Quarterly devoted to the topic. We revisited the subject for the autumn issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly last year. Below is a full re-post of an article from that issue titled “Returnees Committed to Church in China.”

Returnees Committing to Church in China

I wonder what excites us most about the prospect of brothers and sisters returning to China: 

How wonderful to have this godly man heading up a hospital, refusing underhanded deals with pharmaceutical companies. 

How strategic to have this winsome sister working as a university lecturer; just think what kind of impact she could have on a whole generation of students. 

Yes, such inspiring thoughts spur us on in serving our Chinese friends from overseas, and yet how much is this rather individualistic? Perhaps we do stress the importance of church, but to what extent is this merely pragmatic? Without a supportive church community, how else will our friends stand firm in such a challenging context? No, this is something far more significant, for church is right at the heart of God’s eternal plan. (Ephesians 3:10)

Many believers returning to China fail to appreciate the significance and dignity of gathering as God’s people, as an outpost of his kingdom. Compared to the surrounding temples of consumerism, such meetings often appear distinctly unremarkable, and yet according to God’s word they are “God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15) In a church that seemed to have marginalized the gospel, the Apostle Paul sought to remind Timothy of the church’s mission: to declare and display the gospel to a watching world. Joining a local fellowship can never be an optional extra for a returnee believer—it is central to God’s plan for each life.

There is no doubt that returnees have much to learn from the church in China. They also have much to give. How heart-warming it is to consider returnee friends who have committed to serving within local churches back in China. Some help coordinate the children’s Sunday school; others lead small group Bible studies; some labor as elders while others are involved in planting new congregations. Yet for many, if not most, the reality is far more sobering. 

Why Committing is Such a Challenge

It clearly does not help that many returnees are made to feel unwelcome within local churches. It is not uncommon for church leaders to groan at the thought of a new attendee recently arrived back from overseas. Such leaders often feel too busy to spend the time getting to know returnees. Many churches have little understanding of every-member ministry, leading pastors to spend their days fighting fires with next to no capacity for proactive personal ministry. Some feel threatened by returnees that are often highly educated and, in some instances, have received better Bible training than they have. Many feel bruised, having had their fingers burnt in the past with previous returnees having promised much, but in the end, turning out to be half-hearted or even divisive.

“So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5) We must pray for churches in China to grow in concern for brothers and sisters returning from overseas. However, the onus surely must be on returnees themselves to be clear on their primary identity. The fact they spent time overseas is not so important; what matters is that they are “in Christ.” It can never be right to look at a local church and think, “I don’t need you,” or “I don’t belong with you.” “In Christ,” returnee believers form one body with local Christians of all kinds.

Church leaders from some of China’s biggest cities have mentioned encountering the following kinds of returnees:

Disdainful heroes, who look down on how things are done and, perhaps unconsciously, consider themselves to be the answer to the church’s future.

Discontented consumers, unhappy with the differences in style and format, and in many instances passively waiting to be looked after by others, having experienced well-intentioned but unhelpful spoon-feeding by churches overseas.

Divisive cliques, with returnees only making the effort to invest in relationships with others that have spent time overseas or, at the very least, relate with those who seem to understand where they are coming from. 

No wonder there is talk of the need for 去海归化 a “de-returnee-izing process”! Perhaps more than anything, returnees often prove to be uncommitted and sporadic in attendance, choosing instead to prioritize family and friends, and in many instances, the need to find a job “suitable” for a returnee.  Of course, the reality is that many returnees are only baby Christians, so we need to be realistic.  However, surely there are things that can be done differently.

Helping Returnees to Commit

Undoubtedly this is something we all need to be engaging with—churches overseas, churches in China, and returnees themselves.

Churches Overseas

Discipleship overseas is key to returnees integrating effectively into churches back in China. The way we serve Chinese brothers and sisters overseas should have an eye to their return from the very beginning (even if we don’t make this explicit until they have spoken with us about returning). Of all the different aspects that should be considered with regard to returnee preparation, this question of committing to church is surely one of the highest priorities. The following three areas should be considered.

  • Explain the role of the church. Many Western discipleship programs tend to be rather individualistic. If such materials are combined with campus-based, parachurch ministry, there is a real danger of sending returnees home thinking that church is just one of many aspects of the Christian life. The value of letting God set the agenda through sequential expository Bible teaching gives returnees the chance to repeatedly see how central church is to life as a Christian. There is a danger for many Chinese overseas to view church pragmatically as a substitute community while away from family and friends back home. It is vital, therefore, to be explicit about why we meet as church, helping them grasp underlying convictions and equipping them to distinguish cultural and theological differences. It is also important that we encourage active participation rather than treating them as guests. Where appropriate, expose them to ministry initiative and involve them in discipling others, co-leading Bible studies, participating up front in church meetings, and so on.
  • Engage in prayer for returnees. What a great model we have in Epaphras who carried on interceding for the Colossians (4:12) long after they were separated by geography. Recorded Skype interviews with returnees both inform the church/group how we can be praying intelligently as well as encourage future returnees to begin engaging with life back home. Explicit prayer for humble attitudes and love for the body of Christ both strengthen the returnees and provide a vision for those preparing to return.
  • Establish church partnerships. Where you have personal contact with returnees committed to churches back in China, pray for their church as well as the individual. Look to learn from these churches, not least how we can be preparing returnees more effectively. If friends preparing to return to China are not tied to returning to their hometown, encourage them to move to a city on the basis of good partner churches rather than on the quality of the air or where they think it will best serve their career.

Churches in China

There are reasons to be quietly confident that returnees will find it increasingly easy to integrate into local churches, especially in the burgeoning urban churches where growing numbers of people have spent time overseas—including many church leaders. All the same, we should pray for churches in China to consider the following.

  • Empathize with returnees. While it is tempting for locals to look down on returnees and exhort them to “get a grip,” they need to seek to understand them and especially the underlying issues that make it challenging for returnees to commit to church. Establishing partnerships with overseas churches ministering among mainland Chinese could help with understanding the issues facing returnees  
  • Expose the congregation to potential. It is important the church grasps the value of having returnees in its fellowship with all the potential they bring for gospel partnerships, both locally as well as further afield. Having experienced life overseas, with all the challenges of cross-cultural relationships and working in a different language, returnees are often some of the best placed people to send as mission partners in the future. 
  • Establish a returnee ministry. Understandably, some churches have expressed concerns about returnee cliques emerging. Even with all of the above, there still surely is value in considering appointing someone in the church to coordinate, welcome, and follow-up new returnees; another possibility would be to develop a short-term transitional group. 


The grass might genuinely be greener overseas (!) but the reality is no matter where we live, until Christ returns, life will be hard as we continue to live as sinful beings in a cursed world. Returnees are not back in China by accident. How important it is for them to go back excited about their…  

  • New identity. Being a returnee is not something to dwell on; far more significant is their being a member of God’s people, even more so than their family. (Mark 3:31-35) They might not feel like they fully belong back in China, but that should be true for all Christians!
  • New mindset. Instead of thinking about how they might gain face for self or family, they should focus now on honoring Christ. (Philippians 1:21) They need to give attention to avoiding a consumerist mentality about church and perhaps set a time limit for choosing a church—otherwise they will get into bad habits!
  • New opportunities. The Lord has prepared in advance good works for every returnee believer to be engaged in. (Ephesians 2:10) They do not need an official role at church to start serving; from day one they can make the most of building up individuals in the truth, giving, praying, and other ministries.

The previously mentioned church leaders also underlined how grateful they are to the Lord for individual returnees who have proved to be key partners in the gospel. Whoever we are, whether overseas or in China, let us be praying fervently for the Lord to be raising up countless “seaturtles”[1] who will conduct themselves “in a manner worthy of the gospel…standing firm in one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel.” (Philippians 1:27)

There is no silver bullet for returnee ministry. What we need is the word of God’s grace (Acts 20:32), which is more than able to ensure that returnees not only survive, but thrive, as committed members of churches back in China. Think of the impact of countless returnees partnering in mission to the ends of the earth. Surely nothing could be more significant for a Christian returnee to China.


  1. ^ “Seaturtles” or haigui refer, in current Chinese slang, to overseas returnees, especially to the thousands of Chinese students who have completed studies overseas, gained some practical work experience and are now returning home.
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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