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Spanning the Gap for Returnees

Less than twenty percent of returnees, Chinese students who come to faith overseas and then return to China as new believers, continue going to church for worship and Bible study.[1] A daunting statistic. The majority of new believers are lost in the gap between overseas campus fellowship groups and churches and the churches in China. 

The reasons for the gap are many; misunderstandings and unmet expectations on both sides of the gap often contribute.

Understanding Why a Gap Exists

Are overseas churches and campus groups too focused on hospitality and providing a welcoming, home-away-from-home? Do they incorporate lonely overseas students into their groups without making sure the gospel they are sharing is understood and without seeking to make disciples? Do the students misunderstand the motives behind the kind hospitality of Christians? In the busyness of their student lives, is there simply not enough time for them to be discipled before they return to China? Do the new Christians grasp what church is truly about and thus are able to participate in a church in China that is culturally different from what they experienced in the West?

Or are the Chinese churches stuffy and stuck in the traditions of a generation ago? Are they too protective (we need to get to know you before you can attend our worship service) or too pushy (you need to pray this prayer to be a Christian)? With the changes that churches in China are going through are they able to recognize that returnees may need special attention? Do they have the capacity to minister to those who return to China with what seems to Chinese church leaders to be lesser commitment and maturity in the faith? 

To some extent, there is probably some truth in each accusation. But the desire of believers in both the overseas church and in the church in China are the same—for Chinese students overseas to have the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel and then, when they return to China, continue to grow in their faith and live lives that honor Christ and impact others for Christ. 

So how can those on both sides of the gap work together? First, by talking to each other and getting to know each other by finding out what is being done on each side and considering how both sides can work together. 

An excellent opportunity for doing just that took place last autumn in East Asia. Return to China Partnership hosted a four-day summit for those who are working on both sides of reaching overseas Chinese for Christ. 

Overseas returnee ministry leaders who have been meeting together regularly on an informal basis came as a group to participate in the meetings. Chinese pastors and ministry leaders who work with returnees came and shared their perspectives. Together they sat at meals getting to know one another. Tea breaks seemed much too short because of the spirited conversations that were taking place. People were getting to know each other and hearing what each other had to say. 

Of the many things that I observed a couple of things stood out to me.

Upstream and Downstream

The vocabulary of the conference included the terms upstream and downstream to identify the two sides or aspects of returnee ministry. Upstream returnee ministry refers to the work of overseas churches and organizations; downstream refers to the work of local churches and organizations in China. While the terms puzzled me at first I came to appreciate them because they expressed value for both sides. One is not more important than the other; both are necessary. And it is helpful for those working on either side to realize that God is working in both directions. 

Outreach and Discipleship Are the Responsibility of Both Streams

A frequent criticism that I have heard from Chinese workers about overseas ministry is that it is shallow and too focused on hospitality. Too often, it is said, returnees who are referred to churches or ministries in China do not seem to have genuine faith and perhaps are not truly believers. And yet, from my perspective as someone who has been part of campus and church ministries in the United States, I’ve known students with interest in the Bible and a desire for friendship with Christians but who haven’t expressed personal faith in Christ. So, does that mean I should not try to connect them with Christians in China? Might that be just the place where they will come to a clearer understanding and respond in faith? Perhaps what is needed is clearer communication between the two streams about the spiritual state of individuals who are being referred.

One overseas worker asked a question I had not heard before, “When Christians are accepted to study overseas, could their churches in China challenge them and prepare them to use their time as overseas students to reach other Chinese who are studying abroad? Could they be among those in overseas campus ministries sharing the gospel in a clear, compelling way? Could they even be challenged to reach out to other internationals?”[2] 

One of the local Chinese pastors is already seeing the potential for returnees to serve the internationals in his city. 

I am grateful for the time I had to sit with godly individuals from around the world who are seeking to close the gap that returnees often fall into. May God continue to build relationships and effective networks—both upstream and downstream—so that many more returnees grow in their faith and serve effectively wherever God takes them.


  1. ^ Patrick So, “Filling the Gap.” Return to China Partnership. Accessed February 19, 2019.
  2. ^ Phil Jones makes the case for international student ministry in China which is an example of the viability and effectiveness of internationals ministering to other internationals wherever they might be studying. See “ISM in Reverse in China.”
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Narci Herr

Narci Herr

Narci Herr and her husband, Glenn, lived for just over 30 years in Hong Kong. They were first involved in working with the church in Hong Kong and then for the last 20 years of their time in Asia they served workers living in China. During that time Glenn traveled extensively throughout China and Narci …View Full Bio

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