“Have you considered that the Chinese student you are connecting with may one day be a person of influence in China?” That was the closing question posed by Leo to Christians around the world on a recent ChinaSource blog post. This article from Overseas Campus Ministries shares about not only about the need to minister to returnees, but also offers some practical tips how to do so.
“Lay Missions” and Returnee Ministry
“Elite Missions” Verses “Lay Missions”
In the North American church, when missions work is brought up, people generally think that this is the work of missionaries or pastoral staff, such as lecturing in a seminary, or hosting trainings in churches, etc. which seems difficult for the common congregation (also known as “lay Christians”) to become involved in. “I don’t know how to teach, or how to invite others, how can I be involved in missions?” “I don’t know much theology; I wouldn’t know what to say . . .”
So-called “common missions” is simply “missions by lay Christians.” Please note, whether the term “commoners” or “lay Christians” is used, there is no intent to belittle congregational brothers and sisters. Because in the famous Great Commission (Matthew 28), Jesus Christ teaches, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” This is addressed to every person who follows Jesus. Being involved in missions is the undeniable duty and call of every Christian.
In North American churches, God is continually raising up many “lay members” to be involved in mission work across the world, in many different ways. But because of the special circumstances within China, the methods and opportunities for missions is severely limited. Then do we simply let go, give up? What better ways are there for more “lay members” to become involved in missions work?
The Rise of Returnee Ministries
In recent years, many Christians have returned to China, and returnee ministries have subsequently risen up.
Attrition rate: the shocking reality
Along with the change in Chinese economy and American immigration policy, more and more Chinese professionals and students studying abroad are choosing to return to China for career development. According to statistics, by the end of 2018, as many as 3.651 million returnees have returned. In 2018 alone, the number of returnees exceeded 500,000 for the first time. If we calculate Christians among them at a rate of 5-10%, then “returnee” Christians are probably about 290,000 to 360,000, growing by 25,000 to 50,000 a year.
However, many of the Christians are not able to integrate with the local church after returning to China as expected. Staff at a North American returnees missions seminar (RMF 2017) hosted in Atlanta shared a shocking statistic: the attrition rate of returnee Christians is as high as 80%. That is to say, for every 10 returnees who have become Christians while abroad (including those who are converted but not baptized), eight no longer attend gatherings after returning, and many may have been lost.
This is an unfortunate, regretful reality!
Returnees not only refer to overseas students or visiting scholars, but also to large numbers of people from China who, while visiting relatives, doing business, or travelling, entered the church out of curiosity or because they were seeking the meaning of life. In the church I attend, I see such visitors almost every Sunday. After receiving the gospel, most of these return to China. However, the attrition rate is even higher among these people, some guessing possibly as high as 90%.
Challenges faced by returnees
Returnee Christians coming to Christ while living abroad have experienced a renewal of life and faith, thus their values have also changed. But on returning to China, they find that they don’t quite belong in their home country. In this familiar but foreign world, they face all sorts of severe challenges:
In terms of spiritual life
Many returnee Christians have been believers for a relatively short time, and have not experienced spiritual training. Some people need to return as soon as they become Christian or they get baptized, without receiving any basic discipleship training.
In terms of social environment
When new Christians return, they face great challenges in both work and life, including pressures in interpersonal relationships (such as forced dates or arranged marriages or others not understanding their new-found belief), work pressure (the so-called nine-to-nine, six-day work environment), economic pressures (buying a house, a car, children’s education), etc. In addition, reverse cultural and moral shocks, the temptation of unhealthy trends, all bring unprecedented challenges to their faith.
In terms of church differences
There are great differences in the form of gathering, pastoring, or the organizational structures between churches abroad and churches at home. “Difficulty in finding a church” is a common problem for returnee Christians, especially severe in second- and third-tier cities.
Returnee Christians are the first gospel fruit wrought by churches abroad. Do we remember how much time and energy we spent to bring them to Christ? What a pity if we lose them!
Returnees Ministry: New Highlights in Lay Missions
Returnee Christians are also precious in the eyes of God! In recent years, my team has viewed returnee ministry as an important mission—to find the Christians who have returned but been lost; and for those not yet returned, to do all in our strength to care for them and grow them, so that they are prepared to be seeds for the gospel. Therefore, we have proposed “missions work centered on returnees,” and strongly urge and encourage brothers and sisters in churches abroad to continually concern themselves with the returnee Christians, and thus organize short-term mission trips within the church or across churches to visit them in China.
Some will ask, what use to the church abroad is “missions centered on returnees”?
First, this is a model of “lay missions” and is part of the church’s missions work. Because these brothers and sisters who return to China have once interacted intimately with us, though they are now far from us, we are still connected in heart. Sadly, due to busyness or neglect, aside from occasional contact, we rarely have time to care for them.
However, after returning to China, these brothers and sisters dearly desire the care of brothers and sisters from their home church, because the home church is where they were saved and reborn. When they encounter bottlenecks in their spiritual growth, they often think of the pastors and staff who led them to Christ. When faced with difficulties and challenges in faith, they miss the help they once received from their home church.
Let us reflect thus. Has our memory of them faded? Do we understand their current difficulties and challenges? Should we not care for them and visit them?
For example, in my own experience and the experience of many coworkers, when we go back to visit the returnees, almost without exception, the visited person is unusually moved. They welcome us sincerely and whole-heartedly arranging our room and board. Our time together is often filled with moving looks and tears of gratitude because they feel not only the love of brothers and sisters abroad but the love of the Lord Jesus. From this we can see how much they need care and pastoring.
Secondly, missions centered on returnees is a forward-looking ministry that raises up of future Chinese church leaders.
We have observed that although returnees face great challenges, there are still many people who, after experiencing the fierce growing pains upon returning, finally get their footing and integrate with the local church. In service, many of these become leaders. They are well-educated, having the experience of growing up in churches abroad. When they mature spiritually, not only can they receive new returnees across the country, but they will become the future leaders of the church.
Even more exciting, among the returnees there are many “seminary returnees” (meaning those who have graduated from seminaries abroad). They return with the purpose of church planting, already on the way to becoming the future leaders of the Chinese church. Thus, continual training for them is a forward-looking ministry.
Therefore, our team plans to select some spiritually mature, willing-to-serve “older” returnees who are already rooted in the local church, and provide them with small group and leadership training. We hope that they will one day become “seeds” in different places, establishing returnee groups, welcoming new returnees, and lead them into church and fellowship.
How to Be Involved in “Lay Missions”?
Then, how can brothers and sisters abroad become involved in “lay missions”? We suggest three methods:
Encourage members with a mainland background in the overseas churches to spend time visiting returnee brothers and sisters when they go back to China for family visits.
Encourage brothers and sisters returning to China for short-term work to visit returnee brothers and sisters when they are off work.
Encourage brothers and sisters who are returning as tourists to take time to visit returnees. One might even consider organizing a “tour group” and see the sights with returnees, so as to have more time to interact and care for them.
Someone once memorably said, “as long as you know how to host dinner parties and lead Bible study, you can be involved.” Indeed, almost anyone can be involved in “missions centered on returnees,” as long as they have the Great Commission in their heart, and a heart of “Here I am! Send me.”
I will offer two real examples of returnee missions for reference:
In my previous church, there were a couple who were visiting scholars from a higher education institution in China. They were top notch scholars and professors. During their brief year in America, soon after hearing the gospel in a church, they quickly believed and were both baptized. After brief discipleship training, they started leading Bible studies in their home after returning to China. Not only did returnee students and scholars join, but also colleagues and graduate students. In the beginning, this couple did not know how to lead Bible studies, so they went through the Scriptures, passage by passage, verse by verse.
Thank the Lord, many staff and brothers and sisters from their church abroad did not stop visiting them, teaching them how to lead a Bible study, establishing small groups, and sharing the gospel. In two short years, not only did they become the receiving family for “new returnees,” but they attracted many local members as well. Now this fellowship is transforming into a church, and has their own Sunday gathering. They also invite local pastors to lead communion and preach. When I met them again, I could not express my joy at seeing their warmth and light beaming forth. It is as if I saw the future of the church!
I have seen returnee Christians scattered in all four corners of a big city. Like “fairies casting flowers,” they all “floated” to this city. Not knowing one another, they were facing various challenges on their own: the difficulty of finding a church, the mad rhythm of work, the pressure of getting married and making friends. . . Seeing this situation, we connected everyone by contacting the churches they attended before their return. Afterwards, we arranged for the staff of the various churches to take turns visiting this unofficial “small group,” and also contacted local pastors on their behalf. Slowly, staff stepped up and began leading the fellowship in regular gathering. New returnees joined as well, and community gospel work unfolded. Watching them grow stronger as they face difficulties, we are thankful from the depths of our heart!
“Lay members” in the church can also become “elite soldiers” in returnee missions work. Returnee work can supply a “new bright spot” and an actionable opportunity for missions work in the North American church. The hearts of returnee brothers and sisters and the hearts of brothers and sisters abroad are connected. The goal is to spread the gospel across the entire world. As one returnee sister said:
Such is our mission: It is not smooth sailing but continual difficulty and challenges. Only by trusting in God can we get through. But the process is full of peace and joy, as the Lord Jesus has promised, ‘For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30); and most importantly is the eternal hope that comes from Jesus Christ. In walking with God from now on, I will spread the gospel even more, and bring to even more people the Word of the Lord and his love, and this is the mission God brought me back to China for.
I pray that one day, in our global army of evangelism, we will see returnee Christians. And I pray for God to remember each lay member who has been involve in returnee missions.
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