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SHANGHAI—After graduating with a communications degree from Purdue University, Maggie Jiang prayed for God to show her where to go next—stay in the United States or return home to China. Jiang, who had professed faith her first year of college, felt the Lord calling her to go back to China to evangelize her unsaved parents and friends. So she packed her bags and headed to Shanghai, where she found a job as a video editor for a new media company.
Yet nothing about the gleaming metropolis felt familiar to Jiang, who grew up in a smaller city in Anhui province. China had developed and changed in her years away, evidenced by the skyscrapers stretching to the heavens and the luxury shops on every corner. After nearly five years in the States, she felt acutely a lack of respect in her everyday interactions: While crossing the street, scooters and cars wouldn’t stop for her, co-workers traded mean-spirited jokes, and even the Christians she met were judgmental and eager to point out her flaws. Her busy work schedule made it difficult to find time for daily devotionals, and she struggled to connect with fellow believers.
“I went to visit a really small house church, and it was really hard to share my experience with them, they just can’t relate,” Jiang said. “Sometimes we have miscommunications, so I was really frustrated. I felt so lonely and overwhelmed.”
Jiang’s journey is typical for new Chinese converts who return to the mainland. While the recent influx of Chinese international students has created a myriad of opportunities for American churches and college ministries to evangelize the Chinese, many students are unprepared for what’s waiting for them back home: family pressures, grueling work schedules, and a radically different church culture. Ministries working with returnees found that after two years, about 80 percent of students who profess faith while in America no longer attend church.
To help with this transition, returnee ministries in major Chinese cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen try to connect new graduates with local churches and mentors who can help them navigate China as believers. Yet the need isn’t limited to the students—local Chinese church leaders need to learn about the unique perspectives and strengths of returnees, and international student ministries in the United States need training on how to contextualize the gospel for modern-day China and prepare students for their return.
In terms of returnees, the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few: In 2016, 80 percent of Chinese international students returned to China, a total of 432,500 people. Even if just a fraction of the students come to profess faith in college, it still means tens of thousands of new believers returning to China each year. On the other hand, only about a dozen returnee ministries exist, and many don’t last long due to a lack of funding, resources, and infrastructure.
John Li, who now works at a U.S.-based returnee ministry, first saw the severity of the problem when he returned to China after earning his MBA and working for a few years in the United States. Unlike most returnees, Li had been active in a house church and even led a college ministry in China before heading to the States.
‘I went to visit a really small house church, and it was really hard to share my experience with them, they just can’t relate. … I was really frustrated. I felt so lonely and overwhelmed.’ —Maggie Jiang
After arriving in Shanghai in 2009, he found that among his returnee friends who had professed faith while studying abroad, none of them attended church now that they were back in the mainland.
Curious, he started asking them why. Some said they visited churches in Shanghai but didn’t fit in because the structure and sermons were so different from the American churches they were accustomed to. Many noted that the fiercely competitive work culture in Shanghai meant that they had no time to devote to anything besides work.
Li found that none of the international student ministries had followed up with them or tried to help them in their transition, as many staff workers didn’t have the resources or the understanding of Chinese culture. Because these returnees are used to the hospitable, program-based American churches, their expectations were crushed when they stepped into China’s bare-bones churches—some without air conditioning or a church building—where no one greeted them or catered to their needs.
At the same time, local pastors felt wary of these returnees coming in with complaints and unsolicited suggestions of how to make the church more like what they knew in the States, Li said. Some bristled at the sight of these newcomers challenging authority in the church, a taboo in Chinese culture.
“I don’t blame the Chinese church,” Li said. “They went through a ‘survival stage’—they were persecuted and they survived. When you’re in that stage you’re not thinking about proactive outreach.”
In 2012, Li gathered a dozen of his returnee friends in his apartment to study the Bible and discuss their common experiences. At the same time, Li visited churches and met with pastors to find which ones were more receptive to taking in returnees. Often these churches already had members who were returnees and valued their perspectives or even theological training.
Eventually, Li helped plug all the group members into local churches. From there, Li expanded the number of these six-month transitional groups to get returnees thinking about how they could serve the city and the Shanghai church rather than the other way around. International student ministries started referring students to Li, who would mobilize volunteers to meet with the newcomers and get them connected with a transitional group and church.
When returnees first return to China, some want to join English-speaking churches, as they are familiar with the American-style worship, interacting with foreigners, and English terminology for Biblical words. Yet Colin Clark, the pastor of one such church in Shanghai, actually discourages returnees from staying at his church.
Even though many are comfortable in that environment, Clark tells them it’s better for their worship, discipleship, and evangelism if they go to a local Chinese church. Because Chinese is their first language, hearing sermons in Chinese helps them better understand complex topics, and being able to converse with fellow believers in Chinese allows them to develop deeper relationships. And even if the returnee can speak English well, it’s difficult to invite Chinese-speaking family and friends to the church if they can’t understand English.
“Some people feel offended by that, but we say, ‘Listen, our goal is not to get butts in the seats, our goal is to get you to a place that’s most spiritually beneficial for you,’” Clark said. For those who insist on staying, Clark asks them to attend a local church consistently for one month first.
In 2015, Li passed the Shanghai organization on to Susan Xu, another former returnee, as he returned to the United States to work at the Return to China Partnership. (WORLD changed Xu’s name, along with Clark’s, for security reasons.) The group connects different ministries and overseas Chinese churches together to serve the returnee population. The group is also compiling a referral database to help students find a returnee ministry and church in the city they are moving to.
Back in Shanghai, Xu streamlined the process, finding a suitable church for returnees before they even touch down in Shanghai. Xu, however, found it difficult to find volunteers, given the busyness of Shanghai, and to raise funds, as few Christians are aware of the need for returnee ministries.
Earlier this year, the group had to shut down. Xu still works on connecting new returnees and planning events on her own but believes the future is not just in parachurch organizations—it’s in the local Chinese churches. She believes local churches can set up returnee fellowships the same way they do singles groups or moms groups. “We don’t want returnees to think they are different from other brothers and sisters in the church. … Everyone is a member of this church, nothing more, nothing less.”
‘We don’t want returnees to think they are different from other brothers and sisters in the church. … Everyone is a member of this church, nothing more, nothing less.’ —Susan Xu
For Jiang, the returnee, her mentor in the States introduced her to a Christian friend living in Shanghai, and Jiang started attending a fellowship in the suburbs. Each Sunday she treks two hours to attend the meetings, but at the same time wishes for a Christian community closer to her. Recently, her pastor introduced her to several other returnees, and over dinner they shared their struggles returning to China. Jiang felt relieved that she wasn’t alone, and the five of them discussed starting their own returnee group.
Jiang noted that ever since coming to Shanghai, her spiritual life had been in a rut, but she is excited about the new returnee group and also plans to join a discipleship program at her fellowship: “I’m trying to get back on the right track.”
How to help here
What can international student ministries and churches in the United States do to help prepare Chinese students for their return? Here are a few tips from the returnee ministry workers I interviewed:
• Ministry workers should understand the current situation of the church in China and start preparing students for their return as soon as they arrive on campus. This can minimize mismatched expectations when they arrive in China.
• Provide discipleship so that students have a clear understanding of the gospel and how it transforms their lives. John Li found that 8 of 10 referrals could not clearly articulate the gospel.
• Encourage students to read the Bible and pray in their first language in order to better understand the gospel and fit into local churches in China.
• Most students are attracted by the kindness of church members, but be sure to explain the reason behind the hospitality and help them develop a personal relationship with God, not just with other church members. This way their faith will stand firm even when they are taken out of the context of the American church.
• Help students understand the true purpose of the church, the attitude they should have going in (serving rather than consuming), and the difference between legitimate and superficial concerns when choosing a church in China. —J.C.