This paper presents an overview of returnee challenges and discusses how to reduce defection among returnees in issues they commonly face. Practical suggestions on preparing returnees for the transition before they return to their home countries.
Dr. Stuart Bullington served as a missionary in East Asia for nearly eleven years, where he ministered among Christian returnees and evangelised young people preparing to study in Western countries. He and his wife Beth now serve with OMF’s Chinese Diaspora Returnee Ministries field in Sheffield, UK.
Preparing Diaspora Converts for their Return to East Asia
Mission Round Table Vol. 12 No. 2 (May-Aug 2017): 26-30
East Asians who convert to the Christian faith while living abroad face a unique challenge—after returning home they will need to live as Christians in a context that is very different from the one in which they came to faith. Not only will the home context be different, it will be many times more difficult.
In the early decades (1950s–80s) of international student ministry in the West, this reality was often ignored. The emphasis was on welcoming and extending hospitality to foreign students, with little thought given to the future prospects for those who came to faith in Christ.
Since the 1990s, however, as communications and ease of travel have improved, the full measure of the challenges new converts face in the East has been seen more clearly. Anecdotal evidence gathered in the author’s interviews with international student workers in 2010 indicated that a mass defection was taking place among returnees in China every year: 75 to 85 percent of those who had attended Christian meetings as students in the West never met with Christians in China, and thus fell away from the faith. In Japan informed sources have indicated that the defection rate is even higher.
This article will focus on the thousands of East Asian young people, especially the Mainland Chinese, who study at the university level in Western countries (USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Netherlands, etc.). It must be kept in mind, however, that the East Asian diaspora population is much larger, more widely distributed, and more diverse than this.
Returnee challenges: A brief overview
Why is it that so many returnees are falling away? Why are we losing so many promising Chinese young people, for example, when they return to China? The change of context, already mentioned, is clearly the major factor. But we can be more specific than that. The following list provides a brief sketch of the kinds of challenges diaspora Chinese converts face upon their return.
Isolation, Identity, and Culture Shock
Going home alone: From the moment a homeward-bound student boards the plane, all social support for his or her Christian faith is gone. The free dinners, outings, picnics, fun activities, and cross-cultural friendships that the student once enjoyed in Christian groups overseas have come to an end. Isolation immediately begins to take its toll.
For some students, there is a strong association between experiences in the West and the Christian faith and it can be hard to separate the two. This is especially true for those whose entire Christian experience has been in English. Having never discovered what it means to be a Chinese Christian, the students may unconsciously presume that leaving the West means leaving Christianity behind.
Adjusting once more to the traffic, noise, and crowded conditions of China may take some time. Some returnees now have concerns about food safety and the health effects of China’s air and water pollution, even if they never had these concerns before.
Re-entry (or reverse) culture shock begins to set in. This is usually unexpected, and can last from about six months to one year (or even longer). Returnees may struggle with feelings of not belonging and not fitting in. They may experience deep feelings of loss and “homesickness” for the host country. Since these feelings are not understood or appreciated by friends and relatives who have never left home, the returnees tend to withdraw and dream about going overseas again. Many find that their feelings are only understood by other returnees.
For some, returning home means moving back in with parents and other family members. Every movement is under parental scrutiny. The freedom, privacy, independence, and personal space that students enjoyed overseas are gone.
Traditional Chinese families that practice ancestor worship or temple rituals will often expect or demand that their children participate. For new believers who are not prepared to negotiate their way through this conflict, the pressure can be intense and the result is often capitulation.
Female students, especially, may face pressure from their parents to marry non-Christians after they return. This can be very difficult to resist, especially when there are no eligible Christian men. Marrying a non-Christian, however, will make it difficult, if not impossible, to practice the Christian faith.
Finding a job is usually not as easy as returnees expect. They often discover that there is intense competition for any job opening. This may predispose them to accept the first job that is offered. If they succeed in finding a job, they may immediately be faced with crushing and brutally long hours at work on top of a long commute. Chronic exhaustion can become a way of life.
The Chinese workplace often leads Christians into moral and ethical compromise. Cheating, lying to customers, bribery, corruption, kickbacks, tax evasion, false accounting, and alcohol abuse are often the norm. Employees may get fired because of failure to go along with these practices.
Financial pressures to buy a house, or to repay relatives for financing their overseas education, may drive returnees to seek the highest-paying positions, regardless of the personal consequences or cost to their spiritual lives.
When returnees try to get involved in Chinese churches, they often discover that it is not easy. For those who do not live in the large cities or prefer not to join the registered Three-Self Church it may be difficult to locate a house church, since many are not registered and meet in undisclosed locations. Members of these churches have learned to be cautious after years of persecution, and newcomers may feel that they are not very welcoming. Returnees who attend house churches may also notice an often huge gap in age, education, and social status between themselves and the church members, which can make it hard for them to make friends or feel that they belong.
They often search for a church just like the one they attended while overseas, but of course it is impossible to find—there is no church like that in China. And so, after visiting two or three churches, they just give up.
Returnees may also be concerned about the possibility of trouble with the authorities or career repercussions from attending Christian gatherings.
In cities where returnee fellowships exist, newly arrived returnees will often find a warm welcome. But these groups can be hard to find and many returnees do not even know they exist.
Given all of the challenges they face, there is little chance that Christian returnees will make it on their own. Their only chance of surviving as practicing Christians is to join a close-knit faith community which, as we have just noted, presents its own set of challenges.
Reducing the numbers of those who fall away
Is there anything that we can do in Western host countries to reduce the defection rate among returnees? The options for intervention fall into two general areas:
- Pre-return preparation
- Post-return connection to churches and returnee fellowships in East Asia
In this article we will focus on the first area—doing a better job of preparing new converts for their return. We will take it as a working hypothesis that pre-return preparation can be effective in reducing the rate of returnee defection.
But what, in practice, does pre-return preparation consist of? Or, given the fact that many diaspora field workers are already involved in some form of Bible study and discipleship training with East Asian students, perhaps we can ask the question in a different way: “What kind of discipleship training can we give students to make it less likely that they will fall away as returnees?”
We offer the following five suggestions as to how this might be done:
1. Turn believers into doers
The New Testament depicts a true disciple of Jesus as a doer, one who abides in his word and translates faith into action (John 8:31). Disciples are believers, to be sure, but a fully biblical response to Christ does not end with belief, as all too many have defined it, that is, a mental assent to certain doctrines. Instead, in the biblical disciple’s life there is a seamless and natural expression of faith in ways that other people can see and experience: good behaviour, good works, right living, actions that put the fruit of the Spirit on display before a watching world.
The New Testament always assumes that there will be this kind of harmonious integration between the disciple’s inward faith and outward action, a consistency between the inner life and the public persona.
In John 13, after washing the disciples’ feet and commanding them to follow his example, Jesus tells them, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17). Tellingly, the blessing comes, not in the knowing, but in the doing. It is only the true disciple, the practitioner, who discovers the blessing that lies, dormant but waiting, in the word of God.
James 1:22–25 is another passage that addresses the question of this integration of faith and action directly.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (NIV)
James sees any attempt to separate believing from doing as an aberration that requires correction! Listening to God’s word should naturally lead to doing what it says, and those who do this will “be blessed in what they do.” Apparently James apprehended, even among the earliest Christians, a tendency to substitute mental assent for wholehearted obedience.
The New Testament also includes doing as a critical factor in the disciple’s witness to the world. Matthew 5:16 is an example of this.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (NIV)
Believing flows naturally into doing, and those who witness the good deeds that result will experience God’s goodness in a way that leads to praise.
There is nothing in these verses that should lead anyone to question the clear teaching of Scripture on justification by faith alone. However, as Martin Luther said, “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works.” We are right to expect that the inward transformation of a disciple of Christ will be expressed in outward action, in behaviour, and in good deeds.
In the practice of diaspora ministry, then, it follows that we need to communicate and demonstrate that Christians are people who take action and do not just talk. Discipleship is not just a “mind game”, an empty intellectual pursuit. It is instead a purposeful quest for transformation—in the individual, in the family, and in society. The study of the Bible should bring about tangible changes in all areas of life.
It is important for those who disciple East Asian students to think of disciples as apprentices, those who are learning practical skills on the job by imitating a more experienced journeyman. In 1 Corinthians 11:1 Paul wrote, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Again, the emphasis in Scripture is on a life on display, actions that can be seen and imitated. If East Asians become practitioners of God’s word while overseas, they will be better prepared to practice it in Asia.
Of course we cannot work with God to “turn believers into doers” until we first have believers! Faith always comes first. We hope that our disciples will have a clear and biblical understanding of the good news about Jesus and a genuine faith that emerges from this understanding. To this end, we never tire of proclaiming the good news accurately from the Scriptures in ways that make sense to East Asians. And we would do well to make sure that our disciples can explain the good news clearly to others before they return home.
But if we proclaim the good news to East Asians only verbally and not through action, we unwittingly encourage a “mental assent” view of faith. Our disciples may, with some justification, conclude that Christianity is mainly about words and ideas, rather than life transformation, and that these words and ideas may safely be discussed in private, without any impact or crossover into the public sphere. Is this the kind of Christianity that we want our disciples to take back to East Asia?
Contextualisation, if it is defined clearly and biblically, can often be a helpful conceptual tool in cross-cultural mission. But in ministry to East Asians in the diaspora it is important that we do not limit our thinking about this to macrocultures (Chinese, Japanese, Thai, etc.). To be as practical and helpful as possible, contextualisation should also be more granular, that is, more individualised and specific. This will involve delving into the microcultures and social groups to which our disciples will belong after they return home. One way of pursuing this is by sensitively asking our disciples about their home contexts so that we can educate ourselves about them.
It may help us to think of “contexts” sociologically, in terms of the specific social situations the disciple will face. We have shown that a disciple is a doer, one who translates faith into action. This action will inevitably take place, however, in a social context—not in an abstract communication space such as “culture” or “worldview”, not just in the realm of ideas or values, but in concrete social situations that make up the relational fabric of daily life: school, work, family, church.
These are the settings into which the disciple will bring the biblical message incarnationally, that is, physically—by means of his or her distinctive lifestyle, behaviour, and good works that display biblical values and mediate the biblical message.
In the practice of diaspora ministry, then, we need to somehow prepare our disciples for the challenges that these future East Asian social contexts will present, while, at the same time, helping them to see the wonderful opportunities they will have to be witnesses for Christ.
Here are some general suggestions for the practice of contextualised discipleship among East Asians in the diaspora.
- From the moment we first meet an international student, we need to keep the end in mind. How is what we are teaching and modeling preparing this student for returning to East Asia?
- While teaching the Bible we need to emphasise practical application, both for current as well as future contexts. This should be done, however, with a high degree of cultural understanding, as appropriate applications may vary depending on the cultural and social contexts. An ongoing dialogue with East Asian disciples is recommended. How would they, as cultural insiders, appropriately express the values being taught in Scripture within their family setting back home? In the workplace? In the church? We do not want to be overly prescriptive, but rather help our disciples to develop skills in applying Scripture in daily life, wherever they may be.
- Since much of this is anticipatory, however, it may feel a bit unreal. How can we prepare our disciples for contexts that we ourselves have never seen or experienced, that we can learn about only through the person we are discipling? The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the new converts will, in many cases, not return to exactly the same contexts from which they came. Perhaps the best resource, supplementing the information provided by our disciple, is the experience of other Christian returnees. Case studies, constructed from returnee stories gathered in the home country, may be used to illustrate the kinds of conflicts that Christians are running into when they return. When studied together with relevant Bible passages, the disciple can begin to work out how he or she will respond if faced with a similar situation.
3. Encourage participation in Christian communities
The best discipling takes place in a community—a small group, a fellowship group, a church. In the community of faith new converts find multiple role models, gain from exposure to the full panoply of personalities and gifts, and learn by observing and communicating with Christians in all ages and stages of life. Here new converts can begin to serve, eventually learning to lead in various aspects of community life. By affiliating with and then belonging to a community, a new personal identity begins to form, derived from the identity of the group. Over time the convert begins to self-identify openly as a Christian in contexts beyond the community, hesitantly at first, but then with greater confidence as relationships within the community grow deeper.
What kind of Christian community, then, prepares new converts best for their return to East Asia? Here are some identifiable characteristics:
Ideally, East Asian students need a community that:
- Invites them into a hands-on, immersive experience of the living church, the body of Christ.
- Teaches directly from the Bible and applies biblical teachings to all areas of life.
- Provides opportunities for new converts to serve and to lead.
- Helps new converts to learn how to read the Bible, pray, worship, and share their faith in their own native language.
- Helps the person develop a Chinese, Japanese, or Thai, etc., Christian identity, so that they will not view Christianity as exclusively Western. We aim to produce indigenous Christians who will take Christ home without taking the West along with him!
- Provides instruction and guidance on how Christians should respond to the challenging aspects of East Asian cultures: ancestor worship, idolatry, organised or folk religious practices, obedience to non-Christian parents, pursuit of wealth and status, face, corrupt business practices, marriage to non-Christians, etc.
- Maintains relational ties to churches in East Asia and can introduce converts to people in these churches when they return.
- Can help new converts appreciate the history and culture of the indigenous churches back home, so that they will understand why they are different from churches in the host country. It is also essential to help new converts learn how to recognize and avoid cults.
4. Build skills in spiritual self-care and in cultivating the spiritual life
What are the essential things that disciples must understand, believe, and do to survive and thrive? These are the things we need to model and teach. This “curriculum” (for lack of a better word!) will include universal elements that apply in every culture, as well as contextual elements that will equip the disciple to make good choices when confronted by the specific temptations and trials likely to be encountered in East Asia.
As a general rule, it will be helpful to emphasise core biblical values and life skills rather than prescriptive solutions for every problem, so that the disciple may retain the utmost flexibility in finding the best way to apply Scripture in any context.
We suggest that the eight topics in the list below be included in a curriculum on the spiritual life. The order of topics does not imply any hierarchy, as all need to be covered. Each topic will need to be unpacked from the Bible and illustrated by practical examples and applications set in an East Asian context. The idea of making this selection is simply to give each new convert a basic spiritual survival pack, containing the most essential ingredients to sustain their spiritual life.
- The Lordship of Christ
- The Word
- Bible reading
- Scripture memory
- Inductive Bible study methods
- Learn how to identify God’s values in a Bible passage and how to live out these values in daily life
- Spiritual Warfare
- The necessity of participating in church and Christian fellowship
- Witnessing and mission
- Marriage and family life
- Workplace issues
Someone may protest that this is a lot to cover, and, given the short interval between the typical student’s conversion and departure for home, there is simply not enough time to teach it all. In response, we might suggest that it is better to be broad than deep. An overview of the most basic biblical teaching in each area could be done in a single weekend, and it would at least alert the student to the fact that the Bible has much to say in these areas that they may want to explore in depth in the future.
5. For those who are open to further training, try to extend their stay in the host country
Many East Asian disciples have to return home before they are ready to stand on their own two feet as Christian disciples. It is often painful to see them go, knowing what lies in wait for them on the other side.
In many cases, however, this situation can be avoided by extending their stay in the host country. Students may apply to a Bible school for additional Bible training. They may enter a training or internship program in a church, or serve with an urban mission. In the UK, Friends International offers a training programme—The Reach Programme—for committed Christians in international student ministry. There may also be opportunities to serve in cross-cultural missions in other countries. Whenever it appears that our disciples could benefit from an extended stay, we should work with them to explore all of the possibilities.
Perhaps, as we conclude, we can take a moment to answer a common objection to pre-return preparation. We could state it in the form of an extended question: “If these East Asian students are really saved, then how can they fall away? Isn’t God able to help them persevere in their faith?”
The implication is that any human effort (such as pre-return preparation) will ultimately have little effect on whether students actually persevere after returning home. The underlying theological question is a serious one that needs to be addressed. While we cannot even begin here to explain how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility work together, we can nevertheless offer a few thoughts in defence of pre-return preparation:
- The question essentially ignores God’s use of means. Yes, God will help them to persevere in their faith, and he may decide to use pre-return preparation to do it.
- The question suggests, a bit unfairly, that pre-return preparation is motivated by a lack of trust in God’s ability to take care of his own. On the contrary, it is God’s love for the returning students that compels us to help them!
- The question subtly implies that Christians cannot and should not be involved in helping other Christians to persevere. Is this really what the Bible teaches? Augustine is credited with saying, “Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you.” Yes, we can agree that everything depends on God, yet he still has work for us to do.
1 The reader may find it helpful to survey the ethnic diversity and geographic distribution of the East Asian diaspora by exploring the links within the following Wikipedia webpage: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:East_Asian_diaspora (accessed 15 August 2017).
2 The segment here and the subsequent three segments on Family, Work, and Church, are taken, with some modification, from the author’s published article at http://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/the-need-for-chinese-students-to-prepare-for-their-return (accessed 15 August 2017).
3 Of course the idea of contextualisation is not taught explicitly in the Bible, but it can be argued that there are many passages that lay a foundation for its later development as a missiological principle. As we minister to East Asians, we especially want to avoid any approach to contextualisation that involves changing the biblical message to make it more pleasing to the hearers, thus creating another gospel! True biblical contextualisation is faithful to the biblical message, changing only the presentation, not the content, so as to allow this message to be heard clearly and without confusion in the recipient culture.