What does it take for Returnees to Thrive? Part 1

Stuart Bullington has been working with Chinese students in the US, Asia and the UK for more than 20 years. He suggests that students need to be prepared in three ways in order to succeed when they return to China[i]. Firstly, they need to be discipled as a Chinese believer (contextualized discipleship). Secondly, they need to receive specific training in order to understand the issues they will face on returning home and to develop coping strategies (pre-return training). Thirdly, they need to be introduced into networks of churches and other believers in China (networking). In this article we will consider the first of these – contextualized discipleship.

Discipleship is engaging with new believers in conversations about what it means to live as a Christian. It occurs with individuals, in small groups and in larger meetings. Discipleship includes prayer, Bible reading, discussions, singing, listening to teaching as well as opportunities to serve in various ways, all within the context of supportive relationships. Chinese students experience this in Australia, but in many cases the context and focus is ‘English speaking Australia’. ‘Contextualizing’ for these students needs to be discipling with the ‘China context’ in mind. It is vital that the students know how to live out their faith as Chinese Christians in China. They need to know how to be a follow of Jesus in their homes and communities in China, how to be an appropriate witness before their family, friends and society and how to relate and fellowship with Chinese believers who make up churches and fellowships in China. But – how can they do this if they are unfamiliar with the Chinese Bible, are uncomfortable praying in Chinese and can’t discuss issues of faith using Chinese language? It is a sad fact that many Chinese students discipled in English in Australia go home to find they are unable to express their faith in Chinese to parents and friends in a way they can understand, and they find it challenging to attend a Chinese church. This is the major reason they fail to connect with other believers in China and become isolated.

Chinese students are often less than willing to engage with Chinese Christianity while in Australia. They prefer to use English for Christian activities and this flows over to their personal reading and praying. They find the Chinese Bible is complicated and not as easy to pick up and read, and many Chinese genuinely find it easier to read the English Bible and will push back on suggestions to do some of their reading in Chinese. Unfortunately, many well-meaning student workers have accepted the student doing this – believing that it’s more important for the student to understand the text than for them to engage its content with their inner Chinese-self.   As well as this, Chinese churches in Australia are generally conservative and traditional, and few would be ‘un-churched people friendly’ making it difficult for a Chinese student to feel comfortable attending.   Busy Australian campus workers often don’t have resources to provide mother-tongue Bible study opportunities for international students. All this means that there is little chance of the student being encouraged to grow as a Christian in a Chinese context.

What can be done? Firstly, it requires a change in mindset for ministry workers. This may mean rethinking some basic ministry principles and it may mean the challenge of allowing ministry activities to happen in a language you don’t understand. Secondly, it means learning enough about Chinese language resources so you can equip your students with a Bible in their mother tongue. Bible apps on the phone make this easy. Thirdly, it means encouraging Chinese students to spend ‘some’ of their time in worship/study/ministry in Chinese. They don’t need to stop using the English Bible, or leave their campus ministry or church, but they should look for ways to spend some of their time each week studying the Chinese Bible, praying and discussing what they believe in a Chinese context. In your ministry you can encourage small group studies or prayer groups to use Chinese instead of English. You can use study materials that are bilingual and encourage them to read the Chinese version. There are links to some resources below.

When discipling, we need to keep the end in mind: what are we discipling or preparing them for? If their future context is in China, then we need to do all we can to prepare them for that context so they can connect to the Church and thrive in their faith.


Link to: What does it take for returnees to thrive – part 2

Link to: What does it take for returnees to thrive – part 3


[i] Bullington S., “Diaspora Ministries: A View from the Field: Adding to Church Growth in East Asia by Discipling the Diaspora.”