In Part One of this series, we considered the importance of discipling Chinese students as Chinese believers who are prepared to live in a Chinese context (contextualized discipleship). In Part Two, we discussed the need for pre-return training to prepare returnees for the issues they will face when they are home. In this third part we will focus on how to help returnees settle in a church or fellowship where they can serve and be supported in their daily Christian walk.
Is there a Church here?
Most Chinese students are blissfully unaware of the transition issues they will face going home and believe they will be able to easily slot back into their former lives . Chinese who become Christians in Australia are usually unaware of conditions of the church in China. Some believe that there are simply no churches or Christians in their home towns, based on the fact that in their previous non-Christian days they had never met a Christian or seen a church. Locating a church or fellowship in China can be challenging. Although the registered churches are visible, they are not as common as churches in Australia (e.g. in one Chinese city of 5 million people, there are only 4 visible church buildings). Registered churches are crowded and often impersonal and most returnees find them hard to connect with. House churches are even harder to locate. They are underground and invisible to the public eye. Even if a returnee was able to locate one, they would have to be invited by a member. There is a great deal of variation in these churches and it can be hard to work out if they are real Christians or a cult.
It’s just like Australia – isn’t it?
Some returnees hold the mistaken view that the church in China will be, in most ways, similar to the church in Australia and so they are unprepared to deal with what they find. Almost every aspect of church experience can be different, from the length and style of sermons, the kind of worship music, the style of leadership, the lack of resources, the cramped uncomfortable facilities, to the backgrounds of other attendees. Many church leaders in China have spoken about their frustrations of having returnees constantly compare them unfavorably with overseas churches and complain about the church experience. Sadly many returnees try out a few churches and then give up going all together when they can’t find something they like.
What can be done?
If isolation is a key underlying problem, then helping students to make connections that will develop into nurturing and supportive relationships in China is a critical need and the best place to find nourishing spiritual relationships should be in a church or fellowship. What can be done to connect returnees to churches and fellowships and help them to settle? We would like to suggest three things:
Firstly, returnees need information about the Church in China so they can prepare themselves for the time when they return home. Some basic background information can be a great help for setting realistic expectations for church experiences back home. It is good for groups of returnees to have these discussions together and seek to encourage and challenge each other to prayerfully commit to settling in a church after they return to China.
Secondly returnees need to be challenged to make participation in church a priority in their lives. They need to take seriously the challenge of Hebrews 10:25 about “not giving up meeting together”, but instead looking for ways to serve, participate and be a blessing to the church they attend.
Thirdly we need to do what we can to introduce them to a suitable church or network in China. Considering the difficulties mentioned earlier, it is very difficult for returning Christians to find a suitable church or fellowship on their own. This kind of introduction is a lot more complicated than handing out an address or a phone number: in most cases, it is also not possible to look up churches on the internet or for someone to just drop in on a meeting. It requires carefully referring the returnee through a network of people who know and trust each other. A referral is made to Christians in the returnees’ home towns. The latter then contact them and invite them to join them in a church or fellowship meeting. Referrals like these have been shown to be effective, though these networks are not easy to access because of safety and security concerns.
Although never perfect, church should be our spiritual home and the place we are nourished, encouraged and challenged to keep going with our daily Christian walk. Considering all the pressures of life in China, regularly meeting with other believers becomes vital to continuing with faith. In every case we know of, those who give up on Jesus are those who failed to settle in a church or fellowship. We should therefore make every effort to prepare returnees to settle in churches, seek to introduce them to a suitable church in their home and we should endeavour to maintain contact, encouraging and exhorting them to “not give up meeting together… but encouraging one another – and all the more as they see the Day approaching.” (Heb 10:25)
- For some basic information about the Church in China see this article: The Church in China – An Introduction https://thrivingturtles.org/2017/02/09/the-church-in-china-an-introduction/also available in Chinese: https://www.thrivingturtles.org/2017/02/09/%e4%b8%ad%e5%9b%bd%e6%95%99%e4%bc%9a%e7%ae%80%e4%bb%8b-the-church-in-china-an-introduction/
- If you need help to refer a returnee to a church in China, please contact us via the “contact” form on the website. We have a limited resource that may help. If you have no other options, you can ask a Chinese person or the returnee to do a web search in Chinese, using a Chinese search engine like “Baidu”. Key in the name of a town and the phrase “Christian church 基督教会”. This should give you details of government-registered “Three Self Churches”
- We do not recommend International English-speaking churches and fellowships. These are run by and for highly mobile expatriates. Although they may seem attractive and similar to the church overseas, this kind of church will delay returnee from connecting with a local Christian community in their own culture. Only the Chinese church will be able to support them as they become Chinese Christians and live in the Chinese world.