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Real Relations and Real Connections

By Tim Brookings on Oct 20, 2021 12:10 am

Having guest edited the summer 2021 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly on campus ministry within mainland China, I was encouraged to see the theme of campus ministry continued in the autumn 2021 issue. The circumstances of life and ministry within mainland China have an influence on ministry with students outside China. This collection of articles edited by Joann Pittman provides a helpful look into ministry with international students, both throughout history and in the present day. As we navigate the ever-changing circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, discerning the way forward in campus ministry is crucial.

One theme that stands out in all these articles is the need for real relationship and connection. Whether campus ministry continues to happen primarily online, changes back to in-person, or becomes a hybrid version of the two, building relationships with students is key for the development of campus ministry.

In the first of these two issues, Nyima Rongwu talks specifically about the need for building long-term relationships in ministry with minority students. I would add that given the importance of relationships within the various cultures in the mainland, long-term relational connections have been essential for most, if not all, churches in China. In a similar way, relational connections are vital for ministry with international students. More than any program or event we might organize, the relational connections that Chinese students make while overseas can have a major impact on their experience and even draw them to faith in Christ.

Stacey Bieler’s article gives us a fascinating look at Chinese international students who came to the US more than a century ago. Even as early as 1847, when Rong Hong came to the US for university studies, Americans building friendships with Chinese international students had a profound impact and led to ongoing ministry opportunities with other students.

Relational connections continue to be essential as we reach out to Chinese international students today. The ways of forming those relationships have changed over time, so if we want to build friendship with Chinese international students, especially during a pandemic, we need to be adaptable and flexible to the circumstances we encounter.

Even before the pandemic struck, the way young people formed relationships had changed drastically from what we saw even 10 years ago. Peng Chaoyang’s article gives us a great look into the current generation of university students (Gen Z), who are often more comfortable online than they are in-person. For Gen Z, forming relationships often comes much more easily through their devices than it does through face-to-face contact.

During my last several years in China (2015–2019) I saw that rapid shift in relationship building take place, and it was hard to adjust. In-person group activities were much less attended than what I had seen in previous years. WeChat and other social media platforms came to dominate not just communication but also regular social interactions. Students often had a stronger sense of connection with their friends online than they did with their university classmates. Even before COVID-19, those working in campus ministry in China had to face the reality of a new generation of students feeling more accustomed to life online.

Reading Peng’s article reminded me of the need to be creative about reaching this generation of Chinese international students online. Of course, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sent most of us into online gatherings of all sorts. Conferences and church services, even everyday activities such as work and school, all shifted online because we had no other option. Even after 18 months, most of us are still grappling with the impacts of the pandemic every day. Many of us wonder if we will ever return to in-person ministry activities in the way that we had previously experienced.

As I realize the need for spending more time online to connect with students, though, I feel a bit depressed. My personal desire for face-to-face relational connection makes me cringe at the thought of continuing with mostly online interactions. I resonated with the articles by Phil Jones, Leo, and Jon Kuert as they examined the challenges of online ministry in the formation of deep and lasting relationships.

Jones speaks of the challenges faced by international students who are currently studying at Chinese universities, both in person and online. International students located within China face isolation because of pandemic restrictions and the local perception of foreigners bringing in new cases of the virus. International students stuck outside of China because of border restrictions have been forced to take classes online separated from their classmates. Either way, the relational connection between Chinese Christians and international students in China has been severely disrupted by the pandemic.

Leo speaks about the challenges faced by Chinese returnee ministry. With ministry happening almost entirely online, Leo notes that there are opportunities for connection between people in different countries, such as with pre-departure retreats that prepare students for returning to China. But he also notes that deeper connections are harder to form online, especially when there is no previous relational connection. This lack of deeper relational connection has presented challenges to the returnee ministry that seeks to build bridges between returnees and Chinese churches.

It is sobering to read of these challenges discussed by Jones and Leo. We can lament these circumstances and cry out to the Lord, asking him to bring about change so that these obstacles might be taken away. And yet the Lord is certainly at work among many people through online ministry opportunities.

The church in mainland China is engaging in much of that online ministry, and we can learn from their experience. Ironically, during a time when in-person ministry had become much more difficult in China because of restrictions by Chinese authorities, believers in mainland China have been able to operate online in relative freedom. As the old saying goes, when one door closes, a window opens.

At the same time, it seems that only so much can happen without in-person relational connection. Face-to-face interaction with life-on-life conversation and connection seem to be the lifeblood of ministry that grows disciples in Christ. While we need to adapt to a changing world post-pandemic, not to mention build relationships with a generation that is often most at home in the online world, the body of Christ still needs communities of believers rubbing shoulders with one another and influencing each other towards following Christ with our whole hearts.

In this vein, I close with some thoughts that come from reading Jon Kuert’s article. Even under pandemic restrictions, Kuert and his wife have found creative ways to connect with Chinese students. Kuert sees the huge academic pressure these students still face on campus. On top of that, Chinese international students have often faced isolation and anti-Asian backlash during the pandemic. Attending an activity off campus like hiking or camping provides a pressure release, as well as time for relational connection. Meals at home with small groups of students also provide settings for conversation and connection that would not happen as easily online.  

After tons of Zoom meetings over the last 18 months, I can attest that “Zoom fatigue” is real. Perhaps you can relate! A hike in the woods or a meal at someone’s home with rich conversation can be a breath of fresh air. Imagine how activities such as these might refresh our Chinese international student friends who are struggling with isolation and academic pressure.

Kuert and his wife have found ways to minister that have adapted to the restrictions of the pandemic while also providing opportunity for deeper relational connection. Many other ministries have also begun to make connections with Chinese international students again, both online and in person.

Let’s continue to find creative ways to be present online with this new generation of students. Let’s also find creative ways to connect in person with these students. We might not be able to have large gatherings, but maybe we can build trust and friendship with a few students that will have deeper impact. Maybe we need to be more active on Instagram or venture into WeChat more regularly, but that connection may spark conversation with a young student who is longing for deeper connection.

Let’s look for ways to make deeper relational connections with students, both online and in person. May God be glorified as we do.


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