Heading Home with Jesus
Heading Home with Jesus: Preparing Chinese Students to Follow Christ in China (Debbie D. Philip). Littleton, CO: William Carey Library, 2018.
Book Review by Stephanie and Kittie Helmick
“Are you a straw in a bundle of straws or a ripple in a pond?” According to Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong, Westerners perceive themselves as straws: bundled with other people in our communities, but remaining distinct and separate individuals. Chinese, on the other hand, believe each person affects others like ripples intersecting and overlapping in a pond.
In Heading Home with Jesus, author Debbie D. Phillip quotes Fei Xiaotong to illustrate the cultural misunderstandings that arise when Western Christians minister to visiting Chinese students and scholars. Often the Chinese may appear to have converted without sincere changes of heart or without committing to their new faith. Alternatively, the Western ministries may fail to prepare new Christians for maintaining and practicing their faith when they return to their homeland.
In response to these daunting challenges, Phillip proposes an alternative to short-term ministry: discipleship. It is not enough for Western Christians to try to convert their Chinese guests. To overcome the barriers to practicing Christianity in China, Western ministries must train new converts during their visits--and continue supporting them after they return home. To disciple new Chinese believers properly, Phillip urges readers to transition from serving their guests, to teaching new believers to serve others.
Philip identifies five key areas for better ministering to Chinese visitors: needs, context, people, change, and implications. Part 1 of Heading Home with Jesus covers the unique challenges faced in ministering to the Chinese in the West. Part 2 gives an overview of Chinese society, education, and culture, analyzing how these factors have affected how Chinese perceive the world and themselves. Part 3 shares testimonies from those who made professions of faith after their return to China, including some who fell away from the church and others who strengthened their faith through trials. Part 4 examines the trends in Chinese conversions, based on 19 testimonies contributed to the work. Part 5 recommends practical steps for discipling Chinese converts.
The introduction sets the scene for the whole book by introducing the idea of traveling Chinese scholars, explaining their motivations for going abroad, and identifying the goal of Christians who reach out to them. It discusses how Christianity has grown in China, along with the general increase of interest in spiritual matters. Philip warns that Christianity is not the only religion in “competition...for the souls of the Chinese.”
Then Philip introduces the problem: Successful conversion stories are often short-lived once the converts return home. Given two people with similar stories and similar situations, one will stay a Christian for years, and one will fall away. It seems to be a toss-up whether evangelistic efforts will continue to bear fruit once the Chinese scholar leaves the Western country and returns home. The book aims to identify the root causes of the problem and advise Western Christians on how best to solve it.
The introduction includes Philip’s criteria for evaluating a person’s faith: not only their verbal profession but their lifestyle and habits, their depth of understanding, and the transformation of their character. Finally, the introduction identifies the type of content to expect: part self-help, part-testimonial, with historical and demographic data on China, as well as original analysis. Philip intends the book as a guide for Christians who encounter Chinese scholars residing in Western countries on a temporary basis.
Part 1: The Need
In Chapter 1, “What’s Happening? A Picture to Aid Understanding,” Philip begins with what conversion looks like in the Bible, as described by Jesus and St. Paul. She then applies that model to what Christians returning to China should behave like, particularly all the aspects of their lives that should change. She cites an academic definition for conversion and breaks that down into the four “contents of conversion,” which she addresses in the book. She then presents her “picture” of a student returning to China. She focuses on the image of a suitcase, as a representation of the student’s “personal framework,” otherwise known as worldview or life philosophy.
A personal framework has five elements: values, master stories, power concept, self concept, and social bonds. These parts are all interconnected, as represented by a pentagram. Everyone has a personal framework, but most are unaware of it until it threatens to change.
Philip then returns to the students carrying the suitcases and examines three stages of their experience: how they began in China, what happens to their personal framework when they’re abroad, and how that experience plays out after their return to China. She accompanies these images with a hypothetical story of a Chinese student, interspersed with examples from actual accounts of real people.
Chapter 1 discusses the ideal scenario and the worst case scenario for students returning to China: The first case seeks out Christian community and responds to social pressures with prayer due to his newfound identity in God, while the other falls away from the faith. Then Philip describes how Chinese students first begin to question their personal frameworks and consider the Christian faith. Part 1 comprises this single chapter, “The Need,” which presents the challenges returned Chinese scholars face and outlines possible solutions with the promise of more details to follow.
Part 2: The Context
Part 2, “The Context,” begins with Chapter 2, “Change, Culture, and Education.” This section gives a more detailed picture of the problem, delving into the social structure of Chinese society and the personal framework that characterizes most Chinese students before they arrive in the West. It covers major Chinese values: filial piety, proper behavior, reciprocity, group identity, honor, and “suzhi” or the desire for quality.
Chapter 3, “The Effects of Context--History, Politics, and Works,” continues to illustrate the problem of authentic conversions, with more background on China as a country and the environment beyond social context and values that impacts Chinese scholars and students. It covers the major events of modern Chinese history, including the early years of the People’s Republic, the Cultural Revolution, and the Reform Era. It also discusses how politics affect school, work, religion, and particularly family through the one child policy. Finally, the chapter describes the work culture in China.
Chapter 4, “The Effects of Context--Religion,” discusses the religious beliefs that have a major influence on Chinese culture, including Buddhism, Taoism, syncretism, pragmatism, festivals and spirits, Confucianism, and Islam. A tangential examination of the “modalities of religion” approves the research of Cambridge anthropologist Yuet Chao, which identifies how Chinese worship takes on a completely different form than it does in the West.
The second part of Chapter 4 covers the Christian church in China, addressing the types of churches, the church in China today, church opportunities and issues facing returned scholars, and new religious movements, cults, and false teaching. She closes the chapter with anecdotal success stories from returned scholars.
Parts 3-5: The People; The Change; The Implications
Part 3, “The People,” comprises Chapter 5, “Seven Stories.” The author recounts interviews with returned Chinese scholars, including seven detailed accounts and a chart with information on a total of nineteen scholars. The accounts cover the people’s experiences and life in China before they went abroad, how they were exposed to Christianity during their time abroad, and whether and how they maintained their belief in Christianity and relationships with other believers upon their return. Each of the seven stories has a different theme, such as “The End of a Human is the Beginning of God,” “I Felt Like a Thief,” and “No Longer Seeking a Million Yuan Man.”
Part 4, “The Change,” covers Chapters 6-9. Chapters 6 and 7 examine the mindsets of Chinese Christians before and after their conversions. Chapter 6, “What Mattered Most Before Belief,” discusses the patterns of their pre-Christian priorities and goals, exploring the general themes revealed by the interview data. Chapter 7, “What Mattered Most After Return,” describes the changes of heart that Chinese Christians report after they arrive back home with new beliefs. Chapter 8, “New Story, New Boss, New Identity,” discusses why those findings are important and illustrative based on the Bible stories of conversion.
Chapter 9, “New Family,” concludes the section with a discussion of how important community is for returned scholars. It emphasizes the difficulty of finding Christian community, noting that only committed converts succeed in integrating with new Christian community and overcoming the tensions with their parents and other members of their pre-conversion community. This chapter also highlights Christianity’s positive effect on how returned scholars perceive their families, marriages, and neighbors.
Part 5, “The Implications,” concludes the book with two chapters. Chapter 10, “So How Can We Help?” calls Western Christians to action. It summarizes the important cultural differences between China and the West, then offers practical ways for Western Christians to equip Chinese converts for returning to China.
Chapter 11, “Closing Encouragement,” opens with a hopeful anecdote about the impact that returned converts can have on China. Philip reminds her readers of all the successes Christianity has won in China already. She shares that the Chinese Christians in contact with her have all expressed their gratitude for the Western Christians who devote their lives to Chinese ministry.
The strength of this book lies in its firsthand accounts from Chinese converts. Their stories vividly reveal the heart of cultural misunderstandings between Western believers and Chinese visitors.
In Part 2, for example, Ping, a Chinese student in Britain, “had been reading the Bible with a British Christian. Ping did not yet believe, but when the lady asked her if she believed, she said ‘yes,’ because to her that was the kind and proper thing to do…” In other words, Ping’s “conversion” was actually a good-hearted effort to save face for herself and her friend.
Philip points out that, outside the family, Chinese believe “one should never become too indebted to someone… [Chinese students] might feel more comfortable accepting help if they can give something in return...
“On the other hand, when Chinese students experience the kindness of Christians who are strangers but expect nothing in return, this can be a great witness.” This story and others like it help Western readers to empathize with Chinese perspectives and concepts that tend to baffle them, as well as giving hope for greater openness and understanding in the future.
Heading Home with Jesus will both inspire and equip Christians seeking to improve their ministry to visiting Chinese. Even seasoned veterans will benefit from reading its testimonies and sharing the author’s experiences.