Greg Swinney serves as the executive director of Crossroads International Student Ministries. For over thirty years he has worked with and among international students from all over the world. Greg also trains and equips churches and campus ministries to reach out to the one million international students and visiting scholars currently studying in the U.S., and he is trainer for The RISE Project’s International Students initiative.
Why is reaching out to international students such a key way to share the love of Christ?
According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), a record 1,043,859 international students were studying in the United States in the academic year 2016. The increase of enrollment was the largest in 35 years. The top five sending countries were China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada. Just looking at these countries we can see that four of the top five senders are countries with little or no Christian witness. To travel to these countries costs thousands of dollars and requires passports, shots, and visas and often requires a “platform” of work to be in the country. However, to minister to students from these countries in the U.S., no passport is needed, travel is minimal, and the cost is pennies on the dollar compared to international travel.
The university campus is the modern-day crossroads of the world. Like the first century Day of Pentecost it brings people of all nationalities and cultures together into the marketplace of modern thought. Enrollment numbers of these students flocking to our campuses grows by 8 – 9 % every year with no anticipation of decline in the years ahead. Many of these future leaders of the world are eager to develop friendships with American families during their stay in the US.
Working with international students here in the United States allows more people to engage unreached people groups. Not all Christians can go on a mission trip or become full-time missionaries. Still, all Christians are called to reach the nations. One practical way to do this is by ministering to international students here. There is no red tape to cut through, and the cost is minimal. Also, for those who may go on a mission trip, it is a good way to experience the feel of cross-cultural ministry before going. What about those Christians who go on a mission trip and upon returning say, “Now what?” Doing international missions locally allows them to put into practice what they learned on their mission trip. While reaching international students in the U.S. will never replace going to those unreached places yet to hear the gospel, it is still an inexpensive, complementary ministry to global missions.
What are some practical ways I can be a good friend to an international student?
How can I befriend these students? It all begins with prayer. I know of a couple from a church who began praying for international students by name. Before long the Lord set up “divine appointments” where these students actually met this family. Bible studies began in their home. Since that day in 1975 Bob and Mary Taussig have entertained and taught thousands in their home. I sat next to Mary over breakfast one day and she said, “Well, we just started praying for them by name.”
There are definitely things that are working around the nation. Bike loan programs (or giveaways), furniture loan, trips to nearby tourist attractions or American homes, and dinner and discussion Bible studies all are great ideas. But the foundation of all these is one question: “How can I meet the needs of international students and earn their respect so I can share God’s love with them?”
Spending time with internationals is fun. Not only can we learn from them, but we can have fun while learning and ministering to them. Do you like to cook? Then try some new recipes from international students. Got a hobby? Include an international student. Empty nesters who would like to spend time with a student? International student ministry fits the bill.
Our family doesn’t really change our normal routine, we simply invite international student to join us. Picnics, concerts, community events, county fairs and fourth of July parades all build relationships. We just drive pass the university on our way and pick up those who have time and interest to join us.
How can my church get started in developing a ministry to international students?
Here are the first five that come to mind…
- Recruit a dozen families or individuals to serve as “Friendship Families.” They adopt an international student for a year or more and invite this student to be a part of their family.
- Devote at least two Sundays a year to praying for international students. Remember to pray for specific nations or even specific students. If some international students attend the service, ask them to read the Scripture in their native language.
- Throw a party, maybe for Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Easter, or Valentine’s Day. Tell the story of why that holiday is observed. Reclaim the story of Valentine’s Day or St Patrick’s Day (it’s really not about drinking green beer like they hear on the college campus). Tell them the authentic story of Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day and that his dream was to spread the news of God’s grace and love. (Christopher Columbus had a belief that God intended him to sail the Atlantic Ocean in order to spread Christianity. He said his prayers several times daily. Columbus wrote what he called a Book of Prophecies, which is a compilation of passages Columbus selected from the Bible which he believed were pertinent to his mission of discovery.)
- Embrace once and for all the Biblical truth that the grace of God and Kingdom of Heaven is for all nations, tribes and tongues – not just white middle-class! Jesus commissioned us to make disciples of all nations. If we aren’t reaching the nations we are only obeying Him on our terms and within our own comfort zone.
- Have Bibles in five languages ready to hand to international students if they visit (Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Spanish, and Farsi just to mention a few).
Starting by asking a lot of questions always helps. What is the student population of the colleges near your church? What are the top sending countries and what are the students’ degree programs? Do you already have certain people groups in your church or network who could assist in reaching similar students? Does your missions team already interact with certain countries? If so, how could you use their help in reaching international students at the local level? Do you want to reach different types of international students, or do you want to focus on one nation?
I sat in awe last weekend and got a taste of the truth found in Revelation 15:4: “All nations will come and worship before you…” Seven different nations sat together and sang “Amazing Grace.” What an amazing message for the nations to sing and to share.