Launching an international student ministry

by Billy Haselton
Monday, November 20, 2017 | 333 days old

Care to guess how many international students are studying in the United States? More than 1 million  international students are matriculating to U.S. universities, according to the most recent Open Doors report, published by the Institute of International Education.

Nearly 60 percent of international students come from four countries: China, India, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. If you took time to read through the entire list of nations represented, you would discover that many of the world’s least-reached peoples are represented on our campuses. For a clear view of the “10/40 Window,” just visit your local university. 

Churches in university towns are strategically positioned to touch the nations with the gospel of Christ. To start an international student ministry in your local church, here are five points to consider.

1. Location
As they say in the real estate business, the key issue is location, location, location. Where is your church in proximity to a university? The closer you are, the greater your impact may be.

2. Stats on students
How many international students are studying at the university near you? What countries are they from? What are the largest populations?

3. Connections
Do your church members have any natural connections with the university? Anyone work there? Anyone’s children attend school there? Anyone live close to there?

4. Volunteers
Who in your church has a heart for international students? What countries have they had contact with in the past? Do they have experience with cross-cultural relationships?

5. Ministry organizations
What other ministries are seeking to reach out to international students on campus? How could your church partner with them?

Making contact
Based on these initial considerations,  if your church is going to minister to international students, making contact with them is a basic first step. Where do you start? Consider these three phases for making contact.

1. Early contact
As Lawson Lau explains in his classic handbook on international student ministry, The World at Your Doorstep, establishing early contact with students is critical. There’s no better place to start than at the airport.

“Welcoming international students weighted down with luggage at the air, bus, or train terminal is an ideal start to a cross-cultural relationship,” Lau explains. “It establishes contact at a vital point in the student’s sojourn in the United States.”

Lau offers additional analysis from Professor Robert Taussig of Kansas State University: “To start a friendship after the international student has been here for some time is not nearly as easy nor as needy as on his arrival.”

For that reason, picking up students at the airport, helping them move into their apartment or socializing with them at welcome events on campus can be the start of a lasting friendship.

2. Ongoing contact
Even if you didn’t pick them up at the airport (or even if you did), maintaining and fostering a friendship is vital to building bridges for the gospel.

Many universities and ministry organizations are looking for volunteers to serve as “friendship partners” for international students. Find a way to invite some students over for a home-cooked meal. Host students in your home for several days over the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays. Your home can provide a natural context for demonstrating the love of God to students.

Sadly, as many as 75-80 percent of international students never receive an invitation to an American’s home. You can help change that statistic.

3. (Not-so) final contact
Saying goodbye is never easy, especially when you have built a strong friendship with an international student. Some students will leave the area after they graduate to take a job in another part of the U.S. Others will return to their country to re-establish their lives in their home culture.

In either case, goodbye doesn’t have to mean goodbye forever. Keeping in touch with students after they leave is both possible and advisable.

If students are returning to their home country, you can play a critical role in preparing them for re-entry shock (which can be even more challenging than culture shock). How? “We can help make them aware of the pleasures and pains of re-entry even before they leave American airspace,” Lau writes. “Those who are prepared will usually be better able to maneuver themselves safely as they plunge back into their own country’s airspace.”

If students have come to know Christ during their time of study in the U.S., you will be effectively launching a missionary back into his or her own people group.

Guiding principles
As believers in Christ, any relationship we build must reflect His character. For that reason, respect and understanding for students’ cultural and personal backgrounds will create the climate where the gospel of Christ will be evident in all we do. Our ministry to international students must never be “proselytizing,” that is,sharing the gospel in a coercive or manipulative way.

At the same time, we must lovingly demonstrate the gospel and point students to the Savior who loves all people and whom all people need. Through hospitality and friendship, God can use you and your church to reach the nations on campus.

Editor’s note: Billy Haselton serves as lead instructor at the Intensive English Program at North Carolina State University. He also holds a master’s of divinity degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter @wthaselton or at his blog