Many international students who come to the United States are not followers of Christ. In fact, many of them are from parts of the world that are largely unreached or even countries that are closed to the Gospel or where followers of Jesus are persecuted. They are more spiritually open while away from home, and are often eager to learn about Jesus, an opportunity they may never have had before.
These students are often from the upper classes of their society, and may return to become business and political leaders in their home countries. These are people of influence that missionaries may never be able to interact with in their home countries, but they voluntarily travel to America to get a world-class education.
God is bringing the nations to our doorstep, and we must engage them with the Gospel. This is strategically important to fulfilling the Great Commission because international students who begin following Christ in America can return to start Christ-ward movements among unreached people groups in their home countries.
Welcoming Them Into Our Homes
Many international students desire to learn about American culture as well as receive a formal education in their academic discipline. As part of learning about American culture, they are also open to learning about Christianity and what it means to follow Jesus, since that is an important part of American cultural heritage, and many people around the world associate Christianity with America.
However most internationals never have to opportunity to enter an American home and meet an American family. This felt need of international students can be easily met by recruiting Christian families to host an international student for dinner two to three times a month and during traditional American family holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and Independence Day. In this way, an international student can be welcomed into an American family and experience the love of Christ through hospitality, acceptance, and belonging.
Host families can learn to use hospitality to open the door for conversations about Jesus and the Gospel. In this way, church members who may not think of themselves as “evangelists” can use things they are comfortable with for a Kingdom purpose to reach students from all nations.
Entering Into Their Communities
Another important strategy for reaching international students can be derived from the concept of “Become Like, Remain Like.” Often, there are many cultural barriers that international students must overcome in order to enter into an American church or other religious environment. Because they are familiar with their own culture, many internationals choose to live and interact with others from the same country or region of the world rather than integrating into American society.
In order to remove some of these cultural barriers to the Gospel, a strategic ministry to internationals might look more like cross-cultural missions by using an apostolic structure. Rather than trying to attract internationals to “American” ministries, believers would aim to “become like” the internationals and go to them in their own contexts.
This might involve American students moving into a dorm or apartment complex where many internationals live, or joining secular student organizations geared toward internationals. In this way, more meaningful foundations for friendships could be built, upon which Gospel conversations will naturally happen.
Keeping Them in Their Communities
The other side of the coin, “Remain Like” involves how to disciple international students who choose to follow Christ. There is a temptation to pull new converts out of their international student community and into an American church. However, doing so will miss the huge potential that Christian international students have to reach their closest peers, others from their own country or region of the world.
An effective international ministry will teach new believers to obey Jesus commands, which includes not only personal discipleship but also evangelism. American volunteers should encourage these new believers to stay within their own communities, sharing the Gospel with their peers and forming a new community of Christ followers made up of internationals.
Welcoming internationals is just one way that God is calling all believers to join Him in His global redemptive story, but it is a vitally important way!