When you think of international student ministry, how do you see your role? Why is it important? Or is it not? What are international students needs? What are your expectations? A while back a few friends of mine wrote an article entitled “Five Majority Culture Postures Towards Ethnic Minority Ministry.” In it they proposed five “postures” that people often take toward ethnic minority student ministry.
At a fundamental level, they are evaluating the dynamic of ministry from those with power to those without. In the sphere of international student ministry we are faced with similar dynamics. How do those of us in the host culture relate in ministry to the international student guests among us? Following the concept of “five postures,” I’d like to suggest five host culture postures toward international student ministry.
These are not necessarily sequential or even exclusive of each other, but rather they are to help describe the different ways in which we can err in our attitudes toward international student ministry. The fifth posture is submitted as the ideal posture that makes up for the deficiencies of the others, though we can never fully rid ourselves of the others as we grow in grace.
Posture #1: Unaware or Unwelcoming
Many in the U.S. are simply unaware of the 684,714 international students from hundreds of countries that we are hosting on university campuses and in English language schools around the country. Given the opportunity and the right encouragement, many might offer help, open up their home, or seek friendship with some of these international guests. Even on campus, many students simply do not “see” the international students that sit right in front of them in class everyday.
Though I “saw” international students on campus when I was at the university, I never really “saw” them as evidenced by the fact that I never knew any enough to greet them or give them a call. On the other hand, many are aware of the growing international student population and, for whatever reason, are unwelcoming to them. They may feel threatened by their success or ambition or annoyed by their needs and weaknesses, but the cumulative effect is an overwhelming message that they are not welcome. In either of these cases, international students are pushed to and kept at the margins of society and ministry efforts.
Posture #2: Strategic Advantage
For those that are aware and welcoming of international students, one posture towards international students is often one of “strategic advantage.” We speak of international student ministry as a matter of strategic advantage by saying things like “I/we can be the most strategic in ministry through them,” or “we are reaching the future leaders of the world.”
Such a narrow focus on the influential possibilities of these foreign students can subtly shift one’s motivation: international students become our chess pieces to further God’s mission as we see it rather than people whom God loves and for whom He has his own plan. We essentially say “look how great our ministry strategy is” rather than saying “look how great God is,” and we objectify international students for the sake of the strategy rather than seeing them as people first.
Posture #3: The Posture of Charity
Any who have lived in non-English speaking country have experienced the helpless feelings that come with not being able to communicate or get around, and yet, we certainly would not admit to being inferior to the surrounding populace. We just can’t communicate with them! Unfortunately, one posture taken towards international students betrays that we consider them helpless and hopeless socially, economically, and spiritually.
Although they need as much help as we need when living abroad, we tend to turn their need into an identity. Their need for help is seen as identity of helplessness. “They need us,” we reason, and we treat them as needy and helpless even in the context of ministry and church. We can see ourselves as powerful and them as powerless, and we tend to treat them almost like children or objects of our benevolence.
Even though many international students are incredibly intelligent, we speak to them with childish concepts (not merely simple English), and even though there are more and more Christian international students from the church around the world, we act as if all international students are entirely ignorant of the Gospel.
Posture #4: Mission as Internationalization
One thing that is true about those involved in international student ministry is that we salivate at the vision of Revelation 21 with the nations gathered before the throne of God in worship. Nothing captures our imagination quite like this picture, and yet even pursuing God’s promises can subtly turn into idolatry. In this posture of Mission as Internationalization, we tend to elevate the internationalization of the church as ultimate.
We say that our ministry/community is better and closest to the heavenly reality because it’s international. Though we may not say it outright, it’s easy to begin to think, “I’m a more complete Christian” or “We have a more complete ministry” because our ministry/friends are international, whereas those that are monocultural, not internationalized, or focused on local issues are not as significant. While it is true that God is gathering all the nations before his throne to worship, it is not so that they can marvel at each other’s diversity.
Posture #5: The Whole Church for the Whole World
If each of the preceding postures reveals a deficiency in attitudes toward international student ministry, this fifth posture supplies what its lacking. When we consider that God has called the church to welcome the stranger, to make disciples of the nations, to support those in need, and to pursue maturity as a global church, we see that the most appropriate posture is that of partnering and friendship.
As many have experienced, when we develop genuine friendships with students from around the world, we receive much more in the relationship than we are ever able to give. We realize that we are in need of understanding, growth, and help just as much as our friends whose first language may not be English. We gain a broader perspective as share together our cultures, relationships, and the truth of the Gospel.
Partnership also requires respect, mutual helpfulness, and mutual learning. When we consider that the whole church is in fact currently mobilized for the whole world, we begin to see that the international students among us are potentially part of something very big. We therefore must see that everyone has a place at the table of fellowship and ministry. We must see to it that international students are empowered in ministry and every group has equal access to leadership opportunities and influence, even if they will do things differently because of their cultural background or context.
Among the many ways in which Jesus described his ministry, two stand out as we conclude this discussion. First, Jesus said that he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Though He had the right to exercise his power and privilege, He chose rather to serve and give His life to to others. This is not an unfamiliar model for those in international student ministry.
It is a profound service and in fact does require one’s entire life, but, as we’ve seen, we serve not to demonstrate our power but to give it away, receiving from others more than we could ever give ourselves. Jesus also said that it was important for Him to go away so that His disciples could do more and greater things than He did.
In international student ministry, there must be point at which we too “go away,” having given our lives for the empowerment of international disciples, so that they can do even more and greater things than we are ever capable of. May God give us the grace to live this out.
Kerby grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he learned to shoot ducks with his Dad, hit tennis balls with his friends, and beat video games with his brother Hunter. He moved on from there to complete a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M University which he promptly put into use by studying Chinese and living in East Asia for two years…
Since 2005, Kerby has tried to hold on to his international experience by making friends and developing disciples among international college students in Oklahoma and now at the University of Texas at Austin. People often ask Kerby whether it is difficult for an Aggie to work at UT. He too frequently replies that “Jonah went to Nineveh and Daniel went to Babylon. At least I didn’t have to face any chains or hungry big fish.”