This review is part of a series of book reviews of nine books and manuals on international student ministry written between 1974 and 2008 by both leaders within national ministries and church denominations as well as former international students. Each month we’ll review the next book in chronological order, hoping to learn from past wisdom how we might engage better engage international students in our current context.
Building Bridges of Love: A Handbook for Working with International Students, written in 1974 by Frank Obien, former director of CCC’s International Student Ministry (ISM) and a special assistant to Bill Bright, president of Campus Crusade for Christ. Obien offers some steps, methods, and plenty of vision for international student ministry, his expertise shows in the conversational wisdom and practical advice that overwhelms the pages of his book.
In Building Bridges of Love, Obien’s aim is to awaken the reader to the needs of international students and the opportunities to love and share Christ with them such that they might return home to share Christ with those of their own country.
“Helpful Hints” and Some Vision Too
Building Bridges of Love is presented in three sections – four chapters of vision for international student ministry, eleven chapters of “helpful hints” for ministry, and one concluding chapter of vision and call to engage in international student ministry.
In the main section of the book, Obien presents “helpful hints” for various aspects of international student ministry to show that “you can easily minister to people from other nations right in your home (p.30). Obien gives advice for meeting the physical needs of international students, categorizing them into six areas: needs upon arrival, needs before registration, introduction to the campus and community, needs during the year, vacations and semester breaks, and needs after graduation.
He addresses evangelism and discipleship, cross-cultural communication, where to meet international students, and how to involve the family, advice for working with churches, how to improve in entertaining, e.g., hospitality, a critical skills for international student ministry. Obien describes how to hold an evangelistic “international banquet” and identifies eight specific outreach projects such as sourcing scholarships for students, providing help with English, connecting them to community service, and organizing airport pickups.
International Students Are Still International Students
To read Building Bridges of Love is to absorb the distilled wisdom of Obien’s experience in leading and participating in international student ministry in the early 1970’s. The level of formality to social interactions and the seeming unfamiliarity to potentially culturally insensitive language can be shocking, but it is balanced by a warmth and an understanding of cultural sensitivities that must have exceeded general expectations at that time.
Obien admonishes us to respond to the needs of international students, emphasizing that “as Christ positively motivates us by His life, and by the fullness of His Spirit, we will be concerned for the personal needs of our brothers and sisters from around the world” (p. 41).
In discussing friendship and evangelism, Obien recommends a robust friendship in which mutual sharing occurs and in which we share about our faith in Christ “early and often,” rather than wait months for “the right moment.” It is disingenuous to avoid the topic and put off “revealing” our faith until months into the relationship.
In the following chapter on how to share the Gospel, Obien highlights some tools but provides the most help in his advice to not “drop” a friend because they don’t respond to the Gospel initially. Our faithfulness in friendship in light of a negative response to Christ is itself an effective witness to the Gospel we proclaim.
Obien encourages us to “ask God to give you a real, long-lasting, deep-down love for internationals – a love that is without any strings attached. It’s a love that’s willing to experience pain for the other person in spite of what he does” (p. 60). In this chapter, Obien also explains the helpful of tactic of using small group discussion to cover broad and difficult topics while using personal one-to-one conversations to answer questions that the student wouldn’t feel comfortable addressing to the group.
In his chapter on cross-cultural communication, Obien begins by rightly asserting that “cross-cultural communications is 95% attitude” (p. 75). Obien covers standard issues in cross-cultural communication issues, including our use of jokes and humor, and he adequately warns against speaking ill of another person’s religious background. It is helpful to understand different cultural values, behavior patterns, and our Christian response to other religions, the principles of love and mercy must be guide our relating to students from other countries and cultures.
Though Obien covers many practical topics – Building Bridges of Love falls short in rooting international student ministry firmly in the entire mission of God as described throughout the entirety of the Scriptures, limiting it only to the reproduction element of the Great Commission. Other expressions of God’s mission – ethics, social responsibility, spiritual warfare, etc. – are not covered.
Also, a robust consideration of how the international student’s global context – and increasing global connectedness – affects their need for the Gospel and for discipleship ought to be a topic of ongoing exploration. Finally, and least importantly, the language, data, and style of writing is obviously dated, making Building Bridges of Love an interesting journey into the recent history of international student ministry in the U.S. but not a ready handbook for the contemporary reader and minister.
Essentially Helpful, but Helplessly Obsolete
In Building Bridges of Love, Frank Obien shares the basic evangelical vision of reaching international students both as an expression of God’s love and as a strategic part of making disciples of all nations according to the Great Commission of Matthew 28. Although some of the language, data, and cultural referents are dated, Obien’s selection of “helpful hints” is quite helpful, and his practical advice is warm and wise.
The book has been out of print for some time, and because of this and its dated style and information, I wouldn’t recommend it as source of ongoing training for international student ministry. If, though, you want learn from the past and can sift through some of the outdated chaff, then there are some solid kernels of timeless wisdom to glean!
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.”