Ten percent of the student body at The University of Kansas, where I pastor, is made up of international students. Ten percent. That means every fall, our little midwestern town gains around 2,500 temporary residents from outside the US.
35 years ago, a man named Len Andyshack recognized that this group presented a unique ministry opportunity, so he started a ministry called International Friends. Andyshack believed that by asking a Christian student to spend an hour a week helping an international student with their English skills, a relationship could be built that would lead, inevitably, to the gospel being shared.
International Friends is one of the best examples of ministerial unity I have seen. Workers from many of KU’s student groups seem to recognize the Kingdom-building strategy of ministering to international students. Plus, it’s quite entertaining.
Adapting to Culture
There is a genuine curiosity among international students when it comes to Christianity. After all, America is a “Christian nation”, right? So if you’re going to spend a few semesters here, you might as well visit an American church and see what that whole thing is about.
For many of these international students, much of what is experienced in our American culture is significantly different than the culture from which they come. But as different as our cultures are, I see many of these students try to adapt to our culture in order to, in some small way, engage with our culture.
We would do the same if we were in a position in which we felt like aliens.
If you have ever done overseas missions work, you understand what that’s like. The challenge is to find a balance between adapting to the culture (so you’re not the jerk driving on the wrong side of the road), and reaching the people of that culture from the outside.
Displaced in Our Own Culture
This balance is not just reserved for people doing overseas missions, though. To be honest, I think a follower of Christ in America could feel this way every day.
Sometimes, as a Christ follower, I feel displaced in our culture. I take a look at my world around me and think, “Things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be.”
As a Christ follower, I feel like a bit of an alien even in our own current culture, but I also have a desire to reach into that culture and influence it for the better by sharing God’s love. It’s confusing sometimes, and so I feel a bit displaced. I feel like an alien, but I want to be an ambassador as well, and I believe recognizing this tension is a very important part of following Christ: we are aliens, and we are also ambassadors.
Engaging in the Tension
The apostle Peter once told the church, “I warn you as temporary exiles and foreigners (“aliens” in some older translations) to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when He judges the world.”
If you are a follower of Christ, you most likely also feel that same tension. On the one hand, following Christ makes us want to separate ourselves from the current culture and say, “This isn’t my problem. I’m set apart and made right with God.” But on the other hand, it causes us to want to engage in a meaningful way with a culture that needs the love of God.
Jesus himself knew this tension would be a part of following Him. When He prayed for the disciples once, He said, “Keep them safe because they don’t belong to this world anymore.” There’s the alien side. But then He said, “Just as you have sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world.” There’s the ambassador side.
When our international students are able to strike that balance, they get to share something valuable with those of us who spend time with them. When they recognize that they are aliens in this culture, and yet they do what it takes to engage us as ambassadors of their own culture, something really neat happens, and it’s the same thing we, as believers, should be doing in our own culture; we are living in the tension of being an alien AND an ambassador.
Jesus’ Tension of Truth and Love
Jesus is described in the scripture as being full of grace and full of truth. This is a similar tension, isn’t it? On the one hand, it’s grace that enabled Christ to be the great ambassador of God’s love for us, but on the other hand, it was truth that made Jesus and his message seem so alien that the people decided to kill Him.
I believe the Gospel calls us to a truth that is unbending and a love that is unconditional, and that living in the tension between those two callings is exactly what we are intended to do. Followers of Christ are always struggling with that tension, but we should always struggle with that tension. The Gospel calls us to it.
John Benda is the Director of Campus Christians at The University of Kansas. He has worked in church ministry as a worship leader, high school pastor, associate pastor and teacher. John has also sold used books, cleaned carpets, flipped pancakes and waited tables to make ends meet, and often plays drums in his rock&roll band for absolutely no money at all. He began working in college ministry in 2014. John and his beautiful wife, Lydia, live in Lawrence, Kansas.