An accessible, yet often overlooked, open door for many churches where global impact and local outreach intersect is international student ministry.
God has “brought the world to America,” and one strategic group is the international student community.
While many cities have been experiencing an influx of immigrants and refugees that may be slowing due to changing federal policies, universities continue to enroll record number of students from many foreign countries.
North America saw a steady rise in the number of international students during the 20th century, especially in the years since World War II.
Last year, for the first time, more than a million students from other countries studied in America’s colleges, universities and schools.
When one adds spouses and children of quite a few of the older students, opportunities for ministry by alert churches swell.
Generally overlooked as an important mission field, they present to the church in America a wealth of cultural and linguistic diversity as well as the appeal of cross-cultural ministry in our own country.
Without leaving the U.S., Christians can welcome the stranger, show the love of Jesus to neighbors in need and share the gospel in appropriate ways.
Each year hundreds of international students come to Christ. Many return to their countries with the potential of reaching their own people with the gospel.
Some remain in America where they become significant parts of both ethnic and predominately Anglo churches.
While university administrations rightly frown upon congregations and parachurch ministries that use high-pressure evangelism techniques on this somewhat vulnerable population, most welcome help in meeting genuine human needs.
It is desirable for students to discover for themselves what Americans outside academia are really like, so ministries of friendship are popular. Simply inviting students into one’s home for a meal often makes a tremendous impression.
In our own ministry in Nashville, we have seen this time and again. Yet, more than 80 percent of returning international students complain that they have never been inside an American home.
Building a relationship with someone far from home helps Christians fulfil Jesus’ word in Matthew 25:35: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Some students, many dependents and internationals doing research manifest another opportunity for a church looking for a mission field close to home: the need to practice English conversation.
All students are expected to be proficient enough in English to do academic work, and many educated people have studied the language in their home country, so there is usually no need for the full-blown English as a Second Language program needed by refugees and immigrants, who are often not educated.
Sometimes the programs overlap, but the average native speaker of English can help a university-related international improve his or her conversational English.
When a campus is near a local church or in cases where transportation is provided, students and families are often interested in attending Bible studies in English.
Some are already Christians, of course, but many who are not want to use the freedom they find in America to explore this religion that seems to make a difference in individuals and societies.
In some places in the global South, there remains respect for Christianity, even if the students are not adherents.
Quite a few have studied in Christian mission schools back home. Many cities now contain ethnic churches, where students can study and worship in their own heart languages as well.
Some churches move beyond these comparatively simple ministries to more fully orbed international student ministries that include regular (often weekly) meals, weekday women’s and children’s programs for wives and mothers who are often lonely (and usually unable to work in the U.S. due to government policies), trips to visit America’s natural and historic sites, seasonal parties and even sports ministries that appeal to soccer-loving and cricket-playing populations.
In some places, Baptist associations of churches organize international student ministries. In other places, Baptist churches participate with churches of other denominations to reach the nations on campus.
The church in America is assisted by both parachurch and denominational ministries that provide training, liaison and conferences for helping them improve their international student ministries.
Cross-cultural ministry is not always easy for the average church, but it is not impossible either.
It is a good place to start international missions that requires no passport. But it may lead to needing one!
That student or couple you befriend may invite you to their home country, and you may get to go. Don’t be surprised at what God may do.
But I do have a confession to make: My wife and I entered international student ministry 15 years ago after I served as a pastor for 31 years. It’s more fun!
Charles Parker serves on the Nashville staff of InterFACE Ministries, along with his wife, Barbara, assisted by a host of volunteers from multiple churches of several denominations. The Parkers are members of the First Baptist Church of Nashville.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on local schools and the faith community. Previous articles in the series are: