Student Resource: 6 Tips for Beginning an International Student Ministry

I am continually encouraged by the desire I see among students to reach the internationals living around them. Frequently, the first people in a local church to grasp the need to find and engage unreached people groups in their community are often not leadership or established members of the church. Often times, the young adults and students see this need first.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]As many as 7 out of 10 international students will come to the United States to study and never enter an American home while they are here.[/pullquote]With that in mind, here are some first steps for students and student ministers concerning ministry to international students. In a previous post, I shared that work with international students will look different from work with refugees or international residents. However, international students are a great group of people for a local church’s student ministry to engage. They are peers in age (especially for a church collegiate ministry), and often times, they will eventually find themselves on the same campus.

As with any ministry strategy to internationals, this will involve both discovery and engagement.

Discovery

Make a list of your local colleges and universities. 

Everyone thinks to look for internationals on the big state school campuses, but that is not the only place to find students from other countries. Often small, liberal arts schools and even community colleges will have extensive international student departments. In fact, international students at these schools may not have as many events and programs afforded to them. Start discovery by making a list of all the area colleges and universities. See if you know people who attend or work at these schools.

Contact the international student department at schools that have them.

They will go by different names, but most schools with an intentional process for accepting international students will have a department dedicated to facilitating their arrival, study, and stay. Now, by law, these departments are probably not going to give you a lot of data about their student population. However, many offer programs specifically for their international students to experience American culture. One major university in my area has a program called Breaking Bread. Despite the name, this is not a ministry. It is a simple process where families in the area can sign up to host an international student for dinner so they can experience an American home.

Seek out campus ministries for international students. 

If the campus is big enough, there are already organizations working with international students. Many times, these organizations are looking for local church partnerships. Remember, a campus ministry is not a local church, and does not ultimately meet the basic need of gospel community. Good campus ministries realize this and seek out partnership with area churches. One local example here is

Engagement

“Go and tell” vs. “Come and See.” 

I harp on this a lot, but an effective ministry to international students will weight its engagement toward a “go and tell” strategy. A good, long-term vision for international student ministry is getting people from your church involved in the community of international students, not isolating individual students and pulling them in to your world. In other words, seek out ways for your students to enter their world. It may be cultural festivals that you attend with international students or spending a lot of time in the dorms with them. By doing this, you meet the rest of their community. This will introduce you to many more relationships and it will have them in a place of comfort where real conversations can occur naturally.

Find practical ways to extend hospitality. [pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]For many cultures the highest compliment you can pay a family is letting them cook a meal for you.[/pullquote]

While this type of ministry is about going and not attracting, that does not mean you should never invite international students in to your world. As many as 7 out of 10 international students will come to the United States to study and never enter an American home while they are here. That is appalling. Especially when you consider the high value most culture places on hospitality. A good ministry to these students will open up homes, not church buildings, but homes to these students. Invite them over for dinner. Give them a space to come grill out, even grill out their weird food from home!  Also know that in many cultures hospitality runs both ways. It is not only hospitality to invite someone over to your home, it is also hospitality to enter theirs. In fact, for many cultures the highest compliment you can pay a family is letting them cook a meal for you. Get adventurous and ask your new international friends to prepare their food for you. It will demonstrate a level of respect for their culture that is unparalleled by most things you can do.

Lots of gospel followed by regular study. 

If the above steps introduce you and endear you to your new international friends, then this step is about real gospel-centered ministry. I have written before about misunderstanding relationship evangelism. That certainly applies here. Let them know up front that you are Christians. They may have many misperceptions about Christianity, especially if they are from an unreached area of the world. Most cultures do not share our aversion to religious dialogue, so you can be upfront with them and inquisitive about their own religion. Your goal should be two-fold: opportunities to share the whole gospel story with them and opportunities for regular study of the Bible or Bible stories. International students will not have most (or any) of the underlying worldview that you and your students assume in communication about the gospel. Working with Americans assumes a lot of the background of Christianity. However, in working with internationals, none of this worldview can be assumed. Ask your new friends if they would be willing to get together regularly to share stories, and walk them through the main plot movements of the Bible. Start with creation one week, and move on from there, taking them through the fall, through the plot twists of the Bible, the promise of a savior, redemption, and finally restoration. Oh, and if you followed “go and tell” step above, then you will most likely have a whole group of international friends that you could do this with together.

Certainly, there is much more to ministry with international students. For the student minister looking to start, though, this can help you get something off the ground.

Are there other tips that you would add?

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