“Tell me, where do you find your joy?” smiled the graduate student from China. At first, my wife Mary and I were caught off guard with her question. But why? We ask the Lord to open doors for gospel conversations when we are with international students, especially when they come to our house for dinner. Many international students are curious about Americans, and they may ask any question anytime and anywhere—from who we voted for to how much the sofa costs. We want to be ready to give a gentle, respectful answer, especially for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15).
After several international mission trips, my wife Mary and I answered God’s call to retire early to serve with the International Mission Board in Southeast Asia from 2010-2013. A major part of our time there was devoted to helping local college students improve their English. We opened our apartment for meals, games, songs, and Bible studies. We took students on hikes and trips. Periodically, we linked arms with American college students who were in-country on short-term assignments and mission trips. When we prayed about returning to the US, we decided to explore ministry with international students here. We met with a friend who had experience with international students and received excellent guidance for getting involved.
Our First Stop
We began by volunteering with an English conversation group for international students and family members called American Conversation Partners (ACP), a ministry we now lead. We help with everyday English conversations and idioms. Most importantly, we deepen relationships through meeting every week and participating in special events such as picnics and holidays. We have hosted students in our home for baby showers, cookouts, and graduation farewell parties. In one case, we helped lead a Christian wedding! On three occasions we sat with international friends in the hospital for the birth of babies. We have also enjoyed meals they prepare for us!
COVID Changed Things
COVID forced all programs online, including ours. Through Zoom we found ourselves reaching students and family members outside our time zone both in the US and overseas. We discovered an informal network of international students in other countries that look for online English conversation. We continue online and “hybrid” meetings to address their need for English conversation. We add a Scripture verse to the discussions and offer optional English Bible reading. We accept all questions, including one from the Middle East: “What do you mean Jesus died for us?”
Engaging with University Leaders
Most universities have an international student office, sometimes called ISSS (International Student and Scholar Services). We offer ourselves to serve in their programs, such as, “First Friends” in which Americans agree to be the first friend to an arriving international student for one year. We contact the student at least monthly and include them in holiday celebrations and local events (few have ever been to a rodeo!). We sign up to host international students for a meal in our home one to three times a semester. We simply try to position ourselves to serve both international students and the university international student staff.
We also try to assist Christian organizations on campus, such as Baptist Collegiate Ministries and Navigators. Helping with meals, transportation, and praying together with campus leaders are regular parts of serving internationals.
Connecting with the Local Church
Some international students are already strong believers and are looking for a local church that will help them feel at home. Our local church “LifeGroup” embraces international students. Our church leadership enlists them to read Scripture and pray in their heart languages. We are especially happy to welcome international students who have never been inside a Christian church. One student from a “closed” country commented that he never realized that churches cared so much for their community. Another relishes the fellowship after worship as worshippers linger to converse and go to lunch together.
Principles to Serve By
International students want to know who we are as persons, not just what we know or can do for them. If international students do not trust us as people who genuinely care for them, they will not care for how much we know or can do for them.
Love students as Christ loves us.
When we love each other, people will know we are His disciples (John 13:34-35). Such love is often spelled T-I-M-E and includes practicing hospitality, addressing felt needs, trying to answer difficult questions, being patient with students who struggle, and leaving results to God.
Patiently answer spiritual questions in clear, concise English.
Offer ongoing one-to-one and small group Bible reading and Bible studies. In one instance, we met for three years. Focus on the Bible’s narrative passages, Psalms, and Proverbs.
Involve other Americans.
Enlist and coach American volunteers, from American college students to senior adults. Gray hair and no hair do not disqualify people from serving international students. In fact, gray hair is respected more in other cultures.
Learn from others.
Dialogue with those who reach international students. Search the Web for websites (www.reachinginternationals.com, e.g.) and articles (https://www.imb.org/2016/12/26/intentional-relationships-reaching-international-students/, e.g). Read books, such as those listed below.
Last and first, pray.
Pray with and not just for students. Pray with expectancy.
Back to the Future
I have never forgotten the testimony of an East Asian student during my college days. He shared his story of coming to faith by simply saying, “My friends loved me into the kingdom of God.” How well are we loving the nations that God is sending to us?
Books that I have found helpful:
- Just Open the Door by Jen Schmidt, Nashville: LifeWay Press, 2018.
- The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World by Rosaria Butterfield, published by Crossway, 2018.
- China in Our Midst: Reaching Chinese International Students in America by Glen Osborn and Daniel B. Su published by China Outreach Ministries, Mechanicsburg, PA, 2016.
Richard Barnes and his wife Mary are active members of The Church at Woodbine in Nashville.