More than 8,500 international students study on Alabama college and university campuses, providing a remarkable missions opportunity to reach the nations with the gospel, no travel required.
These students come from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds but they have one thing in common — navigating daily life in an unfamiliar country.
“There are so many things that we as Americans do every day that we don’t think about and may not even understand why they’re done the way they are. If that’s true for us, imagine how much more so it is to someone from another country or culture,” said Chris Mills, who serves as student missions mobilizer in the office of collegiate and student ministries at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM).
‘Looking for community’
“International students, like every other student, are looking for community,” Mills said. “They want to learn more about American culture, giving the Church a unique opportunity to engage in life-on-life experiences.”
From providing transportation to assistance with the English language to helping an international student find a doctor or inviting them over for a holiday, everyday experiences are not only what students may need help with but they also are opportunities for spending time together. Mills said his own experiences abroad prove that.
“Every time I’ve traveled to another country, the greatest experiences have been those where I have gotten to do life with the locals. That is what our international friends are looking for,” he said.
Intentional efforts to make these students feel welcome are important, according to Terry Sharp, a former International Mission Board (IMB) missionary who serves as state, association and diaspora network leader at IMB. In a blog post at IMB.org, Sharp notes that 75 percent of international students are never invited into an American home. That fact alone increases the importance of welcoming them into our homes and lives.
Friendship is key
“The opportunity for believers to serve international students through simply welcoming them in and helping them acclimate to their new home and culture is astounding,” Sharp writes. “No international student who wants to have an American friend should ever be lacking.”
Friendship is a first step that can lead to opportunities to share one’s faith, Mills said.
“International students are looking for meaningful relationships with others,” he said. “Why not seek to be that friend? We find that as in all of our relationships the students will grow to respect us more and want to learn more the things that are most important to us, including our faith, while we grow to love them more and want to share the hope of Christ with them.”
According to the 2016 Open Doors report by the Institute of International Education, more than half of the international students studying in Alabama come from China, India and Saudi Arabia, countries that are home to some 2,000 unreached or unengaged people groups. International students from these regions who hear the gospel may return to their families and people groups as missionaries themselves.
“Not only are these students coming from unreached areas, they are returning to positions of influence,” Mills said. “These students can go back home to not only influence their families and communities with the gospel but potentially their entire nation.”
Christian students play a role in reaching international students too. In college Stefani Varner, who serves on the IMB church initiatives team, had many Chinese friends. She later served as a missionary in South Asia.
American university campuses serve as “global intersections for education, ideas and interactions with the world’s future leaders,” Varner writes at IMB.org. “God has given evangelical university students in the U.S. unprecedented opportunities to live missionally and intentionally build relationships with people who represent some of the largest unreached people groups in the world.”
Awareness of the missional opportunities among the vast number of unreached peoples represented on college campuses should lead us to act, Mills said. Prayer is the key.
‘At our back door’
“Pray for ministry efforts, softened hearts and obedience to these unique opportunities that God has provided all across our state,” he said. “The nations are at our back door and they desire to know us — to really know us.
Engagement is essential. What a unique opportunity we have to do life and in doing to share eternal life with them.
May God find us faithful to opening our eyes, hearts and homes to the nations that He has brought to our communities.”
- “Crossing Cultures with Jesus: Sharing Good News with Sensitivity and Grace” by Katie J. Rawson
- “Faces in the Crowd: Reaching Your International Neighbor for Christ” by Donna S. Thomas
The 2017 International Friends Retreat will be Sept. 29–30 at WorldSong Missions Place in Cook Springs. For details, visit onemissionstudents.org.