To the human eye it appears that international student ministry (ISM)1 in China is experiencing a drought. Is there still hope?
Despite student attrition, 18 months into the pandemic there remain significant numbers of international students in China. Jesus’ command to love this forgotten academic diaspora with the gospel of his grace has not changed. What is God doing, and how should we pray? Let’s look at the current situation and suggest a way forward for ISM in China in the coming years.
Given that the last published statistics of international students in China were for the 2018–19 academic year (492,185 students),2 it is difficult to assess how many actually remain in the country. The November 2020 national census reported just under 220,000.3 Conservatively, that left 272,000 students stuck outside China at census time.
Some students escaped the COVID-19 pandemic at its onset while others left temporarily only to be locked out. Apart from the exception for South Korean students, no new international students have arrived in China since September 2019.
Those in China are fewer and have experienced severe restriction of movement which means they are not seen. Sadly, many ethnic Chinese overseas have experienced the stigma of the “China Virus” label. Ironically, within China the fear from locals, of the virus “that foreigners are bringing in,” accentuates pre-existing negative views, especially regarding African students. The vast majority of in-China international students are now from sub-Saharan African countries and the Indian subcontinent, along with South Koreans and some Russians and Central Asians.
The greatest challenges for students in the past 18 months—in China or stuck outside—have been emotional, social, and psychological. They include the isolation of quarantine, the frustration of unfair restrictions of movement, boredom, lethargy from online education, and for some, online church. Relationships have grown cold, and there are simply a lot of very lonely students. The two years that some students have been apart from their spouses or children tear at the most precious of human relationships. Being away while their home communities reeled from the pandemic’s impact has made them more than ever strangers to their own land and people.
However, for all that, there is evidence of Christian students having grown in their faith during these troubled years. An Ethiopian student shared, “I have been challenged to question my beliefs as a result of the pandemic and challenges in my life. But thanks to God, that has been a great growth opportunity for me. It helped me to clarify my values and openly show my faith.” Students have testified about a deeper awareness of God’s sovereignty and personal care for his people, the extent of brokenness in this world, and that “no nation or person is greater than God.” Others have described new opportunities to share their faith.
The debilitating frustration of international students stuck outside of China can be seen by a brief search on Twitter at #TakeUsBackToChina.4 They report psychological distress and unworkable online educational conditions with no timetable for return.5 So, what does the future look like?
Three forces interplay regarding China’s international education policy: political stability, economic growth, and global influence. No COVID-19 risk will be allowed to upset the Winter Olympics nor the November leadership changes late in 2022.6 Similarly, China’s enviable economic resilience and growth is protected by its closed borders. Offsetting these, but not sufficiently strong to trump them, is the long-term strategy to grow China’s soft power. Fallon and Smith’s insightful article captures the complexity of China’s public diplomacy under threat.7
China might therefore not expect a significant number of in-person international students until the September 2023 intake after three full cycles of graduation/no-arrivals.
|2020||* February, over half of international students left China.|
* June, graduation departures.
* September, no new arrivals.
|2021||* June, graduation departures.|
* September, no new arrivals.
|2022||* January, Winter Olympics.|
* June, graduation departures.
* September, no new arrivals.
* November, Communist Party power transition.
|2023||* June, graduation departures.|
* September, first intake since September 2019.
However, China’s commitment to international education enjoys top level foreign policy support backed by massive economic investment.8 Because of this, and despite the temporary erosion of China’s image, international students will return to China in large numbers within two to five years.
The Church’s Response
Mindful of these realities now and the possible road ahead, how might the local and global church respond? How should we pray?
For Chinese churches, the vastness of the country, the lack of networking between Christian leaders and the rarity of ISM as a topic of ministry makes it hard to generalize these churches’ current posture to ISM. But it seems that 2018 may have been a high point for local ISM enthusiasm. A foreigner working with a local network to grow outreach to international students shared how after an initial period of disinterest, people suddenly caught the ISM vision. (The China consultation on ISM was during this period). There was a local ISM team and a handful of local ministry interns.
Regular church members desired to befriend international students, but they often relied on this foreigner to broker the new relationships, to find the international students and create a context where they could meet local believers. While the foreigner tried to empower these believers to carry on ISM themselves, there were no leaders who took ownership of the call and many continued to look to the foreigner for leadership and guidance. The lack of local leadership and continued dependence on a foreigner to introduce internationals raised questions about self-sustainability.
Two distinct approaches emerged as possibilities for catalyzing long-term ISM among local churches: modelling and teaching. Foreigners on the ground who are networked with local fellowships could build relationships with international students, model bridge-building and discipleship across the culture gap, and invite others into this cross-cultural training experience. Then there is teaching interested believers about overcoming barriers and designing attractive contexts as well as coming alongside leaders as consultants once churches have actually started building those friendships.
However, simultaneously in 2018 there was new pressure on unregistered churches. One previously energetic pastor who had been at the forefront of the ISM “awakening” in China sadly confessed in 2019, “If you want to talk about international students, I’ve got nothing.” Another pastor responded more recently, “The local church has too many challenges to think about international students.” And another in campus ministry said simply, “They’re not around anymore.” Indeed, the numbers of international students have dropped, but many do remain in the country. They are just less visible due to university policies restricting movement and being more stigmatized as the “foreigner who might give me the virus.” Apart from the rare exception, sadly international students basically have no interaction with local believers.
So, there was a promising high in 2018. But three factors have hampered a local take-up of ISM in China: the political context which increased pressure on churches, the lack of sustainable models of ISM, and the impact of COVID-19 on both the population and perception of foreigners.
God has allowed international churches in China to continue discipling and encouraging international students throughout the pandemic, although some have lost key ministry leaders or even closed. And while a few have resumed occasional in-person services, others remain entirely online because of current religious and pandemic government policies.
These multi-ethnic expressions of the universal church of Jesus are an essential, though sometimes overlooked, player of ISM in China. The commonality of experience allows people to say “I understand you” even if they are from another continent, and the melting pot of church cultures can healthily keep the gospel central. Students have testified how, through the ministry of such churches, God has grown them in their faith, their courage to reach out, and their understanding and ability to teach the Bible.
International churches may need to rethink ministry paradigms. New Christian students used to just arrive every academic year. But no new students until 2023 could catalyze these churches to be more creative and purposeful to reach the international student community, not just wait for them to come. They could also engage in deeper discipleship since numbers are reduced and explore the very real biblical themes of lament and comfort.
Local believers will always be watching their foreign brothers and sisters, ideally with strong local-foreign connections between key individuals as they seek to love international students from quite a different ministry base.
Understandably, the global church has been under strain in students’ home contexts with pandemic concerns. Every sphere of global mission has been impacted, whether sending members to foreign contexts or just welcoming the stranger. The worldwide church shares the Chinese churches’ obligation to love the displaced and the lonely with the gospel, and to pray for ISM in China. Pre-pandemic there had been interest from ministry interns coming to China, plus mission organizations, denominations, and individuals actively contemplating this work. I have seen nothing in that regard since early 2020.
The Way Forward
So, what is the way forward? Is there still hope?
In the face of an apparent drought in China ISM we must trust that God is at work in his time and his way. Paul in Acts 17 spoke of how God “marked out [all the nations’] appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” He is the same God who lovingly governs who lives when and where “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” Neither COVID-19 nor Chinese border policy changes caught him by surprise. Encouragingly, ISM in China is a sibling in a family of movements globally. We have seen a strengthened sense of global ISM fellowship in Lausanne WIN connections, IFES, and ACMI.9
Moving forward means adjusting to the new reality—expecting no new students for quite some time and getting on with real discipleship and real evangelism with those settling into another year of COVID reality. It means we should not expect promising leader-quality students to just walk in the door; instead, train up those you have. There is a longer term need for online ministry models while always striving to bring people together physically. It means careful attention to the emotional, psychological, and relational toll that this set of conditions takes on international students—believers and unbelievers—and praying for practical ways of showing God’s love to those burdened. A sad reality of the pandemic context is that international students studying in Chinese universities online remain pragmatically out of reach because of time zones and the burdens of dislocated education. These include students stuck outside of China who “migrated” to online learning and new enrollments since early 2020.
If I may, I offer a brief word to my Chinese brothers and sisters in Christ, and especially those to whom God has given a love for the foreigner among you: opportunities abound; now is your time; do not lose this vision. Yes, the barriers of language and cultural fear are real. Yes, the burdens on the bride of Christ are heavy, but please do not neglect to love the stranger who lives in your city.
It is estimated that 85% of international students are ready to say “yes” to an invitation to build a friendship with a local. They want to learn Chinese language and culture better and crave human connection. Chinese believers, you naturally have these to offer! The door seems to be closing for foreigners to do this ministry. Many of you are passionate about missions—is ISM an answer to your prayers to influence the world for Jesus, right where you are?
I invite you, the global church, to continue to pray for this precious group of people, so incredibly isolated and often forgotten but immensely strategic and loved by God.
- Pray for Christian international students in China to love their friends with the gospel, to be responsive to Bible teaching, discipleship, and training inside China, especially through international churches.
- Pray for Chinese believers to notice, pray for, and courageously welcome international students—even with cultural and legal barriers, and to incorporate ISM into the mission of the local church.
- Pray for Chinese students returning from abroad to strengthen ISM in China.
- Pray that in God’s time China’s borders will open again to international students, and the Chinese and international churches there will receive them with the practical love of Jesus and the liberating news of the gospel of grace.
Note: For a Chinese translation of this article, read 留学生事工在中国: 还有希望吗？
- “International Student Ministry” includes ministry with international students, teachers, professors, and post-docs.
- Ministry of Education, People’s Republic of China, “Statistical report on international students in China for 2018” http://en.moe.gov.cn/documents/reports/201904/t20190418_378692.html 18 April 2019. Viewed 20 July 2021.
- National Bureau of Statistics of China, “Communiqué of the Seventh National Population Census (No. 8)” http://www.stats.gov.cn/english/PressRelease/202105/t20210510_1817193.html 11 May 2021. Viewed 20 July 2021.
- Twitter.com, https://twitter.com/search?q=%23TakeUsBackToChina.
- Maryann Xue, “Foreign students wait for green light to return to China with growing concern,” South China Morning Post, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3139775/foreign-students-wait-green-light-return-china-growing-concern, 4 July 2021. Viewed 20 July 2021. See also Wachira Kigotho, “China quiet about return of African foreign students” University World News, https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20210419161154322, 22 April 2021. Viewed 20 July 2021.
- Keith Zhai and Sha Hua, “China to Keep Covid-19 Border Restrictions for Another Year” Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-to-keep-covid-19-border-restrictions-for-another-year-11624361777, June 22, 2021. Viewed 20 July 2021.
- Tracey Fallon and Nicholas Ross Smith, “How China’s treatment of international students hurts its public diplomacy” South China Morning Post https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3137484/how-chinas-treatment-international-students-hurts-its-public, 17 June 2021. Viewed 20 July 2021.
- Jing Qi, “How China has been transforming international education to become a leading host of students,” The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/how-china-has-been-transforming-international-education-to-become-a-leading-host-of-students-157241 13 May 2021. Viewed 20 July 2021.
- WIN stands for Worldwide ISM Network. IFES is the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. ACMI is the Association of Christians Ministering among Internationals.
Phil Jones (pseudonym) and his wife have worked amongst international students including in China for over six years. Their passion is to see international students fall in love with Jesus Christ. Phil also serves as a Lausanne WIN (Worldwide ISM Network) Global Catalyst. To contact Phil, email firstname.lastname@example.org.View Full Bio