From our founding, cross-cultural missions has been a priority. Usually this involves sending missionaries overseas, yet we have a world-class university that attracts thousands of internationals, many from China. The nations are coming to us . . .
That’s how Pastor Cole Towney of Riverwood Chapel in Kent, Ohio puts it and he’s one of many pastors whose churches have been blessed by reaching out to Chinese students and scholars on nearby campuses. If there’s a university or college nearby, has your church seized this opportunity?
Why Reaching Students from China Makes Sense
Did you know that, as of the academic year 2020–2021, China is still the largest sender of international students to the USA?1 These college students (F-1 visa holders seeking a degree here) and scholars (often post-docs, or researchers) represent a tremendous opportunity to touch the nations with the love and message of Christ. These are some of the reasons that intentional outreach by US churches is incredibly sensible:
- Chinese students at US colleges and universities are future influencers.
- They come from a country with a strong atheistic influence and with limited faith expression for Christians.
- They speak English, have greater freedoms to inquire here than at home, and often desire friendships and cultural experiences with American hosts.
- Churches and the members therein have tremendous resources to befriend and serve Chinese guests.
- The gospel meets the greatest need of these visitors among us—and believers have this good news to offer!
Seizing the Opportunity
There are various entry points that local churches and campus-based ministries, often in partnership, use to connect with students from China at nearby campuses. Though reaching these students is a different ballgame in some ways than it was a decade ago, there are still several effective approaches. The key is meeting their felt needs and offering opportunities that facilitate relationships. Some ways to do this are through providing:
- Welcome functions, such as an airport pick-up or a fun gathering;
- English-language help, through having conversation partners or ESOL2 classes;
- Friendships, with individuals who take an interest in them or with mentors;
- Hospitality and in-home meals, such as Thanksgiving dinner in an American home;
- Engaging cultural experiences, like attending a sporting event or an American culture class;
- Fun outings such as picnics, hiking trips, and traveling to national parks.
The hardest part is getting started. In some contexts, a church can connect with the International Student and Scholars Services (or similar name) office of a nearby university and seek to help them serve and meet needs of students. Another idea is partnering. As the international student ministry movement has grown, there are campus staff in many locations who focus their ministries on internationals. Examples of their agencies are China Outreach Ministries, Bridges International, International Students Inc., and RUF-International—and there are many others that operate nationally or locally. And, at times a parachurch or denominational campus ministry’s outreach also includes international students. Research in this area has revealed that US churches have benefited from partnering with such local campus specialists and this, in turn, gives specialized ministries the opportunity to truly be an arm of the church.3
Since this kind of outreach is highly-relational, if a church can see success in just one or two entry points, this can easily lead to other opportunities—in two ways. For one, church members can meet more students on campus through their existing friends (organically). Secondly, a church can expand offerings to their new friends. For example, your church might begin by providing conversation partners for students or scholars trying to improve their English, and then offer an investigative Bible discussion group for them.
Those ready to engage, or further engage, must keep in mind that students coming from China have changed in recent years. Generally, they are less spiritually interested and are more affluent. Some of the traditional connection points, such as furniture giveaways, are not as attractive. These students have resources and may want to travel the United States on their own and not be as available or interested in outings you organize. They’re likely not as drawn to a matched friendship with an American as in the past.
Frankly, ministry among Chinese students and scholars has become harder (not all entry points listed above may work in your context). Many of the younger ones, like undergraduate students, are Generation Zers and thus digital natives. They’re highly connected, albeit mostly through technology. Yet, they’re likely still interested in someone who’ll truly take the time to relate to and listen to them. There’s no substitute for relationship. Also, peers can be very effective in reaching Generation Z—if there are young people (especially from China) in your church, seek to engage them. Through all this, of course, prayer is crucial!
One of the constants of outreach among international students is that not only do the students benefit, but so do those who reach out. Believers gain from this experience, as do their families. Listen to the brief story of how this church (and pastor, too) in Washington state benefited by befriending and demonstrating love to international students.
Ready to Engage?
Would your church like to learn more about reaching students and scholars from China? Or, are you somewhat engaged now, yet would like to do more? If so, there may be a resource nearby such as a specialized ministry or evangelical church already engaged. China Outreach Ministries has been ministering on US campuses for decades and has staff present in many locations. We value gospel-bearing local churches and the ministry volunteers therein!
At this page you can discover how COM helps churches reach international students on nearby campuses and contact us.
- Institute of International Education. 2011-2021. International Students at All Institutions, 2001/02-2020/21: Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. https://opendoorsdata.org/fast_facts/fast-facts-2021/
- English for Speakers of Other Languages.
- Miller, Beau. 2018. Mobilizing Local Churches for International Student Ministry: A Study of How Local Churches Mobilize to Evangelize and Equip Nearby International Students. D. Min. dissertation, Columbia International University.
Beau Miller serves as Director of Church Partnerships with China Outreach Ministries. He has worked professionally in international student ministry (ISM) for two decades, including service as international pastor at Briarwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Alabama and in leadership with two Christian organizations. His ministry includes personal outreach among and …View Full Bio
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