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International Students in China—an Opportunity?

From the series International Students in China—an Unreached Diaspora


My Pakistani friend asked, “May I visit your church?” I welcomed him along. He listened to a Bible talk in English, read the Urdu text on my iPhone, and asked me questions in Chinese.

In my first article I described the numbers and diversity of the international students in China.[1] Here I’ll outline some of the challenges and opportunities of ministering to them, some unique to this context.

In terms of scope, in 2016 China hosted over 440,000 international students. Globally it’s the leading destination for anglophone Africans.[2] Of the top 15 countries sending students to China, eight of them are “unreached” or “minimally reached” and comprise almost 120,000 students.[3] There is a tremendous openness with all the worldview exploration and reassessment that young adults do. Is this an opportunity to reach the unreached?

It appears that there is a greater diversity in the international student population in China compared to those in many western contexts. Cultural diversity means that what is acceptable to one group offends another. And cultural naïveté makes it hard for students from culturally homogeneous societies to comprehend, accept, and befriend someone different. Does this preclude ministry in mixed groups? Yet with the shackles of family and home culture far away, the close-by diversity of new-found friends prompts the question, “What do I believe and why?”

Linguistic diversity means that ministry is not just in English. Many international students, like the growing number from Central Asia, don’t have any functional English. And many English-speaking students can’t understand each other because of their accents, so interaction is in limited Chinese. Anyone, foreign or local, with a good grasp of Mandarin can easily connect with a lot of non-English-speaking international students. Though the most effective ministry is in one’s heart language, the widely-spoken languages of French, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese are very useful too.

Religious diversity amongst international students includes Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, and Bahai. Amongst those identifying as Christians there are students of all affiliations and all levels of commitment. And various cults also have an established presence attracting lonely and stressed students. This diversity precludes a “one size fits all” approach and demands creativity.

A surprising number of Christian students come with church leadership experience. And while some are confused or lukewarm in faith, others are eager to be equipped for ministry. International fellowships offer a wealth of ministry and Christian living experience. Amongst Christian students from every corner there is an incredible responsiveness to capable, intentional, and loving ministry training. Is this an opportunity to strengthen churches and train people for ministry?

The multi-century homogeneity of Chinese culture heightens the culture stress of international students because anyone who is not Chinese-looking is a 外国人, an “outside person.” Racism toward Africans breeds alienation, fear, and powerlessness and is emotionally taxing. Depression and suicidal tendencies are not uncommon, but mental health and medical services are either non-existent or too expensive. Dormitories rarely have spaces to congregate or socialize and students’ financial, academic, and time pressures work against forming deep friendships. Both Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, the most popular messaging apps globally, have been blocked.[4] Restricted freedom of association and university rules can leave students confused and fearful.

All these challenges contribute to isolation and loneliness which can weaken Christian international students and they drift towards unhelpful influences. Some students are completely unaware that healthy international churches exist, or that a Bible study might meet on their campus. In the midst of these challenges is this an opportunity to show the powerful love of Christ and embrace students in loving community?

Many international students will become influencers of culture and society in their home countries, and some already are. China’s scholarship policy naturally attracts a higher proportion of graduate and postgraduate students compared to the west. Is this an opportunity to influence students’ home cultures with the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Simply by being an international student and navigating all of the challenges listed above, students become culturally adaptive and resilient. Is this an opportunity to train international students for cross-cultural mission beyond the diaspora?[5]

International student ministry in China inevitably means pioneering ministry. Yes, the challenges are immense, but so are the opportunities. Who will commit themselves to reaching, maturing, and equipping these students to be salt and light throughout the world?

In the final article I hope to explore this question.

Header image credit: Expo Flags by jurgen.proschinger via Flickr.
Text image credit: Public domain.

Phil Jones

Phil Jones (pseudonym) and his wife have been working amongst international students for over twelve years, both in their home country and for three years in China. They are becoming aware of the opportunities to reach the nations who have come to China.  To contact Phil, email philjones2510@gmail.com. View Full Bio


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