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International Students in China–The Road Ahead?

From the series International Students in China—an Unreached Diaspora


We’ve explored the great need and strategic opportunity of international student ministry (ISM) in China in my previous posts.[1] But who will reach, disciple, and equip them with the gospel of Jesus Christ? What is the road ahead?

We know that God is calling people from every nation (Psalm 96) and that the nations have come to China! This motivated the pioneers of ISM.[2] What can we learn from them about why and how ISM movements started?

John R. Mott was moved to care for and evangelize foreign students in the USA, and in 1911 he created the Committee on Friendly Relations among Foreign Students[3]. As an international student in China in 1948, Bob Finley noticed the political impact of Chinese students returning from Russia. The strategic opportunities drove him to start International Students Inc. on home soil “to evangelize, train and deploy foreign students back to their home countries for ministry.” And in 1954 Mark Hanna and John Bjorkland launched American Citizens Residing Overseas for Study and Service (ACROSS) “to empower Americans to study overseas and thereby evangelize in close[d] countries.”[4]

Diaspora missiology offers a biblical rationale and strategy for ISM, and it gives us a framework of missions to, through, and beyond the diaspora. Leiton Chinn writes compellingly about the strategic value of ISM as part of diaspora missions.[5] Elsewhere he describes his own journey and that of churches in the USA from not seeing or really caring about international students to now seeing and actively reaching them.[6] With the same zeal he points to ISM in Asia as “a most strategic yet least expensive global mission opportunity.”[7]

ISM in China is commanded by God, has encouraging historical precedents, and makes sense strategically. So, who will do it?

The global church outside China could send experienced ISM workers to China, though some may struggle sending people to minister to those who are not of that place. These workers might be able to encourage and train other international students and indeed Chinese Christians with this vision. Some sending organizations have historically focused only on strengthening the Chinese church. Could embracing ISM be a strategic way for them to grow the Chinese church’s cross-cultural vision and capacity to fulfil the Great Commission?

Like ACROSS 60 years ago, there are programs for mission-minded foreign students to study in China. Often these programs are exclusively focused on reaching Chinese students, not internationals. Interestingly, the Nigerian church is considering sending graduate students eager to reach internationals. Is this a reflection of the shift of the “centre” of Christendom from Europe to Africa in the last hundred years?

Even so, Christians in every place have a joyful responsibility to reach everyone in that place. ISM is a gift from God to both the international church in China and the Chinese church. ISM is inexpensive yet high-impact; it provides global connection locally and allows involvement by every member and uses their gifts. Those unable to serve abroad can still engage in international missions at home, and others can be prepared for working, serving and studying abroad.[8]

International churches in China naturally attract Christian international students and have relative freedom to meet openly. Students often find great encouragement from meeting with those culturally similar and others who can sympathise with them. Congregations may operate in their first language, but more often a lingua franca is used.

I am a guest in China learning from my brothers and sisters here who know the Chinese church context better than I do. They are more able to imagine the indigenization of ISM. Even with existing pressures does the Chinese church bear the greatest responsibility to welcome these temporary neighbours with the gospel?

China’s international engagement is growing economically and politically. How can Chinese believers follow this trend and get more involved with internationals within their borders? Some Chinese friends feel they have no platform for ISM, or that they lack experience and don’t know where to start. Others feel ISM is only for well-educated members and requires significant funds and highly organised teams. Many equate cross-cultural ministry with going outside China or at least to remote domestic minorities. It takes courage to pray for, listen to, respect, and discern the needs of international students right here in the big cities.[9]

Yes, it may be a great cultural distance to go, but no travel or visa is required. Could the culturally and linguistically adept Christian returnees (海归 haigui) embrace this ministry opportunity? Could experienced workers from abroad assist in establishing ISM in local churches? What does the indigenisation process of college ministry in China teach us? Could local college ministries expand sideways into ISM?

Some international students attend local registered churches and occasionally there are services in English. Broader contextual constraints may make it difficult for these churches to effectively reach international students. Encouragingly, though, some local family churches or small groups have already prioritized reaching international students despite language and cultural barriers and other hindering factors. One leader recently said that if the local church doesn’t preach the gospel to the nations, especially when they’ve come to China, then “we are sinning against God.”

So, what is the road ahead?

Will the global church and the people of God in China pray for international students in this country? Will we together humbly repent for not seeing and acting on this opportunity, and joyfully take it up?

Could collaboration between local Chinese churches, international churches, global-sending organizations and established ISM movements be part of the road ahead?[10] Perhaps God is turning this blind-spot to vision, giving us the compassion Jesus had and placing international students squarely on the agenda of the global and local church in China.

“Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:38). International students in China are this field, ripe for harvest. Who will love them?

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