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The Birth of ISM in China

Is This God’s Timing?

“How is God leading the Chinese church to start an indigenous international student ministry (ISM)?”

Over two days in late 2018, thirty friends from mainland cities, Hong Kong, and abroad met to seek God’s direction in this question. Among them were pastors (including mainland Chinese), professors, campus workers, international fellowship friends, mission organizations, and international students. In parallel, the Hong Kong hosts were exploring how to fan into flame ISM in their own context, and how they could best support the mainland in this ministry.

The diversity of the international student body in China was itself reflected in the language and culture mix of the participants, though almost all discussion was in Mandarin Chinese. They also came from widely differing ministry contexts acknowledging various blind-spots to confess but insights to share.

Yet the remarkable aspect of this meeting was the God-given unity: a shared commitment to reach the nations that have come to China and to follow the Lord’s leading. Everyone recognized China’s seemingly unstoppable rise as a secular global influencer in line with President Xi’s statement, “It is time for [China] to take center stage in the world.” But will this rise be in tandem with an increased influence for the gospel among internationals?

The group was reminded of the sheer scope of ministry opportunity and the rapid increase of international students in China. In comparison, the growth in international student numbers that took 35 years in the US has only taken 14 in China. So, in God’s sovereignty, at the very time when Christians in China are feeling great pressure, this gospel opportunity requires a tenacious and courageous commitment, creative ideas, strategic partnerships, and humble dependence on the Spirit’s enabling.

God’s word remained at the center of the time together with two challenging messages from Psalm 96 and Ephesians chapter 2. Dependence on the Spirit was expressed in individual and group prayer times. Participants were also blessed by the handful of international students who shared about their own experiences and perspectives on ISM.

The group humbly and honesty reflected on the challenges that are faced in reaching, welcoming and discipling international students. Language and culture barriers were discussed, stemming from the monocultural nature of Chinese society and educational upbringing. So too were the integration and ministry deployment of Chinese Christian returnees who are more culturally flexible and may have experienced different models of ministry abroad. The uncomfortable reality of security issues significantly hindered enthusiasm in some, and others noted the lack of networking and of Chinese-language resources for ISM.

But the participants also heard exciting examples of international students’ involvement in local churches. One Chinese pastor described the surprising arrival of a few Central-Asian Christian international students in his congregation as a gift from God to rouse them to love the foreigner and how attitudes in that church were changing.

The group identified the players in this ministry landscape including mainland house churches, local and overseas campus ministries, international fellowships, the Three-Self church, the Hong Kong churches, Chinese returnees, the international students’ own home churches, global sending organizations, the global church overall, publishers, and the international students themselves. In the context of China, this is a complex but potentially very rich network of partnerships.

Local church leaders have expressed their desire to see a missionary China—perhaps God is answering their prayers in ways that they did not expect! The nations are coming to China and what an opportunity there is to reach them with the gospel while in China. It's also an opportunity to be training future spiritual leaders.

Was this a historic event? This was the first such meeting focused entirely on ISM in China. Was this the birth of an indigenous ISM in China?

Will we see the day when China sends returnees home to Tajikistan, North Korea, France, Brazil, and Uganda with lives transformed by the gospel through Chinese Christians? Will we hear them say, “When I was an international student in China a Chinese believer led me to Christ and discipled me. My Chinese church welcomed me and has equipped me to witness for Jesus back home?”

The participants at this humble gathering took bold first steps, fully trusting and depending on the Lord’s guiding.

The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps. Proverbs 16:9

Note: The Chinese version of this article can be found at 中国国际留学生事工的诞生: 上帝所定的时候到了吗? 

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Phil Jones

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 Full Bio

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