Arshad* returned to his Muslim home country with a bachelor’s degree after studying in the United States for four years. While celebrating his academic achievement with close family and friends, they asked him about life in America. But he had little to say. Despite spending four years in the States, he had made no American friends or even been invited into the home of an American family.
It can be challenging to connect with international students. Many will isolate themselves and focus exclusively on their studies due to a strong sense of obligation to make their families proud back home. But deep down, they are lonely and desperate for friends. Often, they don’t know how to engage in relationships with people in their host country.
“It can be challenging to connect with international students. But deep down, they are lonely and desperate for friends.”
If you live near a university, you have a tremendous opportunity to impact the nations for Christ by befriending students who are far from home. Your relationship with Jesus is really all you need to adequately share the gospel with an international student.
Some of these students may possess no knowledge of Jesus or, even worse, have false knowledge. They may also not have any relationships with genuine Christians or have had negative interactions with nominal Christians.
Here are a few suggestions on how your evangelistic and discipleship efforts among international students can be fruitful.
Connect as a Friend
Simply prioritize cultivating friendships with international students. Connecting with them initially may be the biggest hurdle. Contact the office for international student services at the university near you to see how you can serve them. There are many needs these students have that you could meet.
As you connect with them, look for students who demonstrate an openness or willingness to engage in new ideas. Sometimes these are students who actively seek out someone to learn from. Other times these students are more introspective and need to be sought out.
Show Genuine Interest in Their Culture
Let the students know that you genuinely care for and value them by becoming a student of their culture. Let them teach you about their homelands. Eat a meal together from their culture. Listen to a student share stories of from his life. Ask what is his family like and how his culture observes certain traditions.
Get students to talk and open up about who they are and what influences have shaped them, whether it is culture, family, religion, or any myriad of other ideas. In some cultures, asking too many questions can be offensive, so ask in a gentle way to show that you are interested in his background.
Be Stable, Gracious, and Inclusive
Because of cultural differences, it can be difficult to understand how to love people from other cultures well. Their idea of time, commitment, and priority can differ greatly from yours. Do not allow these differences to discourage you or provide opportunities to denigrate the student. These students come from different cultures with different values and expectations. Extend grace and love them despite the challenges.
“Many students feel isolated and long for a surrogate family in their host culture.”
Many students feel isolated and long for a surrogate family in their host culture. Open your home and “adopt” them while they are studying. Including them in your family avoids treating students like projects. People can discern whether someone is genuinely interested in them or not. When you open your life and home to students, they can see how Jesus impacts your whole life and that faith isn’t just a cultural expression of a religion.
Stick with them through victories and sorrows. I remember one instance when I ministered to a student after his sister had been kidnapped back home. Being able to pray with him and care for him allowed our relationship to flourish. We didn’t know how to help in that situation except to provide a safe place for him to grieve. Fortunately, after a few days his sister was released and we were able to rejoice together.
Share the Gospel Story over the Course of Time
Students who have little to no interaction with Christianity need to hear the gospel story. Depending on their faith background, the gospel may pique their interest in different ways. Share the general story with them, pointing out the creation, fall, redemption, and restoration plot line of the Bible pointing to Jesus. You may not be able to share the gospel completely in one sitting, but you can share portions of the story or retell it throughout in multiple encounters. It will most likely take several times hearing the gospel before they respond.
Leave the Results in God’s Hands
In our years of investing in students, we saw little visible fruit but were aware of incredible kingdom impact. One student went on to plant a church with other believers from his ESL class. Another student went back to his home country and planted three house churches. Another student went back to his home country, began a new church, and worked to see revitalization happen among the existing churches in his context. Another student expressed his desire to use his vocation as an opportunity to go to the hardest to reach peoples of the world.
Sharing the gospel with students from different cultural backgrounds is neither easy nor quick, but it is such a privilege and joy to invest in them. It requires a tremendous amount of effort, prayer, tears, and laughter. When you seek to be a minister of the gospel to these students you may be the only Christian with whom they have a personal relationship.
Anthony is a long-time worker overseas. In the past fifteen years, his wife and he have served on church planting teams and made disciples through a campus ministry. Currently, Anthony is teaching and training gospel workers at a local seminary in Asia and serving as a catalyst for theological education in the region.