By Rachel Sinclair
“Preaching the gospel to the nations” might look more and more like preaching the gospel in your very own city, as a growing number of international students extend their stay in the U.S. after graduation.
Pew Research Center reports that from 2008 to 2016, foreign student graduates in the federal Optional Practical Training program (OPT) increased by 400 percent among science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates and 49 percent among non-STEM graduates. And while growth slowed from 2016 to 2017, the number still increased.
The point? International graduates are staying longer in the U.S., which gives the church more opportunities to build relationships and share the gospel with this specific community.
Here are three things to remember when considering international student ministry:
Consider how you can meet their needs
When I was in college, I befriended some international students who were studying in the U.S. for a semester.
One day, one of the students casually mentioned she and a friend had walked from their on-campus dorm to the grocery store over the weekend.
The store was well over two miles one way, and they had to cross several busy intersections—all while carrying their groceries back.
The school had a bus that took the students to the store during the week, but because my friends didn’t have access to transportation over the weekend, they chose to walk.
I made them promise to call me the next time they needed a ride. This conversation was an eye-opener, as I realized how out of touch I was when it came to understanding these students’ needs.
Can you imagine living in a foreign country, not speaking your first language and knowing very few people, if any?
International students are looking for friends, connections, and support. Let’s work together as the church to meet those needs.
Build lasting personal relationships
When we think of international missions, the first thing that comes to mind is often short-term trips overseas. While there are many benefits to partnering with believers in other countries on a short-term missions assignment, one of the downsides is the lack of ability to build lasting, personal relationships with the people living in the other country.
As international students continue to stay longer in the U.S., evangelical Christians have a rich, unprecedented opportunity to develop real relationships with people of different cultures.
While you might not be in a position to move to Eastern Asia for a year to share the gospel, you can be intentional about ministering to the international community in your very own city.
You might be surprised at how many international students are eager for someone to reach out to them. One of my international friends once told me she wanted to get to know Americans, but she was scared to initiate conversation because she was afraid people might make fun of her English.
These students are craving community, but sometimes we have to be the one to break the ice. Pray about how you can find new ways to serve and engage this people group, all with the goal of establishing real, long-term friendships.
Many colleges and universities already have programs that connect international students to American families. Contact your local university to see how you can get plugged in.
The purpose of international student ministry is not to see how fast your church can convert people to Christianity; the purpose is to love with the love of Christ, share the truth of the gospel, and listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
At the heart of this ministry, you’re serving others, and there is no timer on when or how you should expect them to respond. It’s also important to remember international students may have little to no exposure to the Bible. This can make explaining the gospel feel like starting from scratch, but stay faithful to engage these students.
As believers faithfully love, share and pray through international student ministry, God will be faithful to make disciples of all nations, right here in the U.S.
RACHEL SINCLAIR (@1rachelsinclair) is a freelance writer based in Franklin, Tennessee.