1. The Need of the Group
Over one million students come from all over the world to study in the UK every year. Yet whilst they are here most of the students won’t have a significant friendship with a British national and won’t be invited into a British home. Many will arrive knowing nothing of Jesus and will return home without hearing the gospel.
What if international students heard and responded to the gospel and then returned home to tell their friends, family and colleagues? Nations could be transformed.
2. Understanding the group
There is a huge variety of background found in international students in the UK. Every continent and major religious group is represented. Find out what kinds of international students are studying at your local institutions.
There is also a wide range of English language ability. Those here to study English may have limited ability to follow rapid native speech or to make themselves understood. Others may have reasonable English to read and write but be unfamiliar with local speech patterns or with British popular culture references. Many of those staying for higher degree programmes of a year or more may speak excellent English, but will still be unfamiliar with underlying attitudes and assumptions of British culture.
However there are certain characteristics that non-Western students in particular are likely to share. Many will have families behind them who have invested huge amounts and made great sacrifices to enable their children to study overseas. They will expect to have an important say in a student’s decisions over e.g. future career, choice of marriage partner and religious affiliation. Such students are likely to be far more group-oriented in their relationships and decision-making than individualistic Brits. The concepts of honour/shame and saving face are likely to be very important.
Many non-Western students are shocked by the amount of alcohol consumed by British students and by their sexual behaviour. They may assume this is Christian behaviour because the West is perceived as ‘Christian’.
Many students establish good networks of relationships with co-nationals or with other internationals, but regret they have found it difficult to make friends with British people as much as they had hoped. Simple expressions of hospitality by local Christians can make a huge impression.
Students are often curious about British culture and open to new ideas. Those from non-Western nations are usually very ready to talk openly about matters of faith and expect Christians to be ready to talk about their faith too. They will often respond readily to opportunities to study the Bible or discuss the Christian message of which many may be quite ignorant.
3. Challenges of the Group
Despite the openness referred to above it may take time to discern who is truly seeking. Interest shown in the gospel may be an intellectual curiosity about British culture or simply arise from a desire to improve their English. Sometimes there is a desire to please hosts so that “Yes” can simply mean, “I would like to fit in with what’s going on” and not reflect a genuine heart change.
Students from continental Europe will have attitudes similar to their British counterparts in terms of their approach to life and faith. They are likely to be cynical about the institutional church and dogmatic pronouncements of truth. Some may come from a nominally Catholic or Orthodox background which will be closely allied to their national identity.
A practical challenge may be to gain access to international students near you if you do not already have an established ministry amongst them. It is not usually possible to freely walk onto campus or into halls of residence and hand out invitations without gaining permission. University authorities may be suspicious of evangelical churches and be very protective of their students so it is important to work through contacts your church may already have.
4. Engaging with the Group
Bearing the above in mind, explore all your natural contacts and seek to work carefully with sympathetic chaplains or international student advisors, university staff in your congregation, the local Christian Union or a local Friends International staff worker. Your best resource may be Christian international students in your congregation who can advise you and invite their friends to any event you are planning. Make sure you back up personal invitations with good publicity which includes an attractive website and Facebook page with clear details of what you are offering.
A helpful approach is to indicate that you are a community of local Christians who want to welcome and connect with international guests in our country. This is because hospitality is an important Christian value. You believe in a God who has a particular care for people who are far from home (Lev.19: 33). You also want to give them the opportunity while they are here to discover for themselves what Christians really believe but you are not in the business of coercing anyone to change their opinions. Your meetings are open to any student, whatever their faith background.
Food is central to ministry amongst internationals and laying on a good (free) spread is a strong incentive for students to attend an event! Make sure you serve hot food, avoid alcohol, never serve pork or beef and always have a quality vegetarian option available.
It’s really important to be clear if there will be some kind of talk or gospel presentation at an event. Don’t use a free meal as a lure simply to present a 20-minute talk to a captive audience without warning. Apart from anything else it will quickly destroy your relationship with your local university once word gets back.
Offering a meal can be seen as a faithful expression of the gospel in its own right (Matt. 25:35). Many ‘first contact’ events with international students are best seen as opportunities to build authentic relationships and to meet the felt needs of English practice, friendship with locals and understanding local culture, but of course we pray they may also be a bridge to something more.
5. Sharing Christ with the Group
Note that in all communication with those of other cultures we need to remember that British humour is unique and our understatements and irony, which form so much of our communication style, may easily be misunderstood!
Because international students come from such a wide variety of religious backgrounds it is best to do the serious gospel explanations in small groups or one-to-one, once relationships are established. A gospel explanation given to a mixed ‘first contact’ group is likely to seriously miss the target, no matter how politely they appear to listen. A much better approach is to use the larger, mixed, social event to tell stories and raise questions. This approach works as much with European post-moderns as with Muslims or East Asians. Seekers may then be invited to Bible exploration groups.
Even where a group of internationals are intentionally coming to hear the gospel message, the classic presentation in terms of “Jesus‘ death paid the price for my sins” may not seem relevant to many Asian or Middle Eastern students. ’Sin‘ may be the same word as ’crime' in other languages. However the concept of a broken relationship with our Creator, which is restored by Jesus who took all our shame on the cross is something Asians will much more readily identify with. The story of the Prodigal Son is a good basis for such an explanation.
6. Ideas for Mission to the Group
As already hinted, an event centred around food is likely to be popular. With Easter coming, there’s a natural opportunity to provide a basic explanation of the Easter story. You could advertise an international banquet with “Find out what Christians remember at Easter”. Use the opportunity to expose students to the biblical account of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection of which they may be quite ignorant. Keep it brief and simple – maybe using film, drama or mixed media as aids to good storytelling. Invite them to bring their questions to an ongoing discussion group. Give gifts of gospels in different languages (if available) so that they can read for themselves. Use such an event as a launch pad for regular activities to build relationships with students.
As follow up do invite them to your Easter Sunday service, but make sure you have ‘ambassadors’ briefed to sit with the students and talk them through cultural aspects of the service that will be unfamiliar. Remember that an atmosphere of welcome and the music will speak to them far more than the sermon, as will an invitation to lunch in a local home afterwards.
Other ideas: A performance of The Mark Drama; Movie night showing a popular film with gospel/Easter themes (best to show with English subtitles); Christian heritage tour of a local cathedral or art museum.
7. Helpful resources about the Group
The booklet “Welcoming International Students: A Guide for Churches” covers much of the above material in more depth and is available from Friends International. The Friends International website has a wide range of other resources to help your church engage with international students, including Bible study outlines, ideas for social events, information about different cultures, links to organisations which provide foreign language Bibles and details of the latest training events and conferences.
If you would like to run a training event for your church or book an experienced speaker for an international student event, please contact Friends International for a recommendation in your area.
The Rowan Centre
All Nations Christian College
Phone: 01920 460006