We have a great opportunity here in North America for ministry—one that, I suspect, few followers of Christ have ever considered: ministry to and among international students.
Right now, in the United States and Canada, there are about 1.8 million people studying at academic institutions that are not from either of these two countries.
Students are coming to these two places from all over the world to learn, grow, and prepare themselves for careers in a wide variety of industries. We are seeing countries from across the globe sending their best and brightest to North America to get their degrees.
Now, you may ask, why does this matter to the church?
First off, these students themselves matter.
The informal number people in the field quote says that three out of four international students never set foot in a North American home during their time in school. (I can’t find any original statistics to verify it, but most people in the movement say it is true and fits their experience.)
If accurate, that’s concerning. These students come from all over the world and we’ve been given an incredible opportunity to show them hospitality. But as far as I can tell, most of our families are not taking advantage of it.
Now I love hospitality, but what I love even more is when people have the chance to hear the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. One of the (many) reasons why we should be grateful to have international students on our college campuses here in North America is that their proximity to our homes gives us the opportunity to share that message with them.
Many students are coming from countries where it’s illegal to be a missionary. In some places, Christians are losing their lives even trying to practice their faith, much less share the gospel. For them to be surrounded by churches and believers is a bigger deal than we might recognize at first. We thank God for opening this door of ministry to us and, for the sake of these students, we need to take advantage of it.
Second, the nations from which these students are coming matter.
There’s a swath of countries around the world—the 10/40 window, some call them—that are considered the least reached and the least accessible.
Again, many students from these hard-to-reach and hard-to-access places are right outside your doorstep and in your community.
These inaccessible countries are sending their best and brightest students to our college campuses. Many of them will go back to their home countries and become the leaders of their nations. With them, they will take all they have learned from their time in the U.S.
Those in other parts of the world—the 10/40 window and other majority Muslim contexts—often consider North America to be Christian country. Unfortunately, our exports (television, music, and more) don’t represent us well. Even further, they certainly don’t represent what being a follower of Jesus is all about.
So, why not take the opportunity to connect with these students on a relational level and build a bridge? Having met you and having constructed a much more accurate idea of what Christians are really like, they might return to their home countries with a much more positive perception of what it means to follow Christ.
In terms of the spread of religious freedom in hard-to-reach nations, who knows what kinds of effects this might have over the next few decades?
Third, taking advantage of the opportunities for ministry God gives us matters.
God has chosen this moment to bring hundreds of thousands of international students to our shores; we can’t miss the opportunity before us.
Yes, there is a time and a place for us to send missionaries overseas, and we need more, but there is also an opportunity for us much closer to home to show and share the love of Jesus to those who are far from home.
There has never been an opportunity in the history of humanity where people who are far from Christ are now in such close proximity to those who follow him. To honor those who are risking their lives and the lives of those they love most in order to live and work in countries where many of these international students are coming from, we must join them in their mission to reach the unreached with the gospel.
Ed Stetzerholds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.