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Reaching International Students in Our Own Backyards

An interview with key evangelical leaders.
Reaching International Students in Our Own Backyards
Image: via Pixabay/skeeze

Ed: Tell us a little bit about the initiative.

Denis LaClare: The Every International Initiative is a collaborative effort from international student ministries around North America. We're coming together to provide a platform where anyone can come to the website and discover how to launch and lead an international student ministry where they are.

Ed: How does prayer fit into that?

Marc Papai: Prayer is essential to anything in God's kingdom. We think it's particularly strategic with this initiative with Every International. We are forming prayer circles around North America of students, staff, and church people to pray at least on a monthly basis for international student work in their local area and around the globe.

Ed: I don't think people always understand just how big the international student pool is. Why should this be on the radar of North American churches, or churches reading this around the world?

Beau Miller: According to the Institute of International Education, there are over one million international students in the United States. We have a pretty good estimate within the ISM (international student ministries) movement of how many of these students are hearing the gospel or being befriended by an evangelical Christian.

The bottom line is there's a tremendous gap between how many international students there are and how many international students we are reaching. Most of them are not being reached. We think Every International is a platform where we can engage the broader church—those outside of the ISM movement—to reach out to nearby internationals, not just students, but even immigrants or refugees.

Ed: What does it look like for normal, everyday people in churches to engage international students?

Denis LaClare: I think it often depends on their proximity to a local campus. So, if everyday church people are meeting these students at the supermarket or seeing them on the street, then it starts to become a little bit of a concern for them.

Who are these students? And how can I reach out to them? What we're trying to do is making it as easy as possible for them to start to meet these students—whether this means having a group over for a Thanksgiving meal, helping them use Craigslist to find a bicycle, or taking them to a local sporting event.

People start to realize there are a lot of international students right in their neighborhood and on their local campus. Their first step is to ask themselves how they can have an influence for the Great Commission right in their own neighborhood.

Ed: One out of 300 people living in the United States is an international student. That's a pretty stunning number. And people come from places where we never could go, particularly as Americans, and certainly places we could never send a missionary. Glen Osborn works with China Outreach Ministries. Glen, what's the opportunity, and how have you seen that opportunity play out as you've been in international student ministry work?

Glen Osborn: The end game really is seeing those who are coming from countries where there's very limited gospel access get befriended by Christians here in North America, hear the gospel, have a faith experience, and then return to their own country to be a significant impact and ambassadors for the gospel.

And it's amazing to see that a typical North American Christian can have a global impact just through friendship. It’s amazing how God uses hospitality. He uses that caring, loving friendship of the normal Christian who often thinks they're not making a difference worldwide.

Our vision is to see those two pieces come together in a greater way. And the Lord uses that for the Great Commission in ways that we didn't even think of. He's brought them to us. And we have a responsibility and opportunity that's amazing.

Beau Miller: To add on to that, an estimated two-thirds of the international students in the United States come from the 10/40 window. The three of the top four sending countries, according to the IIE, are China, India, and Saudi Arabia. You're not going to get a missionary visa to any of those places. The world has come to us. They're at our doorstep. A tremendous opportunity exists for the church in the United States and beyond.

Marc Papai: I had the privilege of being in a Middle Eastern country this summer. We're working with some in-country missionaries from the West who obviously have a great challenge to bear witness in their circumstances. At one point in the conversation the lead missionary looked at me and said, "Please, please would you do the work in your country that we cannot do here, based on the limitations that we face? Would you reach out to…."

And he named the country and there are several thousand students from that country who are studying in the U.S. and Canadian universities. The opportunity for us to influence the world, to reach the nations without going, is unprecedented, and when we have them here we often don’t face the same limitations of sharing the gospel as we would in their home countries.

Ed: Can you share a recent example where you’ve seen somebody come to faith in Christ and go back to their home country?

Glen Osborn: I was just recently in China, and there was a great example of someone who was here in America. The person had never heard the gospel. Actually, this person attended Urbana at one time. Through a variety of connections with Christians, this person came to faith in Christ.

Now, this person is in a professional position in a large city in China and is living out their faith. This person is involved in a local church and in directing group gatherings for sharing the Bible and sharing the gospel.

Ed: If your vision includes reaching all the nations in North America, why does the website focus on international students?

Chris Sneller: While EveryInternational.com has started with resources to reach international students, we are looking to expand it to include resources to reach refugees and other immigrants. We truly want it to equip Christians in North America to reach all the internationals in our midst.

Ed Stetzer holds 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.

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Reaching International Students in Our Own Backyards