Converge365 — Changing the conversation about international students

by Brian Davis
  • Joy Turner speaks about discipling international students on the second day of Converge365.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014 | 6 yrs old

Joy Turner is the director of global mobilization at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Okla. Her passion is engaging international students. Why? Because she was one. Originally from England, Turner studied in the United States and continues to draw from those experiences as she ministers today.

“Twenty years ago, international students did not bring their families with them when they came to the U.S. to study — but now they do,” Turner said. With this in mind, the current 820,000 international students enrolled in colleges and universities in the United States is actually a much larger number when families are included. And ministry to the entire family is necessary as so many of these international students come from countries that are closed to missionaries. Turner reported that the top three places where international students come from are China, India and Saudi Arabia.

While many evangelicals seem to appreciate the fact that God is bringing individuals and families from the unreached and unengaged people groups of the world to the United States, so many Christians are making a fundamental mistake as they attempt to engage international students with the gospel. “Our message is one story, but its communication must take place in many forms based on cultural differences. We have narrowed the gospel to a five-minute presentation but this (condensed message) presupposes an understanding of God, sin and redemption that does not exist in the cultures from which these students come,” Turner said.

As a result, Turner stressed the need for evangelicals here in the United States to look at engaging international students as a process. The process will take time to work through, but the potential is changed lives. As evangelicals compound efforts to engage international students, there may be language barriers, at least at the onset; however, these students are often the brightest from their cities and communities, so they learn English very quickly.

International students often return to their nation of origin having never been invited into the home of an American. “International students long for relationships and are very open to developing relationships with people here. But they can quickly identify those who only wish to force the gospel on them,” Turner said. With this in mind, efforts to engage international students must be sincere, respectful and gospel motivated. Engaging and ministering to international students must never result in the students being treated like “projects.” And if you’ve befriended an international student, never parade them around as if they are a “prize.” The relationship you’re seeking to develop with an international student must be developed and maintained even if they do not make a decision for Christ. Turner said, “Some say, ‘If students don’t make a decision, move on to someone else,’ but if I am your friend, then I am your friend regardless.”

Turner shared a humorous, yet important point regarding the necessity to recognize that we need to be open to learning from international students. “I remember having people here telling me, ‘Oh, living in England must be dreadful for it always rains, and it’s always foggy,’ to which I would reply, ‘Oh no, it’s actually quite lovely where I’m from.’ But they argued with me, saying, ‘No, no, no, it’s always rainy and foggy because I’ve been there once, and I know it’s so.’” Many Americans have been introduced to other cultures because we have visited other countries, which is a good place to begin a conversation; but we have much to learn, so we should take time to learn from them about their nation and their culture.  

Furthermore, efforts to disciple international students who become followers of Christ must not be limited to preparing students to return to their nation of origin with the gospel; some will do so, but many others will find themselves taking the gospel with them to other nations where God opens doors for them to work, thereby impacting another culture with the gospel.

Turner concluded her presentation with this statement: “I was an international student, and you fed me; you brought me into your home, and you loved me.”

For more information on ministry to international college students and how your church can get involved, contact Sammy Joo at sjoo@ncbaptist.org or Tom Knight at tknight@ncbaptist.org.