Study abroad, once thought exotic, now seems almost commonplace. Students and scholars are crossing oceans in every direction to broaden their educational experience. According to the Institute of International Education, over 2.5 million students annually pursue higher education outside their home countries; last year, 623,805 of those students came to the United States.
With over half a million students and scholars from around the world coming to the United States for their educations, American Christians have unprecedented opportunities to share the gospel globally without ever going abroad. The increasing international diversity of American campuses invites Christians to view the campus as a global missions field, particularly since many international students are from nations that have either limited or no access to Christian missionaries.
InterVarsity is called to see students and faculty transformed through the gospel Jesus Christ; so we welcome opportunities to befriend internationals, minister to their needs, and introduce them to our Savior.
We recognize, as did the apostle Paul and the early church, that preaching at the crossroads of international trade routes is strategic for advancing the kingdom of God throughout the world. And we further recognize that today’s American colleges and universities comprise the intellectual crossroads for many academic travelers, and that this campus intersection along the trade routes of ideas may be the only place outside their own country that some international visitors will encounter a Christian.
So InterVarsity does not dally with our witness on campus to internationals, but stands in this intersection to offer hope and direction to every passerby. While all InterVarsity staff and students are called to reach internationals with the gospel and encourage their transformation through Jesus Christ, the staff and volunteers within our department of International Student Ministry (ISM) are particularly dedicated to such a mission: They understand that a significant number of international students and scholars will return to their homelands to eventually become leaders in government, business, education, or the arts. To change such a potential leader’s life promises godly change for this world.
“International students who become Christians while studying in this country,” said Lisa Espineli Chinn, director of ISM, “return to their home countries as witnesses for Christ. And many of these internationals eventually attain high levels of leadership in their countries, where God uses them in significant ways.”
God is presently using ISM in many significant ways to reach more internationals for Christ. Last academic year 109 internationals came to trust in Christ through the befriending activities of ISM. “God is truly moving among us,” said Lisa. “That number of conversions was 28% greater than the previous year.”
For internationals on campus, conversions in Christ are typically preceded by friendships with Christians. Every fall ISM staff welcome internationals to their new campus by hosting homemade dinners, family-style picnics, community tours, and assistance with grocery shopping, medical appointments, and local transportation.
Welcoming Internationals into Community
At the University of Wisconsin—Madison, ISM staff member Terrill Smith coordinated an old-fashioned hayride through rolling, green farmlands for internationals new to campus. Over 300 internationals boarded buses and climbed into cars for the ride to a scenic farm, where they enjoyed an afternoon in the countryside.
At the end of the day, participants were invited to take a Bible that was printed in their national language. “A visiting scholar from India was so surprised to see a Bible in his own language that he came to show me what he’d found,” said Terrill. Many of the participants of this day’s excursion indicated on a response card that they wanted to know more about Jesus. And a significant number signed up for a small group Bible study.
God is moving among international students and scholars elsewhere too. In Florida, InterVarsity students invited a group of visiting Chinese students to dinner; two of these students desired to learn about Jesus. A few days later, these same InterVarsity students invited a few visiting French classmates to a meal; they also wished to learn about Jesus.
In Mississippi, ISM staff planned a conference for only fifty people but were delighted when nearly one hundred showed up. In North Dakota, over one hundred people regularly attend InterVarsity’s Friday Night All Nations Meal at the now well-known Pink House near campus.
The Pink House (see photo) has become so popular among internationals at North Dakota State University that Collette Michal, InterVarsity’s cross-cultural ministry coordinator, has met visitors from over twenty countries, and the non-religious International Student Association on campus has asked to partner with the Pink House for some all-campus events.
“The Pink House is an international hang out,” said Collette. “We offer a diversity of experiences for internationals.” Among the community experiences offered by the international students themselves are Global Connections, a cross-cultural friendship network, and Monday Night’s Tea Talks, practice in conversational English.
Christian discipleship groups also meet weekly. ISM staff regularly give Christian international students opportunities to grow in leadership, leading Bible studies and serving in various capacities to reach the campus with the gospel. “The holiday of Thanksgiving also presents an opportunity for many of us to develop international friendships by inviting international students to our homes to share our hospitality,” said Lisa.
Hosting Winter House Parties
InterVarsity’s ministry to internationals has a tradition of hosting winter house parties at our two training facilities—Bear Trap Ranch in Colorado and Cedar Campus in Michigan—where internationals have opportunities to learn more about the Bible and Jesus Christ.
Lounging on the couches before a blazing fireplace in a lodge at Bear Trap Ranch, internationals feel free to ask challenging questions and receive truthful answers about the Christian worldview. Conferences on campuses and tours of major cities, such as Washington DC, are also offered for internationals throughout the academic year.
The number of international students attending colleges and universities in the United States is growing. Through InterVarsity’s International Student Ministry, students from around the world are discovering the love of God through Jesus Christ and learning that they, too, are called to be witnesses of Christ and servant-leaders of people when they return to their homelands.