The last place I expected to find myself was in a gay club in Cape Town.
My friends had been pestering me to go clubbing with them since we’d arrived in South Africa eight weeks before. I’d always said a polite “no, thanks!” and gone off to play solitaire in my room. But I finally caved, and found myself on a sparsely populated dance floor, watching guys make out around the room. To say I was uncomfortable would be an understatement.
To rewind – I grew up homeschooled, so I don’t think I knew what a club was until I got to college. I’d quickly joined InterVarsity, which kept me away from the party scene, and, unfortunately, let me lose touch with most of my non-Christian friends.
When I got the opportunity to study abroad in Cape Town, I was thrilled. It was a phenomenal program run by my school, known for its world-class faculty and high-caliber students. Plus, my family had connections in South Africa. I was pumped.
So, I was confused when my staff worker asked me not to go. Her reasons were sound — I was a senior leader in my chapter. Missing a full term would harm the chapter, and my development as a leader. I was needed, and God was growing me on my campus in Chicago. She asked me to pray about my decision.
But God was speaking to me about this opportunity. I prayed, got more counsel, and packed my bags.
Discipleship Pressure Cooker
What I didn’t know when I got on the plane, however, is that study abroad is a discipleship pressure cooker. I was soon immersed in a brand new culture, and surrounded by people I didn’t know. It was like freshman year all over again, with an international flair — Who would my friends be? How would I find a church? Would there even be any Christians there? Would I make any South African friends? Can I take public transit? Can I drink the water?
It’s no wonder that so many of our students struggle while studying abroad! As a staff worker, I understand why MY staff asked me to stay home, and why many staff report having negative feelings about study abroad. It seems like a liability — why send a student overseas, when they’ll not only miss out on the ministry God is doing on their own campus, but also be thrust into an experience that might lead them into temptation and away from their fellowship?
When I arrived in South Africa, I got in touch with a couple of local campus ministries, including InterVarsity's sister movement with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). Within my first week in Cape Town, I had met with three different staff. This relationship was vital — by the end of my time in South Africa, I had build solid friendships with South Africans, and even partnered in ministry — I had helped plant a new ministry to arts students.
As my relationships with my non-Christian friends in my program deepened, I stumbled into evangelistic opportunities. One conversation happened on the beach, as we were warming up after body-surfing in the Atlantic. Another happened after dark while camping in the bush and shooing away giant stick insects.
My richest evangelistic experiences happened while I was overseas, because it was there that God taught me how to love my neighbor, even when it’s uncomfortable — even when it meant hanging out with my friends at a gay bar because they wanted to go somewhere they felt welcome. I learned to navigate the tricky terrain at the intersection of big words like “temptation,” “incarnation” and “witness.”
I came back to campus on fire for the gospel, and it was the following quarter that the Holy Spirit started to move on our campus.
InterVarsity’s Newest Ministry
InterVarsity sends over 1100 students to study abroad annually — and I know that most of them don’t have the phenomenal experience that I did. I was blessed with a unique combination of chutzpah, connections, perseverance, and luck that most students don’t happen upon.
I want to change that.
Which is why I’m working with InterVarsity Study Abroad. We are fully convicted that study abroad is an opportunity that the Lord wants to use in the lives of our students — to bring them more deeply into communion with him, to grow them as leaders and as disciples, to build cross-cultural skills, and to deepen their conviction and competence in evangelism.
We want to provide the tools and training to make this possible, and replicable, for as many students as possible. We want to grow communities of InterVarsity students who are studying abroad, and connect them to the IFES in their host countries. We long to see study abroad cease to be a discipleship liability, and turn instead into a missional opportunity for our movement, and for the IFES in every place we send an InterVarsity student.
We’ve already started – last spring, we gathered a cohort of American and Canadian students for a weekend retreat in the UK. We discussed worship, sex, drinking, crossing cultures, justice, and evangelism, and 20 students left equipped to engage in the IFES’ evangelism efforts across Europe.
We want to do it again this fall — we’re inviting students studying abroad in Europe to Barcelona, September 13-15th, so that we can train, equip, and commission them to discipleship and mission while they’re overseas. We’re starting in Europe, and we hope to roll out world-wide programming in the next five years so that those 1100 InterVarsity students can join with the IFES to be transformed and transforming presences to the ends of the earth. In the meantime, we’re already pioneering virtual ministry to connect and resource students studying on every continent.
The next time I studied abroad, a friend and I were sitting in a basement cafeteria in Moscow, trying to figure out what was in the salad we’d just bought. Neither of us had recognized the Russian description, so we took a chance. As we prodded at the unfamiliar meat, my friend brought up a conversation we’d started earlier. “I never really thought I was interested in spirituality, but then I read Dostoevsky, and it’s really got me thinking. You’re a Christian — what do you think about God?”
I gulped down a bite, prayed desperately, and started talking.
Turns out it was fish.
For more information about what’s happening with InterVarsity Study Abroad, like our facebook page. If you know a college student who is studying abroad, invite them to visit www.intervarsity.org/studyabroad and click “Connect with us.”
Photo: Lauren (2nd from left) meeting with the small group that planted an arts ministry in South Africa.