Apr 30, 2018


English as Mission on Campus

Tom Knight writes about how the English language is an effective mission tool on college and university campuses.

You have probably heard of the 10/40 window, a geographical area bound by the 10th and 40th latitudes.  Within it are huge numbers of people and people groups that are yet to hear the Gospel.  But have you heard about the 10/30 window? This window is not a geographical area, but an age demographic.  The 10/30 represents a global youth culture (aged 10-30) that if counted as a people group, would be the largest in the world. In 2010, fifty percent of the world population was under the age of 25. According to Global Youth and Family Ministries, the emerging youth culture now has “more in common with each other than they do with the adults in their own culture.  Theirs is a world shaped by media, by technology, and by the predominance of English as the language of the internet.” Furthermore, Paul Hiebert in his book Transforming Worldviews describes factors that are carriers for globalization.  Several of them are English, the Academy, technology, and popular culture.

And why does this matter to those of us doing collegiate ministry in the U.S.?  Because many of these young people around the world are studying in the U.S. or preparing to study here.  Being in a global youth culture does not mean that these students have totally left the dominant culture of their homeland, but it does mean that they have been exposed to new ideas, languages, and cultures that may open up space to explore Christianity as an alternative to their own religious or secular worldview.  A student in a culture with few Christians may have never spoken to a Christian or attended church, but she may have explored issues relating to Christianity or chatted with Christians on the internet.

One of the factors that links the global youth culture is the English language.  Because most American students and church members are native speakers, English can be a leverage point to help international students, and to share the Gospel.  But what are you in your ministry doing to help use this natural connection to students? Using English as a platform for ministry is an old idea, but now with a new twist.  Not only have students studied English in their own countries, but they have been exposed to American, along with other cultures, as never before. Many arrive with questions already formed and waiting to be asked.  Many are looking for places to further practice English, but without looking for “classes” per se. This is where campus ministries and churches can set up “casual” practice of English for international students. I say casual because so many students are already in class of some form.  They need a place that is more social without any pressure to “perform.” Many of them are looking for something that is practical, fun, and relational.

Here are a few ideas to help connect students and non-students with international students:

  1. Encourage students to sign up to be “cultural” partners with international students on their campus.  This can often be done through the international student and scholar office. If a college does not have such a program, then a ministry on campus could offer to start one.  This would be a one-on-one meeting with an American and international student to exchange ideas while using English.
  2. Create an informal group chat around tea, coffee, and snacks.  This is another great way to meet international students and bring up ideas, while also using English as another drawing point.  This could be as easy as meeting in the student union around a table or having a regular coffee hour on campus. Some colleges sponsor such events for international students.  Make sure the Christian students in your ministry are attending as well.
  3. If you wanted to create something more structured, a college ministry could partner with a church to host a weekly coffee hour or meal at the church.  This is another way to also include non-student families from the church to interact with international students. A weekly topic could also be used to help focus the discussions.  Questions could be more casual in nature, or more focused on spiritual and worldview topics depending on the relationships with the students. Talking over meals also enhances the relationship of the participants.  As friendship and trust is established, people are usually more open to speak from the heart more as well as listen more.

Finally, be aware that as a student’s English proficiency increases, the draw of English practice declines.  Proficient English speakers will put more weight into the social, networking, and relational aspects of speaking English.

If you are a native English speaker, you most likely take your mother tongue for granted.  But to thousands of international students it is a must have skill to thrive in the academic world.  Let’s use the gift of English that God has given us to connect with and bless international students on our campuses.

about the author

Tom Knight

Tom is a collegiate strategist in North Carolina, specializing in international student work. He holds a law degree from Wake Forest and an Mdiv from Princeton. He is the author of No Passport Required: Collegiate Ministry as Global Missions.