Jan 09, 2017
The Right Mix for International Student Ministry
Eric Warren, who leads international student ministry with Salt Company, writes about the right mix of student and community leaders for an effective international student ministry.
With international student ministries (ISMs) across the country…it seems that the leadership pool is often entirely student leaders or entirely community leaders (i.e. non-student, adult volunteers). Or when both are in leadership, they still function separately from one another in the ministry.
But leaders in their 20s…and leaders in their 70s…and everything in between all have something unique to offer. When ISMs are structured around these leaders of different ages and life-stages working together, the benefits of each stage can be a blessing to each international student involved.
Student leaders have the greatest access to international students. They walk alongside each other on campus and ride the bus together. They’re in classes together and do group projects together. They eat in the same dining halls, live and work alongside each other daily. All in all, they are simply best positioned to organically enter into relationships with internationals who need the Gospel. Even though our ISM welcome events and international dinners draw some international students into our midst, thousands more feel too shy, busy, or initially closed to Christianity to attend, but they would warmly receive an American student reaching out to them in friendship naturally through their day-to-day lives.
Student leaders are the same age and life stage as international students. Random 40-year-old men walking through the dining center stick out like a sore thumb, but a student sitting down in an open seat next to them is natural. And once a student leader is friends with an international, what will they do together? Things that STUDENTS do: workout at the gym together, study together, eat together, go bowling or out to a movie together, and hang out until 2am. Student leaders are more free and able to do these things, and it’s more natural for them as well.
All in all, international students will more likely be reached with the Gospel if a Christian student their age becomes a friend to them.
What student leaders don’t offer as well is a home, a family, connections in career fields, and seasoned wisdom in all matters of life, including spiritual matters. The vast majority of international students come from Asia, the Middle East, or other areas of the world where the culture is more socially stratified by age and life stage. This means that those who are older or further in life are more sought after, trusted, and listened to in these cultures than people their own age are. When an international hears that they should behave, think, or believe differently, they are accustomed to having a higher degree of trust in and respect for those things when they’re spoken by someone older and wiser than themselves.
Furthermore, the home setting that community leaders can invite internationals into is more welcoming and fulfilling than a student dorm or apartment would be. Internationals are often eager to visit an American home, but 80-85% of internationals never set foot in an American home. A husband and wife, or even some children running around can make it feel like they have a home away from home and a new family…when their actual home and family are so far away. Community people often cook better food too…and have matching plates to eat it on.
Lastly, community leaders are less transient. Some international students stick around and stay connected for 4 to 7 years or more. American student leaders come and go; we don’t want those relationships that took so long to build to go with them. When international students are connected with community leaders, it allows the relationship and Gospel investment to continue even after American student leaders depart. This also fosters better potential inroads to getting them connected with local churches.
All in all, international students will more likely be reached with the Gospel if Christian community members become like a family for them.
BRINGING STUDENT LEADERS AND COMMUNITY LEADERS TOGETHER
How do we bring these leaders together though? In our context, the ministry is structured around weekly, home-based small groups that we call “family groups.” In family groups, student leaders and community leaders work together to lead throughout every element of the evening. In a weekly family group, everyone shares dinner together, interacts over a Bible passage together, and has a social activity afterwards. Any large event we have directly connects every international with a family group.
Here’s how this looks on a typical Friday night in my home with my family group:
- Student leaders and the internationals they’ve met show up at my house (sometimes up to 1 hour after the night was supposed to begin) and we eat the delicious dinner together that my wife prepared (with other leaders helping as well).
- While we eat and hangout, our leaders interact with our internationals. Some internationals hold my baby daughter and take selfies with her while my two young sons wrestle with some of our international guys.
- After dinner, a student leader leads us all through worship songs on YouTube. Then we split up into small groups (generally separating male and female) to discuss a Bible passage, also led by student leaders.
- After they’ve walked through the passage, we get everyone back together and I lead in a recap discussion, with a clear Gospel presentation, and close in prayer.
- Student leaders then lead out in an activity or game for the rest of the night…sometimes well past midnight.
We repeat this process weekly. Outside of family group, both community and student leaders engage international friends to deepen the friendship and communicate the Gospel, while student leaders also continue meeting and bringing new students.
What a joy it is to see, across all of our family groups, both student leaders and community leaders working together to leverage their different positions in life to help internationals gain new friends and a family…and hear the Gospel through it all!