Fatima was hostile to the Gospel, attending Christian events and Bible studies on her US campus mostly to argue. Then she experienced answered prayer in Jesus’ name from a Christian friend. That led to a series of deep conversations and more prayer, and Fatima gave her life to Christ…a month before returning to her South Asian country. Her friends did an extraordinary job discipling her on a short timeline and the transformation was powerful, but the cross cultural differences were immense. How can 18-24 year old American students shape contextually appropriate faith in a young woman who’ll live in her parents’ home and is promised in an arranged marriage to a Muslim man, all in a country that actively persecutes Christ-followers?
Each year hundreds if not thousands of international students from creative access countries profess faith in Jesus (or are on the journey to him) and then leave the US. From our data for China as well as majority Muslim and Hindu countries, we estimate that far less than half connect with a home-country believer before departing.
Welcome to international student reentry, the greatest missiological challenge we face today. The least trained missionaries—American students—have access to least reached people; the kind of access career missionaries only dream of. I know: I was one of them until I returned to the States and my current role in a US campus ministry. Now, God knows what he’s doing! These students are perfectly placed to build real friendships and share Christ. But leading people to faith is just the beginning.
I’m struck that missiological conversations, conferences and writing are increasingly—and rightly—giving attention to refugee/immigrant ministries, but almost zero thinking to international student reentry. We need to get serious about this issue.
How can we develop sound international student ministry that has lasting impact in home countries? Here are two areas to put our hands to the plow:
The security and trust required to “hand off” returnees to home country believers stretches beyond most campus groups and churches. We need cross-organizational partnerships between US groups and international denominations and missions groups, plus experienced liaisons to connect the parties. My own organization is working to streamline these processes. Some church planting orgs aren’t interested in receiving returnees from the West, and I am sympathetic to their reasons. But many others are delighted to hear from us “We have a growing believer returning to your city. Would you like to meet with him?” I just heard from one such home country partner. A month ago we introduced them via video call to a new believing married couple on the verge of returning. This week they’re sitting down together for dinner and discipleship in that Middle Eastern country.
And for every Christ-follower we return, there are dozens or hundreds of others who are not yet believers but have had significant conversations and studied the Bible with Christian friends. We’ve begun the work, and then they leave our influence. Imagine if these precious people were befriended upon return and continued their journey to faith in their own countries! These pre-faith handoffs alone could be a colossal contribution to global mission.
The students in my organization won’t read 500-page books on cross-cultural evangelism. But they’re in the trenches every day. As a result, misunderstandings about other religions and how cross-cultural transformation happens abound. ISM missiology lags behind. We’re making a lot of mistakes on US campuses today that have been made throughout missions history and addressed extensively elsewhere in the past couple decades. We need to scale and contextualize our best insights and principles from frontier missiology for US contexts. Church planting organizations and seminaries, I’m looking at you: if you’re preparing people for global service but not actively seeking out and training people within the US to do this work well—that is, to do it in a way that will produce the kind of returnees you’d gladly receive—you’re missing the boat.
The past century saw major disruption and identity crises among world religions. Global youth culture is bridging gaps that we couldn’t have imagined just twenty years ago. Many organizations are striving to reduce colonialism in missions. And at the same moment, a flood of international students is pouring into the US for a short season of spiritual openness before returning to lead their nations in government, culture, and industry. We’re already engaging, but not as deeply or cooperatively as needed for lasting impact. Let’s change that.
Paul Forrester works nationally in ISM with a US campus ministry. He previously served in a Muslim-majority country.
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