Welcoming International Students Strategically

by Paul and Charis Salem

Through experience, the authors share four lessons on how to welcome international students to the U.S. and how to model a house church that will be reproducible in their home countries.

Tunisia, Georgia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Indonesia—these disparate countries have had presidents who share the common experience of studying in the U.S. (U.S. State Department 2003). This list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to international leaders who have received degrees from American universities. Those international students living, shopping, and studying in our midst are some of the brightest, best connected, and most ambitious from their countries. As the Brigada Missions Database reports, “The ‘cream of the crop’ comes to the U.S. to study. International students represent the top five percent of the people of their country. Forty-five percent of the current heads of state studied in the U.S.” (2000).

During our years in international student ministry, one of our friends had the goal of becoming the leader of the Communist Party of China. While he may not reach this goal, an overwhelming number of graduates of American universities become governors, cabinet members, and top influencers in their countries. Whether we like it or not, the United States is considered a Christian country by much of the world. These students’ experiences in our country can inform their later perceptions of Christianity. For those interested in reaching the nations, this is an opportunity we cannot afford to let pass by.

Sadly, a large percentage of international students never enter an American home during their time in the States. Few become friends with Americans. Life in America is vastly different in so many ways from life at home, and they are often forced to navigate this new culture without any assistance from local individuals. In Deuteronomy 10:19, we are advised to love the strangers in our midst. Hebrews 13:2 exhorts us to entertain strangers. Hospitality is increasingly becoming a lost art in the West, particularly hosting “strangers.” In studying the early Church, we see that hospitality played a significant role in the growth and health of the nascent Jesus communities (Oden 2002, 41; Gehring 2004, 183).

Many churches attempt to reach international students through specific ministries or programs. But could we be even more strategic in how we reach international students in our hometowns? Many of the internationals affected by such ministries were Christians before arriving or had some predisposition to Christianity. These are important people for us to welcome and embrace, to be certain, but there are so many who remain untouched by these ministries, and, more importantly, unexposed to the truth about Jesus.

We spent six years working with international students in a major U.S. city. Our vision was to reach students and prepare them to return to their countries ready to share the good news of Jesus and form communities of believers. We offered a weekly gathering time—a coffeehouse where hot drinks were served and free conversational English was offered. Our hope was to form a house church with international students and model a reproducible way of doing church wherever the students would go. During those years, through countless conversations and observations of other international student ministries, we learned a few lessons along the way.

1. Your initial group will determine the rest. Rarely does an international student select a university where he or she has no personal connections. Usually, his or her chosen university will have at least a small community of students from his or her own country or culture. Even before orientation weekend at the university, the international students are already networked based upon language, nation, or religion.

For us, the first students we connected with were mostly East Asian. Soon, we had a group of students from China, Korea, and Japan who came consistently for our weekly coffeehouse. At another point, we befriended a girl from a North African country and, before long, we found ourselves sharing a meal with students from all over North Africa. While Americans may tend to lump international students into one general category, those from different regions of the world do not necessarily feel an affinity for each other. If your church or organization wants to connect with a certain group, start with those people. They can open up the window onto a whole community. At the same time, that choice may close you off from reaching other communities of internationals due to a lack of natural cohesion between the groups, so choose intentionally.

2. A neutral location is safest. For a while, we had access to a house across the street from a university campus, which was ideal in many ways. Later, we had to move our coffeehouse to a room in a church building. Except for those who had known us long enough to trust us, the drop off of international students was immediate. In particular, a few students from Muslim backgrounds had visited; however, once we moved into the church building, we never saw any of them again.

We sometimes lose perspective on how intimidating, distasteful, or taboo entering a church building can be for many people. This is not only the case with international students. We had a co-worker who refused to meet a friend at a certain location, because it was in front of a church building. A neutral location is safer for many students. Additionally, many church buildings feel somewhat sterile and cold. We did not want a stiff classroom atmosphere to pervade our time with international students. This was a time for us to hang out and build friendships. We were fortunate that for a time we had a warm place to gather. We could play games, have deep discussions, watch movies, and just have fun, because the location was conducive for that. Unfortunately, the change of venue to the church dramatically changed the ambience.

3. Keep a large group fun and light. Many students have no interest in spiritual things. This does not negate our obligation to welcome them, offer our friendship, and bring spiritual truth into personal conversations. However, subjecting the large group to prolonged attempts to persuade them to become Christians is a frying-pan-upside-the-head method that tends to sow seeds of contempt for the gospel. In our experience, very few international students have become interested in the gospel through this particular method. We have seen them invited to dinners and parties and then subjected to an hour-long sermon. This practice seems unkind and potentially unethical. A number of students who endured this did not return to the coffeehouse.

If you decide to use a large-group gathering as an opportunity for a broad gospel proclamation, be upfront about it with the students and let them know what will happen. Otherwise, it can feel like a bait-and-switch tactic. Overall, the large-group gathering is best viewed as a springboard for deeper friendships and spiritual discussions. Some international students are very interested in spiritual matters. These students are often loaded with questions and have a desire to read the Bible. Find other times to get together with genuine seekers for discussions and Bible study. When you are with a group of people with spiritual interests ranging from zilch to highly interested, those with no interest will be a distraction or will derail the conversation. It is best to find another time to gather with the seekers. As you sense through conversations at the larger gathering those who may be spiritually open, this will offer a chance to commit to a deeper friendship with those students.

4. Have a vision for church planting from the start. If the goal is to help equip international students to start churches in their home countries, then you want to offer a simple, reproducible way of creating a church community anywhere. With this vision in mind, some friends also investing in international students helped us start a house church and invited our seeking international friends. For the first several weeks, we were excited to see four international students join us for a time of breaking bread, prayer, worship, and scripture study. Yet one by one these students stopped coming to our house church. For each of them, it was too intense, too intimate. They may have felt pressure to participate to a greater extent than they felt comfortable.

A second issue we ran into had to do with cultural dominance. As much as we may desire to create a genuinely multicultural church, one culture tends to consistently dominate. There may be a few exceptions to this, but most of the multicultural churches we have visited looked, in practice, like one of the cultures, rather than a true mixture. This isn’t necessarily terrible, but it presents a problem when attempting to create a house church in which we desire those from other cultures (in our case, East Asia) to have ownership. Even though we made sincere efforts to make our church comfortable and relevant for our East Asian students, our Anglo culture quickly took over.

There is a natural second kind of dominance that also played a role—that of the more mature believer. In our situation, those of us who started this house church had been believers for a long time. The internationals we invited were, for the most part, seekers. Naturally, the way we worshiped together was directed by us, the believers. It is generally desirable that churches be led by those who are more mature. In our situation, however, we wanted the church to become one that, for the internationals, felt as if it was their own—something they could take home with them. Having us lead undermined that goal.

On a quick aside, many international students who have become interested in Christ—and many more who have become Christians—are quickly invited to a church that is usually white and middle-class dominated. There is a good chance they will love this experience and want to go back to their home country and experience the same thing, which may mean attending an international church, thus putting them squarely in the category of someone who has accepted a “foreign” religion and rejected his or her culture and family. Needless to say, this significantly undercuts their chances of reaching people in their ethnic group. Thus, we strongly recommend against simply trying to integrate international students into a local church, with a few possible exceptions of those students from near cultures.

Our band of seekers was not ready to navigate unknown spiritual waters completely on their own, either. In situations like this, there are two methods to consider, and the one chosen depends largely upon where the participants are spiritually. In our situation (where almost everyone was still a seeker), the first method, which involved a Bible study with only one or, at most, two Americans guiding it, created a situation more conducive to genuine seeking. Students could freely ask questions without feeling like they were somehow “behind” the rest of the group. They could be skeptical without feeling the pressure to assent to things they had not heard of until recently. With this first method, how the group interacts and relates to one another will hopefully shape itself around the culture of those students to a large degree, since they are in the majority. Thus, they are less likely to be inadvertently drawn into shaping their future church in the likeness of the American Christian culture. (Note: Americans involved in guiding this time of searching will still have to be wary about unwittingly imposing elements of their culture that are extra-biblical and could thus prove to be an impediment to burgeoning churches in the students’ home cultures. The hope is that the band of seekers will become a band of believers.)

The second way to help guide a group is a method that has been used overseas called shadow pastoring. This removes the American completely from the group, thus allowing some of the cultural elements to form in a way that is most natural. The role of the American, then, is to invest in a few of the students outside the group gathering, preferably the ones showing the most spiritual maturity and leadership potential. Those students can then lead the group through what they are learning and practicing with the American. Although they do not know much yet, being one step ahead is enough to help the group grow in obedience and intimacy. This method is highly replicable whenever they return to their country.

Developing Future Leaders with Biblical Principles
One of our colleagues had the idea of investing in a core group of international students who regularly attended our coffeehouses. This group became a leadership team that helped plan key events (a welcoming party for new international students, talent shows, etc.). When this team began planning these events, they began to share ownership of the coffeehouse. They were as intentional as we were about welcoming newcomers and helping them integrate into this community of sojourners. Our colleague had faith that at least a portion of the seeds we were sowing would germinate. He wanted to pour into these students as much as possible, knowing that our window to invest in their lives was limited to their time at the university. With this core group meeting regularly, he shared principles of leadership from scripture. His vision was to groom these students’ leadership skills so that they would be prepared to become some of the initial leaders of the church among their people groups, even though, at that point, some of them were only mildly curious about spiritual matters.
According to Joshua Massey, “Missions is people, not geography. We need to abolish the idea that pioneer missions is only overseas. God has brought members of countless unreached people groups to live among us in the United States” (2002, 198). Influencing a handful of international students for Christ is a wonderful thing. No doubt there is singing in heaven when it happens. However, we have the potential to reach beyond those students to their home countries and ethnic groups, and to see not only individuals, but communities, find new meaning through Christ as we show international students a faith that translates into their own culture. Reconsidering our strategies is one of the first steps.

Brigada Missions Database. Accessed October 12, 2002, from http://www.strategicnetwork.org/index.asp?loc=kb&id=2851&mode=v&.

Gehring, Roger W. 2004. House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers.

Massey, Joshua. 2002. “Hometown Ministry as Pre-Field Preparation.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 38(2):196-201.

Oden, Amy. 2002. “God’s Household of Grace: Hospitality in Early Christianity.” In Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century. Eds. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

U.S. State Department. 2003. “Foreign Students Yesterday—World Leaders Today,” which includes the State Department’s Chiefs of State of Foreign Countries list. November 13. Accessed October 11, 2007, from http://exchanges.state.gov/education/educationusa/leaders.htm.


Paul Salem (pseudonym) is currently a team leader for a church-planting team among Muslims in Asia. Prior to this, he was involved in church planting in a major city in North America with American and international students. Charis Salem (pseudonym) currently works as part of a church-planting team among Muslims in Asia. She also assists newly arriving personnel with language and cultural acquisition. Previously, she worked with international students in a large North American city.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events