As we start out the new academic year, our students and ministries may be thinking of how to connect with international students. Sometimes we charge right in with spiritual conversations without knowing much about these students, what their context is, or what their spiritual needs and questions are. We often lack a bridge to help them understand who Jesus is.
I want to describe four words that can help bridge the gap of misunderstanding, and help to make our conversations more clear. Think of these four words as four spans crossing a river that bring the Gospel closer to those who need to hear.
The first span is love. If we are going to reach these students we need to have God’s love in our life so it can overflow into a credible witness. Working cross-culturually can be an exciting venture, but it can also be a confusing and frustrating venture as well. Misreading cues or being tired of catering to special food restrictions can make us want to quit. But when we think of God’s mission and his love for the nations, we have the vision to keep trying. Several ways to bless these students is through hospitality and servanthood. We can “wash feet” by hosting students for several days while waiting for the dorms to open, picking up students at the airport, or inviting them over for meals. But in order to show this love, we have to be open to others. In his book, Cross-Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer defines openness as “the ability to welcome people into your presence and make them feel safe.” Being open is the first stage to show God’s love. It moves us off our comfort zones and into action.
If we are going to reach international students with the Gospel we are going to have to spend time with them. We need lots of face time and “hang out” time to let them in on who we are as a Gospel people. They need to see that we are authentic in what we profess, and that we can be trusted. Many students will be experiencing culture shock while in the educational transition in the US. We can help them by being there to explain cultural norms, and to be their advocate when “the system” seems to baffle them. For many students the words grace, God, Jesus, and sin will need to be explained many times before they have a clear understanding. Don’t forget, for many of them, they are talking to us in their second or even third language. By spending time with these students we incarnate the Gospel as well as speak it.
But it wont all be suffering and frustration. Hanging out with students from other cultures can be fun as well. You can brush up on your Chinese, Hindi, or Portuguese while eating some incredible food. Do you think your soccer game is good? Wait till you see their skills. And you will have to laugh at your self and American culture when someone asks you why we do certain things, and you end up saying, “I have no idea.”
Listening is a very important part of sharing the Gospel with other people. It is also very important with sharing cross-culturally. We often think we have a “silver bullet” presentation that can explain everything quickly to everyone. But listening to the actual questions people have is important to addressing their real concerns. Is the student you are talking with a Hindu, Muslim, atheist, or animist? What is his or her background, experiences, and status back home? What is his misconceptions about Christianity? What are the personal fears and hopes of the student with whom you are sharing? Knowing the answers to these questions can help cut to the heart of the spiritual problem, but also build trust in the relationship. There are many verses in the Bible, but when we listen to our friends and the concerns, hopes, and hurts they have, the Holy Spirit has an unique ability to bring to mind what we need to say. Know your Bible, take comfort in the truth of the Gospel, and listen.
If we want to learn how to reach international students, one of the best things we can do is learn from international students. We need Christians with a cosmopolitan view of God’s kingdom and how it is much, much, bigger than our small collegiate experience of life. In seeing God exalted in the nations, we need to spend time learning about the world views, languages, customs, and histories of those we pray to experience God. The college campus should be a learning environment, and there are many opportunities to connect with students while learning. Language clubs, cultural exchange partners, international clubs, study abroad, and of course sharing meals or a cup of tea on campus open many doors for learning. But in learning, God also does something else. He changes us. He helps us see how our own American culture shapes our view of Christianity and the expectations that come with a culture. He gives us a new perspective and the ability to go deeper in our relationships as we share the good news of the Gospel. Hopefully, in learning we also become better at sharing the Gospel in clearer, more culturally relevant ways to our friends. Hopefully, we become more humble and dependent on Him, and less confident that we know all the answers.
I hope these four words, love, live, listen, and learn will help you build better bridges with international students, and with those bridges, better Gospel conversations. For more ideas about connecting with students see my post on Third Spaces.