Integrating international students into local church ministries

These were some of the perspectives (misattributions?) I encountered when I asked students why they joined mono-ethnic Christian groups:

“Why did you form a Hong Kong small group? Why not join your church’s student group?”

“We found the bible studies superficial.”

“What do you mean?”, I asked, thinking of the church’s in-depth inductive bible studies.

“It’s all text book answers – what does the passage say. But people don’t share how they feel, or how they struggle to live it out.”

and…

“Why did you join the Afro-Caribbean Choir instead of the Christian Union?”

“The Christian Union isn’t passionate about Jesus.”

“How so?” Thinking, “yes they are!”

“They don’t worship at their meetings. How can God’s people come together and not want to sing his praises?”

Apart from the fact that students feel more comfortable in such groups, they are often effective at reaching non-Christians from a similar cultural background, and in a way, more efficient at discipleship because methods and messages are tailored to the audience.

On the other hand, truly multi-cultural fellowships are beautiful things, a foretaste of Rev 7:9 where the nations gather together to worship the Lamb – a testimony both to unbelievers and believers. Christians from other cultures challenge our blind spots and show us new expressions of discipleship, and as we accommodate one another, giving up our preferred way of doing things, we become more Christlike.

Such communities are costly. It’s one thing to wish for a multi-cultural church or student group in theory, but are we prepared for the changes that might result in? As more Asian students join in, personal sharing and praying for each other might take up as much time as the bible study. As more African students come, spontaneous outbursts of worship singing and exhortations might lengthen meetings. International students might introduce “cheesy” songs, ban sarcasm or organise 6am prayer meetings! At which point will we start worrying that we’re alienating British students? Is our invitation to other cultures simply to come and conform to our excellent established structures?

The encouragement is that many predominantly British churches and student groups already have a few international students who are happy to do most of the adapting in order to fellowship and serve together. Why do they do it? A conviction that it is God’s calling for them and a love for the group. If these students can do it, then everyone can move towards understanding and lovingly submitting to each other if they grasp the vision.

Here are some ideas for better integrating international students:

  • Cast the vision for cultural diversity – teach what the bible says about why it is important and how it is achieved (ie, with a sacrificial and humble attitude)
  • The people we have up front (leading music, making announcements, speaking), especially at the start of the year, will likely prefigure the congregation we will attract.
  • Having a more diverse leadership team is necessary if we really want to develop a more diverse group. Many non-Western cultures are less forward in volunteering to serve and especially to lead. Rather, they tend to expect church leaders to personally encourage them to take on roles if they are deemed suitable.
  • If you have local and international students in your church but they tend not to mix socially, try inviting key students from each group to your house for dinner or some other social event at which they can really get to know and enjoy each other. See if together they can articulate why mixing isn’t instinctive. It could be as simple as not getting British humour, fear of awkward silences, reluctance to go to the pub or a strong desire to eat good Asian food on any social night.
  • When leading multi-cultural bible study groups, help students realise that personality and cultural differences mean that people might be quicker or slower to fill silences, disagree openly or share deeply personal things etc – and so to be sensitive to each other and slow to jump to conclusions.
  • Students who come from a variety of church backgrounds and from different parts of the world may have different ways of interpreting or applying Scripture, for example, over teaching about honouring parents, submitting to authority, admonishing one another, etc. Encourage students to share their views even if they differ from the majority, and everyone to humbly and gently test every view against all that Scripture teaches.
  • Cross-cultural training for your congregation or student group can be fun and helpful. Just being broadly aware of how cultures can view the world differently pre-empts misunderstandings and eases the way for deeper friendships. It sets a context where students can talk through, laugh about and learn from any differences they might perceive. 
  • Food, fellowship and simply spending time together are important to many Christians from other cultures, as part of loving one another and spurring one another towards love and good deeds. This might need balancing with the more British priority of efficient use of time and focusing on Bible Study.
  • International students who don’t speak fluent English are easily marginalised. Consider what it means to help such students feel welcome, understand sermons, participate in bible discussions and make genuine friends.

First published in the UCCF Connect magazine

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

The views expressed in this blog post are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the GC network.

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Kah Foon Gillespie
Originally from Singapore, Kah Foon has been an IFES/UCCF staffworker in Singapore, London and Dublin. She started working for Friends International in 2014 and coordinates the Friends International Affiliates Network.
Kah Foon Gillespie

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