International Students in China: Who will reach this vast and strategic yet invisible group? – Part 3

Leadership and ministry potential

A surprising number of Christian students come to China with church leadership experience. While some are confused or lukewarm in faith, others are eager to be equipped for ministry and are incredibly responsive to capable, intentional and loving ministry training. A Pakistani Christian student wrote, “Just need more prayers so I could work more for Christ and become a source of light for others.” Is this an opportunity to strengthen churches and train people for ministry?

Simply by being an international student and navigating all of the challenges listed above (unless they collapse under the strain), students become culturally adaptive and resilient. Is this an opportunity to train international students for cross-cultural mission beyond the diaspora in another culture?[i]

Many international students will become influencers of culture and society in their home countries, as some already are. China’s scholarship policy attracts a higher proportion of graduate and postgraduate students compared to the West. Is this an opportunity to influence students’ home cultures with the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Pressures and isolation

However, there remain significant China-specific challenges facing students. The long-term homogeneity of Chinese culture heightens the culture stress of international students. Anyone who is not Chinese-looking is a 外国人, an “outside person,” and cultural integration proves difficult. Conversely, Asian students without the often-presumed language and culture smarts can face ridicule and stress.

Africans feel alienated, fearful, and powerless in the face of racism towards them. A Kenyan student sadly reported that often on a crowded bus both her adjacent seats would be empty—as people avoid sitting next to a dark-skinned person. Depression is widespread and suicidal tendencies not uncommon, but mental health and medical services are either rarely available or prohibitively expensive.

Dormitories rarely have spaces to congregate and socialize, while students’ financial, academic and time pressures work against forming deep friendships. The most popular messaging apps that students use—Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp—are blocked in China, choking the connection back home.[ii] Restricted freedom of association and university rules against proselytizing can leave students confused and fearful.

All these challenges contribute to isolation and loneliness which can weaken Christian international students, who may then drift towards unhelpful influences. Some students are entirely unaware that healthy international churches exist, or that a Bible study might meet on their campus. In the midst of these challenges, there is an opportunity to show the compelling love of Christ and embrace students in loving community.

International student ministry in China inevitably means it is pioneering. Yes, the challenges are immense, but so are the opportunities. Who will commit themselves to reaching, maturing and equipping these students to be salt and light throughout the world?

Lessons from history

The conviction that God calls people from every nation, and that the nations had come to them, motivated the pioneers of international student ministry (ISM).[iii] Why and how did ISM movements start?

John R. Mott was moved to care for and evangelize foreign students in the USA. In 1911 he founded the Committee on Friendly Relations Among Foreign Students.[iv] As an international student in China in 1948, Bob Finley noticed the political impact of Chinese students returning from Russia. The strategic opportunities drove him to establish International Students Inc. on home soil “to evangelize, train and deploy foreign students back to their home countries for ministry.” And in 1954 Mark Hanna and John Bjorkland launched American Citizens Residing Overseas for Study and Service (ACROSS) “to empower Americans to study overseas and thereby evangelize in close[d] countries.”[v]


Read parts one and two of this paper.

[i]      Enoch Wan and Sadiri Joy Tira, “Diaspora Missiology and Missions in the Context of the Twenty-Firstt Century”, Torch Trinity Journal, May 30,  2010, Volume 13, No.1, p.45-56.  (viewed 18 January 2018).

[ii]     Keith Bradsher, New York Times, “China Blocks WhatsApp, Broadening Online Censorship” (published 25 September 2017, viewed 18 January 2018). Joseph Schwartz, SimilarWeb, “The Most Popular Messaging App in Every Country” (published May 24 2016, viewed 18 January 2018).

[iii]    See the Lausanne Cape Town Commitment II-C-5  (published 25 January 2011, viewed 18 January 2018).

[iv]    Leiton Chinn, “Diaspora Missions on Campus: John R. Mott and a Centennial Overview of the International Student Ministry Movement in North America” in Chandler H. Im, Amos Yong. Global Diasporas and Mission (Edinburgh Centenary). Regnum Studies in Mission. Kindle Edition.

[v]     David Pederson, edited by George Thomas Kurian, Mark A. Lamport, “International Students Inc.” in Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States, Volume 5, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) 2016, p1213.


First published on the Mission Nexus website on 29 March 2018.

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

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

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Phil Jones

Phil Jones (pseudonym) and his wife have been working amongst international students for over twelve years, both in their home country and for three years in China. They are becoming aware of the opportunities to reach the nations who have come to China.



Posted in Asia, Evangelism, Mission.

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