International Students in China: Who will reach this vast and strategic yet invisible group? – Part 4

Diaspora missiology

In the last fifteen years, there has been significant development in diaspora missiology, which offers a biblical rationale and strategy for ISM, and gives us a framework for missions to, through, and beyond the diaspora.[i] Leiton Chinn writes compellingly about the biblical basis and strategic value of ISM as part of diaspora missions.[ii] Elsewhere he describes his own journey and that of some churches in the USA from not seeing or caring about international students to now noticing and actively reaching out to them.[iii] With the same zeal, he points to ISM in Asia as “a most strategic yet least expensive global mission opportunity.”[iv] Is this a journey on which the church in China has now embarked?

Although there is a mind-boggling diversity of cultures and languages amongst international students in China, in many ways they can be considered together as a diaspora—a group of people maintaining strong connections with their home culture but living temporarily in another.[v] However, this is a heterogenous diaspora gathered from almost every country and region of the globe.

From a kingdom perspective, the theological necessity and strategic value of ISM have been well established. But compared to the West, very few churches, organizations or individuals are dedicated to serving international students in China. If ISM in China is commanded by God, has encouraging historical precedents and makes sense strategically, who will reach them?

Church in China

Christians in every place have a joyful responsibility to reach everyone in that place. So, is ISM a gift to the church in China? “Church in China” here means any local expression of the church inside China, including the national TSPM church, house or family churches (including returnee-based churches), international churches and campus ministries. ISM is inexpensive yet high-impact; it provides global connection locally and allows every member to be involved through using their gifts. Those unable to serve abroad can still engage in international missions at home, while others can prepare for working, serving and studying abroad.[vi]

Notwithstanding existing pressures, it could be argued that the Chinese church bears the primary responsibility to welcome these temporary neighbors with the gospel.

China’s international engagement is growing economically and politically. Perhaps Chinese believers could follow this trend and get more involved with internationals within their borders. Some Chinese brothers and sisters conclude they have no facilities or legal context for ISM, or that they lack experience and don’t know where to start. Others believe ISM is only for well-educated church members, and probably requires significant funds and highly organized teams. Many equate cross-cultural ministry with going outside of China or at least to remote domestic minorities. It takes courage to pray for, listen to, respect and discern the needs of international students in the megacities of China.[vii]

Some international students attend national TSPM churches which occasionally hold English services, but broader contextual constraints may make it difficult for these churches to reach international students effectively. Though notionally receptive to welcoming internationals, these churches appear to be doing very little in this area.

Vast numbers of Chinese have been converted while studying abroad. The challenges of reintegration into society and connecting with a local church are immense, so some churches have emerged which are mostly composed of returnees. Could the culturally and linguistically adept Christian returnees embrace this ministry opportunity?

A handful of house churches, both open and more discreet, are recognizing the joyful duty of sharing the gospel with international students living in China. While at times feeling ill-equipped, culturally uncertain and under-resourced, they have an excitement about reaching out. Some fellowships have quite a few academics and professors at universities where international student are located. Churches have set up “Chinese corners” (akin to English corners or conversation classes in the West) through which they hope to build friendships with international students who are looking for community and the opportunity to improve their Mandarin. However, some are unclear where the international students actually live, don’t know how to connect with them, and are fearful about inviting in the foreigner.

Encouragingly, despite language and cultural barriers and other hindering factors, some churches have been prioritizing reaching international students. One leader recently said that if the local church doesn’t preach the gospel to the nations, especially when they’ve come to China, then “we are sinning against God.”

Some local campus-based college ministries are also beginning to put international students on their radar. The idea of cultural exchange centers is growing as both a legitimate and strategic context in which to build friendships with international students. Undoubtedly there are lessons from the successful indigenization of college ministry in China which could inform a “sideways” development into ISM.

Although international churches in China are minor players within the “Church in China” category, healthy ones do operate in many major cities and have relative freedom to meet openly. Some have non-English congregations. Unfortunately, some Christian students arrive with the preconception that there is no church in China, so they hide and read their Bible secretly in their dorm room. For others, the neon lights of new liberties distract them from seeking out fellowship.

And though these international churches certainly welcome any international student who attends, there remain significant political and capacity limitations. And there are challenges of doing church in a non-first language, a church culture that’s radically different from “back home,” and an environment with strong ethnic cliques and cultural misunderstandings.

But students who do integrate into these fellowships often encounter great encouragement from meeting with those who are culturally similar and others who can sympathize with them. And to many, it is also a surprising and glorious thing to witness the unity with diversity of the nations worshipping together, as described in Revelation 7.

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 John Schnobrich on Unsplash

[i]      Chandler H Im and Tereso C. Casiño, Edited by Chandler H. Im and Amos Young, “Global Diasporas and Mission” Regnum Edinburgh Centenary Series, Volume 23. Kindle edition.

[ii]     Leiton Chinn, “The Mission Field Coming to Our Campuses” in Lausanne Global Analysis, January 2018, Vol 7.1 (published 19 December 2017, viewed 18 January 2018).

[iii]    Leiton Chinn, “Historical Development of the International Student Ministry Movement in the USA”, Winter 1979 (viewed 18 January 2018). See also his unpublished paper, “International Student Ministry: ʻBlind-spotʼ to Vision” for the Lausanne Diasporas Strategy Consultation in Manila, May, 2009 (updated June 2013).

[iv]    Leiton Chinn, “International Student Ministry: A Most Strategic Yet Least Expensive Global Mission Opportunity Arises in Asia”, Asian Missions Advance Vol 42, January 2014.

[v]     Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE), T. Houston, R. Thomson, R. Gidoomal, and L. E. Chinn, “Diasporas and International Students: The New People Next Door.” Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 55. Produced by the Issue Group on this topic at the 2004 Forum, September 29 to October 5, 2004. (viewed 18 January 2018).

[vi]    Leiton Chinn, “International Student Ministry: A Most Strategic Yet Least Expensive Global Mission Opportunity Arises in Asia.”

[vii]    Andy Johnson. Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global (9marks: Building Healthy Churches). (Kindle Locations 1176-1180). Crossway, 2017. Kindle Edition.

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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.



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