Influenced by a global youth culture and by global media, the younger generations of international students in North America have much more in common with their American peers than internationals did with Americans twenty years ago. They are sophisticated and technologically savvy. I recently completed a D. Miss. dissertation on evangelizing the younger generation from East Asia. The following suggestions for witness are based on my research.
- This generation is looking for hope. The reality of our lives must match our words. My supervisor Jimmy Long says that they need the truth to be shown through incarnation first, with instruction following later. It is important for us to be vulnerable with them about our struggles and our life with God.
- American Christians should find international partners to teach us how to best evangelize other internationals. I discovered that some of the most effective evangelism in the country is being done by internationals themselves. Entering into partnerships with them will help us avoid cultural blind spots that might make our evangelism ineffective. We must be careful to make these relationships mutual and not dominate with our ideas. When East Asians become Christians, we need to quickly give them a vision for reaching their peers and help them develop their spiritual gifts.
- Spending time with students during programmed activities once a week isn't enough; we must be willing to build relationships by going to them where they are.
- Invite seekers into Christian community. A small group social or investigative Bible study group may be a more appropriate introduction into community than attending church. The most common conversion pattern I discovered among East Asian students was conversion to community before conversion to Christ. It is clear that witnessing communities made up of internationals and Americans are a natural way to reach this generation of students.
- As relationships are developed and we begin to share our faith, we must find out the questions on the minds of the students and make sure those questions get answered. I discovered that many East Asians will not ask their questions directly for fear of making us lose face if we are unable to answer. Providing answers to their questions will usually not be sufficient to bring people to Christ, but it may be necessary. Sometimes the emotions behind the questions are a bigger issue. “What about those who have never heard the gospel?” may seem like a smokescreen question when asked by an American. But an international may be thinking, “What about my mother who spent all of her life under a communist government and probably never heard the name of Jesus?”
- Be careful to clarify the nature of our God as the high God, Creator of the universe yet personal and loving. East Asians may have a very different idea of God or no idea whatsoever.
- Focus on Jesus. Point out that Jesus suffered pain on the cross and that Jesus understands our pain and shame. Younger East Asians struggle as much with pain and shame as their American counterparts do.
- Explain sin and repentance in relational terms. Tell the story of the prodigal or lost son and ask for adjectives that describe the son's attitude toward the father. This independent, autonomous attitude is really what sin is. Then point out that repentance is a change of mind, a returning to the Father.
- Clarify the definition of a Christian. Emphasize that being a Christian involves faithfulness in a dynamic relationship, not following rituals or rules or getting baptized. It may be better to use the expression “decide to follow Jesus” rather than “become a Christian.” Emphasize the grace of God and the fact that we are saved by faith, not works.
- As well as relationships and knowledge, experience is important for this postmodern generation. Sensing God's presence in worship led several of the new converts I interviewed to seek God more seriously. Many were initially attracted by the music and later became interested in the faith. Answered prayers, sometimes dramatic ones, also caused students to seek more seriously or to make a commitment.
- Disciple new believers carefully. Incorrect assumptions about the nature of God and the nature of relationship with God can cause problems after people make commitments as well as before. Help them understand that God is not someone we manipulate by our prayers but someone with whom we have a dynamic relationship.
Katie Rawson is senior resource developer for the International Student Ministry department and regional ISM coordinator for InterVarsity’s Blue Ridge Region. She received a D.Miss. from the Fuller School of World Mission in 1999. An earlier version of this article appeared in InterVarsity’s Internationals on Campus.