By Bryan Knell

Building A National Strategy for ISM: A European View

Many European countries provide education for an increasing number of international students. The reasons why students study where they do are complex, involving political, financial, educational and other factors, but we believe that this movement of student population is not haphazard but rather in line with the purposes of a sovereign God in bringing students to a living faith in Christ. The Book of Acts tells of many who traveled away far from their homeland, some for educational reasons, and were converted to Christ. And the pattern continues.

International student work has started in many European countries. Individual staff or students have seen the opportunity, tried to interest a few Christian friends and organize a regular social or evangelistic meeting. This has often happened with little liaison with the local student group, let alone with the national student movement.

Those involved have often thought that they were struggling on their own with little support. Even in Britain where there has been a national strategy for many years, overseas student numbers are now dropping, the background of overseas students is changing, their needs are now different and we must constantly update our national strategy.

In building a national strategy, or indeed if we are hoping to develop the work in a smaller area, we need to:

  1. Look at the work as a whole.
  2. Analyze the needs of international students.
  3. Consider what the student groups should aim to achieve.
  4. Evaluate the potential resources.
  5. Plan the best ways to meet the aim.
  6. Organize prayer support.

Look at the Work as a Whole

Before we can do anything strategic, we need to identify the extent of the opportunity. We therefore need to know the answers to at least some of the following questions:

  1. How many international students are there?
    • If Christian students make a guess at the number of international students in their university, they usually greatly underestimate the total number, but more accurate statistics can normally be obtained from the University Registrar or from the Government Department of Education. Within a university it is also very valuable to know the proportion of international students doing post-graduate studies.
  2. Where do the students come from?
    • The countries from which the international students come will determine many of the physical needs that they face as well as giving some idea about their family’s religious background. It will also be useful in determining which are the main language groups represented.
  3. How many are Christians?
    • No official statistics will be able to give you an answer to this, but it is reasonable to assume that about 5% of the international students are likely to be Christians. It is going to be more than 5% if there is a high proportion of Africans and less than 5% if Arab students predominate.
  4. When do they arrive and leave?
    • Everybody suffers from culture shock and adjusting to a new society is always a traumatic time. International students in some countries have to do long language courses before they start their academic studies and others come straight to the university. We need to find out when and where they arrive and to whom they report initially.
  5. Where are the main concentrations?
    • Some departments in European universities have a large number of international students and other faculties have very few. Sometimes international students are grouped together in particular student residences and in some university towns they can be found in certain eating houses or international clubs.
  6. What is the language situation?
    • In many European countries international students are taught in a language that they have not known before arriving in the country. Members of the Christian student group can often use the problem of language as an excuse for not befriending international students. We need to make a realistic assessment of the language situation - often English is a language in which real friendship can develop, even if fluency is not adequate for profound spiritual truths to be communicated.

Analyze the Needs of International Students

International student work cannot be seen simply in terms of explaining the Gospel. Our concern must be for the whole person and the specific command of God with regards to the stranger is to 'love' him (Leviticus 19:33, 34; Deuteronomy 10:18, 19). Loving a person means seeking the very best for that person physically, emotionally and spiritually. In seeking the best spiritually, we will be concerned that our friend comes to a living faith in Christ, but our 'love' will not be dependent on his interest in our faith or acceptance of our beliefs. We will need to ask the following questions:

  1. What are the basic physical and emotional needs of international students and is any group seeking to meet these needs?
    • The sort of range of needs will depend on the home countries of the students involved and the acuteness of their problems will depend on how well they keep physically, how welcoming the society is and whether they have reason to be worried about the situation at home. These will include culture shock on arrival, accommodation, warm clothing, buying food, cooking problems, language, getting money from home, health, visa requirements, local transport, loneliness, disturbing news from home. There may well be independent secular organizations as well as university and college authorities that are trying to meet some of these needs. We need to assess how well they are succeeding.
  2. What are the basic spiritual needs of Christian international students and is any group seeking to meet these needs?
    • All Christians have a need for fellowship, teaching, prayer support spiritual stimulation, access to Christian literature, holidays with Christians, church membership, a Bible in the language of the people they are worshipping with and a particular Christian service to perform. We need to ask which Christian groups are seeking to provide these opportunities and what measure of success they are achieving.
  3. What are the basic spiritual needs of non-Christian international students and is any group seeking to meet these needs?
    • The obvious need of these students is that they should hear and respond to the Gospel.
  4. Are there any groups or churches seeking particularly to meet this need?
    • It will take various forms so we must ask whether non-Christian international students are really in touch and befriended by Christians, whether the Word of God is available to them and whether the Gospel is being explained.

Consider What the Student Groups Should Aim to Achieve

Although as student movements we have to be aware and concerned about all the needs of overseas students, the fact that needs exist does not necessarily mean that we have to aim to meet them. It may well be better to encourage other secular or Christian groups to be aware of their responsibility. Two examples will serve to illustrate the point:

  1. A student group within a certain town may realize that accommodation is a tremendous problem to the international students in that area.
    • Out of their concern for international students, Christian students could spend a lot of time trying to find suitable accommodation and run a small accommodation agency for international students. In a similar way, a national movement could get involved in running an international hostel for students, but accommodation is not the primary concern of our student groups and time is better spent in bringing the need for more accommodation to the attention of those who are responsible for welfare in this area.
  2. In a similar way, all Christians need a local church fellowship in which to grow and mature as Christians and Christian international students are not excluded from that need.
    • Student groups are not churches, and, although they can provide fellowship, they cannot provide the discipline and breadth of age and maturity that is found in a local church. If Christian international students cannot really feel at home in a local church because it is unwelcoming, they can't understand the language, or it is too formal, it is not a good idea for a student group to take on the responsibility immediately of being a substitute church without making the local congregations aware of the problem and encouraging them to make allowances for our Christian brethren from abroad. It may well be that a local church needs to organize a translation at one of its services or arrange for Christian international students to take part in some way, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the local church to fulfill for international students the function of a church, and a Christian student group should only take on this sort of responsibility as the last resort. The legitimate responsibility of a student movement is to see that Christian international students are involved as much as possible in the life and evangelism of the student group and that the Gospel is shared in a relevant way with the non-Christian international students.

Evaluate the Potential Resources

  1. Members of the student group
    • Christian maturity involves an international awareness. Although only a few students and staff may be involved in the time-consuming commitment of organizing international student work, no Christian student can say that they are not interested in internationals or ignore the obvious chance to extend friendship to an international student and remain a consistent Christian. International student work must, therefore, be seen as the concern of every member of the student group and national movement, although some will be involved in a greater time commitment than others.
    • In many countries in Europe we will find that a few members of a student group will either be appointed officially to do international student work or else get involved on their own initiative. As a result of this there are very few Christian students involved in the work and all those that are not attached to the international student work group assume that it is the work of others and excuse themselves from having any interest.
    • The work in Britain over the last 8 or 9 years would seem to suggest that this situation is not effective, as well as not being biblical. It has often been asked in the context of an English Christian Union "Is the Prayer Secretary the only one who prays, or the Literature Secretary the only one who reads books? Why then are the members of the international student group the only people interested in overseas students?"
    • It is very sensible and necessary to have a few people to organize the international student work of a student group, but they should be organizing and helping everyone else to do it.
  2. Christian international students
    • There is a tremendous resource of information here with regard to different parts of the world and how international students feel when they arrive in another country to study. They can also often use their own language to communicate Christian truths more easily and their involvement with a student group in Europe readily demonstrates the fact that Christianity is not a Western religion.
  3. Staff workers
    • A specialist staff worker can help organize and stimulate international student work, identify suitable literature for international students, prepare manuals giving advice on student work and also lead specialist seminars (eg. on reaching Muslim or Hindu students). But other staff workers should also be seen as a resource and should, through the talks and advice they give, encourage an international concern and evangelism amongst international students. If all the staff workers in a movement do not see their Christian responsibility here, how can we expect Christian students to see it?
  4. Christian graduates and churches
    • There is a vast resource here of people who are particularly well equipped to share in the international student ministry of the student movement. Many international students are considerably older than the members of our students groups, some have wives and children at home, and they all miss the atmosphere of a home and need help and friendship during the vacations when most of their student colleagues are away.
  5. Literature and the media
    • Christian literature is readily available and it is possible to obtain easily the Gospels in any language that we are likely to need. Most of this literature is also cheap. On some campuses it is possible to present Christian programs for radio or television. These can be geared towards international students as well as others.

Plan the Best Ways to Meet the Aim

  1. Motivating Christian students
    • A constant effort needs to be made to encourage Christian students to have an international awareness. Christian students must be aware of their
      privilege and responsibility through biblical exposition, personal enthusiasm of those already involved and through the conviction of the group leaders of their responsibility in this area. Rather than bemoaning the fact that a student group is not internationally aware or nagging them to such an extent that they know how to avoid the challenge, it is much better if the group leaders show that they are interested and actively expect every other Christian student to be so as well.
    • Concern for God's world and the people in it should be a distinguishable characteristic of any Christian group and it is possible to achieve a situation where it is traditional for a student group to have an international concern and then new members of the group develop this concern naturally by observing the way Others think about world affairs.
  2. Contact
    • Some members of the student group will have natural contact with international students through their lectures or where they live, but others will have to be introduced through special events.
  3. Activities to help build friendships
    • Some activities of a social nature should be planned to make it easier for members of the student group to bring their international friends along to them and thus develop friendships with them. Some Christian students are more introverted than others and run out of conversation rather quickly - they need help in developing friendships.
  4. Training
    • Christian students ought to be given training on different parts of the world and different religions, so that they are more equipped to understand their friends and share their faith with them.
  5. Resources
    • Literature is the most useful resource and special projects distributing Christian literature to certain language groups can be a very good way of mobilizing Christian students.
  6. Involving international Christian students
    • Christian international students as members of the Body of Christ should be absorbed and involved in the student group. However, it may be helpful to them particularly if they have language difficulties, to meet separately for Bible study and fellowship. These separate meetings should be in addition to the main meetings of the student group and should not take the place of meeting with the local church or with other Christian students.
    • If international students do cut themselves off, they cease to be helpful to the student group, are not likely to mature through international exchange of ideas and methods, and the student population as a whole does not see the breaking down of national barriers which should characterize the church of God. (Ephesians 2).
  7. Motivating older Christians
    • It is difficult for members of the student group to go to church members and graduates and tell them what they ought to be doing, but there will be some graduates who have worked abroad and who have an international concern and they can be used together with staff workers to share the vision for international students. It is sometimes possible to write articles for church magazines or to speak at church conferences, and in Britain it has been very effective to use Christian international students to give their testimony and take part in other ways in church services.
    • If the student movement has a Graduates' Fellowship which supports the student work, then members of that fellowship can be expected and encouraged to take an active part in the outreach to international students.
  8. Mobilizing older Christians
    • Providing hospitality for international students is a very strategic means of showing Christian love and sharing the Gospel. The New Testament refers often to the duty of hospitality and not only hospitality to Christians but also to those that are not (Hebrews 13:2). We need to recruit suitable hosts from the evangelical churches and develop a hospitality scheme so that Christian families can share their lives and their faith with international students. There is probably no other more effective spiritual ministry to international students than getting them involved in a Christian home.
  9. Making literature more readily available
    • There is a lot of Christian literature available in many foreign languages, but each national movement needs to select the most suitable for the international students in their country and then build up a supply of that literature so that it can be readily available to the student groups.

Organize Prayer Support

Prayer must be the foundation of any work for God. Prayer for international students both Christian and non-Christian must be stimulated, but information must be sensitively selected.

  1. National prayer material
    • The opportunity amongst international students needs to be mentioned in the national prayer material along with the special activities. It is often when Christians pray for something that God provokes them to get involved.
  2. Student group prayer
    • If international student outreach is an integral part of the work of the student group, prayer for this outreach will naturally be included in student group prayer meetings and in printed prayer matter.
  3. Special prayer material
    • Great care needs to be taken when mentioning international students by name. It is not wise to identify particular non-Christian international students in material that has a wide, unrestricted circulation.

We do obviously want to encourage prayer for individuals who are showing some interest in the Gospel. For this reason, it is often valuable to produce a separate sheet which has a limited circulation and can be sent to Christians who will treat the information confidentially. Even on this sheet, it is wise to limit the details of Muslims and others from sensitive countries so that they cannot be traced. In some cases we can, greatly embarrass the cause of the Gospel if we are not wise in this respect.

Bryan Knell served with the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) (the InterVarsity of Britain) for 13 years (1967-1980), first as a college's traveling secretary and then as Overseas Students' Secretary. This paper was given at the 1980 Overseas Student Workers' Conference held at Schloss Mittersill, Mittersill, Austria...Ed.

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