Spiritual Issues in International Student Ministry

For too long, Western Christians have given insufficient attention to the biblical teaching on the powers of evil and the necessity of spiritual warfare. Readers from Africa, Asia, and Latin America will be much more alert to the spirit realm than readers from the West who have inherited a post-Enlightenment, rationalistic worldview.

Katie Rawson writes as a Westerner who has come to a growing appreciation of the dimensions of spiritual warfare as she has encountered them in ministry among international students. While this is the focus of the present article, her message applies just as much to ministry among any group of students, for the powers of darkness are at work everywhere blinding the minds of unbelievers.

The Christian Worker in the Midst of Warfare

I have always been an activist in international student ministry (ISM), ready to try new ideas in an effort to find more effective means of service and evangelism. But as I look back over my past years of ministry, I realize that I have gradually internalized a fact I had been giving lip service to all along: the real battle is spiritual. Thinking in terms of spiritual warfare is difficult for many of us because we’re so involved in the visible, everyday world. We need Paul’s reminder that "what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (2 Cor 4:18).

If the battle is spiritual, then the leader’s spiritual preparation for the battle—personal holinessis crucial. Holiness may be thought of as intimacy with Jesus which leads to obedience. As I have soberly looked at my own life, I have clearly seen that busyness is the enemy of holiness. When I don’t spend enough time with God, my relationships with others as well as my relationship with him suffers. One practice I have found helpful is taking one or two ‘prayer days’ at a retreat center every few months. Another is being accountable to a friend for having good quality daily times with the Lord. The nearer we draw to God, the less likely we are to become casualties in the battle (Jas 4:7-10; 1 Pet 5:5-9).

Another important aspect of the leader’s preparation for battle is obtaining personal intercessors. Many of us send out regular prayer letters, but we don’t necessarily have persons with the gift of intercession both praying for us and listening to God on our behalf on a daily basis. We need to ask God to give us such people.

We often stress the importance of intercession before and during major ministry events, but I want also to underline the importance of prayer after such events when we are particularly vulnerable to spiritual attack.

Spiritual Influences on People

In what specific ways is ministry among international students spiritual warfare? What kinds of forces and conditions are we battling with in the unseen world? Let me make a few suggestions.

Since Satan is called the ‘prince of this world’ (Jn 14:30) and the ‘god of this age’ (2 Cor 4:4), we must ask ourselves how he exerts his rule over people. Some (e.g. Peter Wagner) answer this question in terms of ‘territorial spirits’, meaning evil spirits which have been set over certain countries or people groups, the ‘principalities’ referred to in Ephesians 6:12. Others, e.g. Clinton Arnold, argue that although the book of Daniel speaks of evil angels (Dn 10:13, 20) who exercise influence over Persia and Greece, Paul never connected the powers of darkness with any specific territory, but rather stressed the fact that their intent is to attack the church and hinder its mission (See Clinton Arnold, Powers of Darkness, IVP, 1992, p 99).

Ever since the Garden of Eden, Satan has been at work encouraging people to believe his lies. Paul encountered this diabolic activity repeatedly in the young churches to which he ministered and has no hesitation in identifying demons behind idolatrous religious practices (cf 1 Cor 10:20). Similarly he is not afraid to denounce as Satan’s servants those ‘super-apostles’ who were leading the Corinthians astray with their lies (2 Cor 11:13-15).

John Dawson, in Taking our Cities for God (Lake Mary, Florida: Creation House, 1989), suggests that the ‘strongholds’ mentioned in 2 Corinthians 10:4 may also be connected to lies internalized by a people group. Ideological strongholds such as Marxism or materialism, and personal strongholds such as unbelief or rejection, may also be traced back to lies. When looking for strongholds among unbelievers, it would seem wise to ask the question ‘What lies does this person or his people group believe?’ or ‘How has Satan blinded this person’s mind?’ Other strongholds may be traced back to the behavior of an individual, a people group, or their ancestors.

The Weapons of Our Warfare

The basic activity of spiritual warfare is prayer, but various other weapons may also be used—for example, the Name of Jesus, fasting, praise, and, of course, the word of God by which we counter the temptations of the Enemy (cf Mt 4:1-11) and proclaim the good news of God’s power to save people from the clutches of the Evil One. Think of the part that praise played for Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi after their power encounter with the slave girl who had a spirit of divination (Acts 16). When we praise God we are also reminding ourselves of his attributes and power, and this increases our faith.

Ground Level Ministry

I use the term ‘ground level ministry’ to refer to our normal day-to-day activities with internationals: service, evangelism, discipling, and counseling. Even though we may be working with groups, our focus is on seeing individuals converted and conformed to the image of Christ. Since Scripture says that Satan has blinded the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor 4:4), it is clear that evangelism is spiritual warfare. Even though we know all this, I think that we too often forget it when we start our planning. Maybe we need to give more attention to prayer and less to program?

Moreover our prayer needs to be focused on specific people, events, or issues and guided by the Holy Spirit. I want to emphasize the importance of listening in prayer because I agree with Peter Wagner that ‘the key to world evangelization is hearing God and obeying what we hear’ (Warfare Prayer, Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1992, p 44). Not only will God show us how to pray for individuals, he will also show us the obstacles keeping people from faith and strategies to overcome these obstacles. But we must do our part in gathering all the information we can about the individual’s past and present. For those of us who spend time helping internationals practice English, this is a relatively easy task.

I have worked a great deal with Mainland Chinese people, and hear many stories of the traumas of the Cultural Revolution simply by asking ‘Tell me the story of your life’. I have also gained useful information by developing a set of interview questions and asking friends to help me with papers I’m writing. Learning about the meaning of a person’s name and any religious rites performed at birth can be important, too. When we turn this information into prayer or share it discreetly with team members, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the obstacles still keeping people from conversion. We also need to pray after the seed of God’s word has been sown, that Satan might not snatch it away (Mk 4:15).

My team members and I have discovered that praying with non-Christian internationals for their needs can sometimes be an effective means of bringing them to the Lord. As God answers prayer, the students have fresh evidence of the reality, love, and power of God. We have to be careful, however, not to let our friends get the impression that God is like a cosmic vending machine, where if we insert five prayers we get the results we are after. In many folk religions, the gods are believed to respond to human manipulation through magic, sacrifices, or food offerings.

Many international students have been exposed to some form of folk religion at home. Many of my Mainland Chinese friends, even though their minds have been filled with Marxism, still have a kind of ‘submerged’ folk religion in their minds. It is easy for them to see prayer and obedience as ways of manipulating God to obtain what we want. Recently a student asked me for a picture of Jesus to put into her car. I was a little puzzled until I found out that she had just had a traffic accident. In her eyes, Jesus was a good spirit who could provide protection as long as she had a picture of him with her.

It is also important to be aware of spiritual warfare in counseling disturbed individuals. There is always a possibility that the problem may be wholly or partially demonic in origin. Getting the student’s past history is important in making a tentative diagnosis. If the student is not a Christian we need to lead him or her to the Lord before engaging the demonic powers. From personal experience I would say that every international student worker needs to be equipped to deal with demonization.

When leading an international student to the Lord, it is essential to check for possible influences from ancestors or past sinful actions. My InterVarsity colleague Amy Jen has taught me the importance of having newly converted students renounce any past involvement in ancestor worship and occult practices, as well as ancestral sin. Although people vary in their understanding of the depths of sin when they first come to Christ, it would seem that a thorough confession of sin goes a long way towards getting rid of Satan’s footholds in people’s lives.

We must also find out if students have objects which need to be destroyed: amulets, fortune-telling paraphernalia, small statues or pictures of gods, or good-luck charms (cf Acts 19:18-19). At one student retreat I discovered that many East Asian students are given small good-luck cards by their parents which they are told to keep for protection. How do we teach students about the dangers involved in ancestor worship, the occult, amulets, etc. without appearing to condemn their home cultures? First, it is helpful to remember that often sinful practices are perversions of good ones. East Asians have a lot to teach Caucasians about respect for parents and for the elderly, for example. We can point out that ancestor worship and seeking help from ancestral spirits are perversions of the good command to honor father and mother.

Finally, helping new converts learn to get their identity from being in Christ, as opposed to getting their identity from performance, job, wealth, family, or nation, is essential for long term victory in spiritual conflict. Studying Ephesians and Colossians can be helpful in establishing identity in Christ. “Who I am in Christ” from Freedom in Christ Ministries is a useful set of affirmations on which students can meditate.

Nevertheless, there may still be a struggle when it is necessary to renounce practices which are an integral part of a person’s culture. It seems best to give biblical teaching on the subject and then wait for the Holy Spirit to convict the person that God demands our undivided loyalty.

The Healing of the Nations

In the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22, John describes ‘ the river of the water of life’ flowing from the throne of God through the middle of the heavenly city. On each side of the river stands ‘the tree of life… whose leaves are for the healing of the nations’ (22:2). In the heavenly city, we shall experience the consummation of God’s plan of salvation, and take our part in a multi-racial and multi-cultural redeemed and reconciled community. Let this be the vision to spur on those of us who struggle daily for the salvation of international students:

‘After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”’ (Rev 7: 9-10)

Katie Rawson has a doctorate in French literature and a second doctorate in missiology.
She has been an international staff worker for over three decades, at North Carolina State University (NC State U) in Raleigh and at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Currently she is senior resource developer for the International Student Ministry department and regional ISM coordinator for Inter Varsity’s Blue Ridge Region.

Katie also recommends Ed Murphy, The Handbook for Spiritual Warfare (Nashville, TN:
Thomas Nelson, 1992) and, for those desiring assistance in helping internationals break free from demonization,
The Bondage Breaker by Neil T. Anderston, Freedom in Christ Ministries, and Restoring the Foundations. For those seeking to grow in listening prayer, she recommends Listening Prayer: Learning to hear God's Voice and Keep A Prayer Journal by Leanne Payne (Grand Rapids, MI:Baker, 1994).

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