Foreign Missions at Home

Some churches and ministries are preaching the gospel to the world by reaching out to international students in America.

Although the majority of international students don’t profess faith in Christ before they return to their countries, those who experienced positive interactions with local Christians hold favorable views of Christianity and the church, said Douglas Shaw, president of International Students Inc. (ISI), a Christian organization that ministers to international college students. These students tend to become influential leaders in their native lands as politicians, educators, and executives.

 

Angie Mercer wondered if she was the only person freaking out in the hospital room. The others—an international student from China, his pregnant wife, and his mother—wore stoic expressions. The mother-to-be was deep in labor, yet the doctor had not arrived, and the understaffed nurses were busy elsewhere.

The student’s mother, an obstetrician-gynecologist in China, tightened her lips and told her son in Mandarin all the things that needed to be done, right away, and the son interpreted her recommendations to Mercer, who quickly relayed their needs to the nurses. After many active years serving in international student ministry, Mercer learned enough about Chinese culture to know that her foreign friends were more anxious than she was—they just didn’t show it.

This was 2009 in Atlanta, Ga., five years into Mercer’s and her husband Joel’s involvement in international student ministry. The birth of this Chinese couple’s baby—a healthy boy named Andy—was the fifth delivery Mercer witnessed with her international friends. In this case the couple, both Ph.D. students at Georgia Tech, called Mercer around 5 a.m. from the hospital for help. Mercer rushed over to serve as their advocate, since none of them were confident in their English or familiar with the American healthcare system.

The couple were not Christians, nor did they profess faith in Christ while in Atlanta. But they attended Mercer’s church for Sunday service and the Sunday school class that her church offers for international students. After they graduated, the couple continued sending Mercer Mother’s Day cards. Although they’ve gradually lost contact, Mercer hopes the couple will remember that time a blond, twinkly-eyed Christian American woman had given them a voice (with a Southern twang) when they felt they had none—and perhaps the next time they encounter another Christian, they would be inclined to listen to the gospel.

INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS have been attending American colleges in never-before-seen numbers. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of international students in the United States spiked from 500,000 to more than a million. (The numbers declined some in 2017.) China sends the largest group of students, followed by India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia—which means many of these international students are atheists, Hindus, and Muslims.

Although the majority of international students don’t profess faith in Christ before they return to their countries, those who experienced positive interactions with local Christians hold favorable views of Christianity and the church, said Douglas Shaw, president of International Students Inc. (ISI), a Christian organization that ministers to international college students. These students tend to become influential leaders in their native lands as politicians, educators, and executives.

Yet according to ISI, about 75 percent of international students never step foot into an American home—an incredible opportunity lost for churches to welcome the nations, said Al LaCour, coordinator of Reformed University Fellowship International (RUF-I), a PCA campus ministry. In 2004 when the Metro Atlanta Presbytery sent LaCour, then a 56-year-old church planter and pastor, to start an RUF chapter for American students at Georgia Tech, the university ranked No. 20 for having the most international students among U.S. campuses but didn’t have a single campus ministry exclusively for international students. LaCour founded the first one with RUF-I (aka International Buzz) and after 30 years of church planting, switched his ministry from local to global missions.

The 70-year-old veteran pastor now oversees 15 RUF-I ministries across the nation. Part of his vocation involves “poking eyes” (as former RUF coordinator Tom Cannon termed it) at PCA churches and conferences so church members can discover a field ripe for harvest: Just as God commanded Israel to welcome the foreigner, God charges the church to practice Biblical hospitality, which means to love strangers like family members.

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