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3 July 2023

In the summer of 2019, my family and I moved home and hearth from Singapore to America, where I joined the ministry of International Students Inc. (ISI) as its sixth president.  The vision and mission of ISI is to impact every nation with the gospel of Jesus Christ through seeing every international student befriended, led to a personal relationship with Christ, and discipled for his effective service.

Since 1953, ISI has been actively engaged in international student ministry in the United States, where it has shared Christ’s love with international students in over 1,700 universities in the US.  (ISI also played key roles in starting and supporting sister ministries in Canada and the United Kingdom.)  While US-based campus ministries have experienced a declining trend in salvations among American university students, ministry to international students continues to register strong numbers of decisions for Christ.

Yet this is simply not good enough when two-thirds of international students in America remain unreached, including many more outside of the US.  Today, there are just under one million university-level international students in the United States—still the largest hosting nation for international students, despite the steep decline that occurred at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—and over six million worldwide (including in Singapore). Despite the outstanding work done by campus ministries and local churches to evangelise international students, less than thirty percent are being reached, witnessed to, and discipled for Christ.  Against this backdrop, a core challenge for the Church at large seeking to fulfil Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28 to make disciples of all nations could well be this: Are we reaching international students in our countries and cities for Christ?

The task to reach the world at our door is not new. In Acts 2, we learn that, on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came in power, there were living in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven, who heard not only the wonders of God being declared in their own native languages, but also the first recorded sermon preached by the followers of Christ. A strong case could be made that Pentecost is integrally connected with the launch, the perpetuation and—oh how great a day that would be!—the fulfilment of the Great Commission.  In other words, this list of significant “firsts” took place before an international audience.  Right at the start of world missions, God did something remarkable: He had brought the uttermost parts of the earth to Jerusalem!

The idea of the world at our door opens another way to reading the familiar words of Acts 1:8: “…in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  We are tempted to interpret this verse to mean we begin witnessing in Jerusalem, then in our surrounding areas, and then the rest of the world—that is to say, a movement that extends and progresses outward, not unlike how a pebble dropped into a pond causes ripples that extend in all directions.  There is nothing inherently wrong in thinking of it this way.

But God—he who is given to doing “new things” and dropping unexpected surprises on us (Isa 43:18-19)—does something quite extraordinary: He brings the world to Jerusalem. Isa 5:26 tells us that God has raised a banner for the distant nations, he whistles for those at the ends of the earth, and they come, swiftly and speedily, at his beck and call!

The world has descended upon our countries and cities because the Lord has summoned them.  We are not just talking about the usual suspects from China and India, the two largest sending nations, nor are we referring only to students from countries represented in the “10-40 Window”.  There are in fact numerous students from the “Unreached Peoples Groups”—ethnolinguistic groups with little or no access to the gospel, that make up over forty percent of the world’s population—with whom we rub shoulders daily on our city streets.

Our concept of the foreign other is typically framed by contemporary images of migrants and refugees and of labourers and domestic workers who cross borders in search of safety, security, and opportunity.  The Scriptures are very clear that we are to love the foreigner residing among us as ourselves (Lev 19:34; Deut 10:19).

But there is a more enduring presence of the foreigner in “our Jerusalem”: International students, the best and brightest of the nations who attend our colleges and universities. Campus ministries and local churches all over the world do outstanding work to evangelise and disciple international students in “their Jerusalems”.  And yet is this not a blind spot for the Church as a whole, that is, our “failure” to see and to treat the international students among us as a veritable mission field, one that is just as crucial and legitimate as what has traditionally been defined and understood as cross-cultural missions?

According to that great sage Forrest Gump, if life is like a box of chocolates because you never quite know what you are going to get, the same holds true of international student ministry. We never know just whom we may get to meet and to minister to in our Jerusalem, perhaps the modern-day equivalent of a Queen of Sheba who comes looking for answers to hard questions (1 Kings 10), or a Namaan, a foreign military leader who has a physical infirmity he seeks to be healed of (2 Kings 5), or an Ethiopian high official who needs help deciphering a passage from the Scriptures (Acts 8). Every one of these foreigners were ministered to by Christ-followers and returned to their home nations to become powerful spiritual influences there for the sake of the gospel!

Jesus urged his disciples to look at the fields that are ripe for harvest (Jn 4:35).  May you and I look at the international students in our midst that are ripe for harvest.  The time for reaping is nigh!

Dr Tan See Seng is President and CEO of International Students Inc. (ISI), a ministry that shares Christ’s love with international students in the United States and beyond. He can be reached at stan@isionline.org.