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.
Most local churches think of global missions as sending out missionaries overseas, which requires tremendous funds and skills and commitment, but the welcoming of foreigners who are here requires only a love for Christ and a willingness to make room for new relationships, LaCour said: “It’s one of the most cost-effective ways to fulfill the Great Commission.”
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.
SOME CHURCHES HAVE caught that vision. St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Atlanta made a commitment as a church to serving international students in the city. The decision came when the church’s missions department was going through some restructuring and looking for ways to be more strategic in doing missions other than sending money overseas. Trevor Williams, volunteer coordinator of St. Paul’s missions team, said the lightbulb flicked on after hearing LaCour’s definition of Biblical hospitality: “We’re nine blocks away from Georgia Tech. So we had to ask: Why aren’t we doing more with the international students?”
St. Paul’s now partners with RUF-I and local churches of other denominations to organize events and provide services for international students such as airport pickups. This year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, members of St. Paul’s took 36 students and visiting scholars on a tour around the city’s MLK Jr. National Historic Site. The day ended with a home-cooked Vietnamese lunch at St. Paul’s sanctuary, where senior pastor Tolivar Wills gave a short speech about the significance of MLK Jr. Day: “What drove Dr. King was the belief that all humans are made in the image of God.” For many of these students, it was the first time they had ever stepped foot into a church. Some came back, and several became Facebook friends with Wills and other church members.
Williams said it’s hard to measure the impact of the MLK Jr. trip, but such events are already blessing church members with more opportunities to serve globally. Any additional developments with students, he said, is just gravy: “We don’t count our success with conversions, but see it as fitting into the context of what God is already doing. This is long-term missions.”