INTERNATIONAL STUDENT MINISTRY IN ASIA PACIFIC: Stories of and Opportunities for Mission

It is a privilege to be asked to comment on international student ministry in the Asia Pacific Region or, as many might say, international student mission. Amongst the many examples of mission available to us through the record of Scripture and the history of the church, there is a significant subset which stems from the movement of people across borders. Opportunities for the Gospel are in many ways enhanced when people move across borders. Sometimes freedom from the constraints of one’s own social context allows a person to not only hear the Gospel but to also act upon what is heard. Frequently, movements across borders enable non-Christian people groups to come into contact with followers of Jesus, and subsequently engage with the Gospel, which many people respond to. Thus, believers act as agents for the Gospel by carrying the Gospel from one place to another.
One of the earliest recorded stories of this form of “mission” occurring through an international student is the story of Jon Pata, from the Island of Tanna in Vanuatu. Jon was decoyed onto a whaling ship in 1856 with the prospect of adventure and fortune. His story records “planti wok, planti kik, no planti kakai” (hard labour, poor treatment, little food) so he jumped ship in Tonga where he came to the attention of King George Tupou, a relatively recent convert to Christianity, who arranged for him to be schooled and trained amongst young Tongan students. He learned to read the Bible, became a Christian and was baptised and equipped for service. Then in 1871, the King decided that he was ready and Jon was sent back to west Tanna to preach the Gospel. A few months after his arrival “home”, the missions ship Dayspring, on survey, arrived and found that Jon had already begun a church. A request was made for a missionary to help with establishing and equipping the believers and 17 years later, Frank Paton came and built on the foundation that Jon had laid.
There are other such stories but what is instructive in the Jon Pata story is that a young person came to a foreign country and in the context of education came to Christ, was equipped for service and then was sent back with the commission to preach the Gospel. The story illustrates the cycle of international student ministry, which is repeated in many places in the world. However, the additional appeal in this story is the insight and response of King George Tupou who had compassion on the young man coming into his country and insight into the potential of education and especially “tisipale” (biblical discipleship and equipping). It is said that King George Tupou was responding to the leadership of the Holy Spirit in his life and at that moment had insight and understanding of the Lord’s heart for mission and the means to achieve it, which included bringing people out of the context and culture to hear the Gospel, respond, be equipped and be sent back to their own people as carriers and agents of the very Gospel that was transforming their lives. King George Tupou’s insight and his intentionality in mission as related to the opportunity Jon Pata afforded is instructive for all of us who might lead within mission and the church.
Currently, there are 214 million people classified as international migrants, and a further 740 million as internal migrants (people who move within a country from within their people group, to live in the context of another majority culture). By 2050, it is estimated that the number of international migrants worldwide will reach 405 million. On current trends, 5-10% of them will be international students. This unprecedented movement of peoples constitutes a unique opportunity for mission, and international students are part of that. The Asia Pacific region currently has almost half the world’s international students and this proportion is increasing steadily, especially with the rise in education facilities and the decline in perceptions of value and welcome in European and North American education contexts.
The biblical foundations related to movements of people across borders and from one culture to another are highly significant and are very relevant to concepts of mission related to international student ministry. In looking at biblical examples of people in such positions we see many outcomes with corresponding significance in furthering the Gospel to the ends of the earth. It is often said that the concept of the “foreigner” within missions is two-fold: going as a foreigner to a people and coming as a foreigner amongst a people. Both dynamics are significant for the Gospel and God’s purposes amongst the nations.
What we see in Scripture, is that God never intended his people to be restricted to one place or even one nation. In fact, the concept of a “sojourner,” “stranger,” “alien,” or “foreigner” in the Bible includes temporary and permanent migrants and means “to dwell for a time in another land which is not one’s own.” The Old Testament even provided instructions for caring for migrants and foreigners in the community (for example, providing for foreigners during the Passover in Exod 12:43–49). In the book of Leviticus, God also commands His people to care for foreigners in their midst (e.g., in Lev 19:9, 33–34). Throughout the Old Testament, there is one common theme of mission that occurs repeatedly: that God’s people are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. God not only desires that all people would come to know Him, but desires that the care provided by His people to those yet to know Him would be an avenue of witness, and this includes migrants, be they temporary, such as, international students or permanent.
Parts of the New Testament are built on the understanding of migrants/diaspora and the unique Gospel opportunities afforded to, and by, them. It only takes a short time of reflection in Acts and early New Testament Church history to gain a feel for the role of migrants in implementing the Great Commission given by Jesus to the disciples in Matthew 28:19: “go and make disciples of every nation,” and in Matthew 22:39, where he emphasizes that we are to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Central in all this, is understanding God’s heart for all people. We see this exemplified time and again, sometimes, through the life of a key migrant becoming a blessing to the nation of sojourn. However, sometimes this is also done through the very people from the nation of sojourn being a blessing to migrants and also to their own people and nation. In the story of Jon Pata we see how King George Tupou must have appreciated and understood the heart of God in relation to the potential for blessing the people of Tanna, whom Jon would return to.
The Bible records many stories of how God’s heart for people impels individuals to be catalysts of God’s love to the people. The examples are many but three will suffice for now:

  • The Antioch Church: as described in Acts 11:19, this was essentially a church comprised of refugees. The church became one of the most significant and influential mission sending centres in early Christianity, possibly due to the experiences, migrant mindset, and awareness of its leaders.
  • The Apostle Paul: born in Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia and a Roman province, and sent as an international student to Jerusalem to obtain higher education, Paul comes into a context where he hears the Gospel.
  • Apollos (Acts 18): an example of an academic on the move, who came to fully understand the Gospel and went on to fulfil God’s purposes for him as an enlightened teacher.

The following examples illustrate significant outcomes for the Gospel that can stem from international student ministry:

  • Church and missions leaders whose own journey is that of migration and crossing borders have a unique awareness and heart and for the nations that affects sending.
  • Foreign educated graduates are “third culture” people and their background experience is helpful to them becoming missionaries and leaders in mission.
  • Education contexts allow significant passage for people who can be carriers of the Gospel.

It could be argued that international education is part of God’s plan to ensure all nations hear the Gospel. It can also be said that international education is a filter sorting out those who have the basic foundations to be future community influencers and leaders in the societies they end up in. In fact, the work of an international graduate is often wider than just the communication of the Gospel in some form or another, as it may also affect local communities, national contexts, and even international policy, as the graduate reflects the character and nature of God and His purposes. There are many stories of returnees, who having grown in Christ and returned to their home countries, have begun to be an influence in business and commerce, in civic affairs and in community well-being. Some have entered politics and been influencers for good in their country but of particular note are those who have been influencers and leaders in the Church. Note, that the context into which the early Church came into being was one in which a significant movement of people crossed borders for a diversity of reasons. Many of these movements revealed God’s purposes to bless the early Church and those they came into contact with. This continues today and ministry in, and through, international students and graduates is part of God’s hand in blessing the nations.
From Pentecost at the beginning of Acts, diaspora have played a significant role in establishing the church and initiating mission. As outlined by Wieland (2014), reading Acts missionally leads to the realisation that the examples of Scripture can influence and motivate people to leadership and action. Being aware of such biblical examples can encourage individuals whom God has sovereignly placed or allowed to be in a position to influence policy outcomes for the Gospel: in particular, in and through diaspora. The Seoul Declaration on Diaspora Missiology speaks of a “missiological framework for understanding and participating in God’s redemptive mission among people living outside their place of origin.” It is of enormous strategic importance that we focus our understanding of mission to include mission to, through, and from international students who are but a subset of the diaspora of the world. We, the authors of this article, work amongst international students, and from this we draw some illustrations that reflect God’s work and purposes to, in, and through people who are part of diaspora movements.
The following returnee’s story from the ISMNZ ministry context exemplifies this heart. “Kai” came from a non-Christian background and from a family with influence in business in their local community. Kai’s country of origin had a population of some 70 million, and a small but growing church, whose numbers were estimated to be a little over 1% of the population and included in excess of one hundred unreached people groups. Kai’s degree in New Zealand was to prepare Kai for a role within the family business back home. Some students involved with ISMNZ became friends with Kai and as a result Kai joined an exploratory Bible discussion group. A few months later, after many questions and some struggles, Kai made a commitment to Jesus. The Bible studies continued, church was then introduced to the picture, and eventually one-to-one discipling. Student camps and other events provided added encouragement. Kai began growing and growing and growing. Jesus became important, indeed special, and he began changing Kai’s outlook on life. The ISMNZ worker, Kai’s church pastor, Kai’s Bible study cell leader, and Christian student friends all contributed to Kai understanding God’s call.
Graduation loomed but Kai did not feel “ready to go home and serve the Lord. My home, my city, my people are ungodly. I don’t feel strong enough.” So, [Kai] stayed and embarked on an ISMNZ ministry internship (ISMNZ offers internships, partnering with Pathways Bible College, to a few students who have a strong sense of God’s call on their lives.)
Kai was a great intern. After graduating from the internship, Kai started the journey of being a disciple of Christ at home amongst family and community in a culture that is foreign to biblical values. The looming struggle for Kai seemed to be insurmountable except for the biblical, spiritual, and ministry foundation afforded by the internship. A missionary serving in Kai’s home country provided a link with a church that encouraged and nurtured this transition. Kai found friends and adjusted to life at home, found a life partner and married, and then found a ministry context which flowed from a home group into a church planting initiative. Kai became a leader in that initiative and now today, years later, is part of a pastoral team of five couples, providing pastoral oversight for a growing church of over 700 members with a significantly large footprint of outreach. A number of Kai’s family members have come to Christ. Kai demonstrates integrity in business through the many companies the extended family control, integrity in marriage and family values and a multiplicative effect, as Kai contributes in leadership in the church and disciples and mentors others. The story is on-going.

Stories such as Kai’s, are a common outcome of investment into the lives of international students. Such stories are encouraging, but only represent the tip of the iceberg for potential mission to, in, and through international students. International students are ubiquitous in this world and cross borders seeking advantages and opportunities for their lives, yet their greatest opportunity rests with hearing and responding to the Gospel. Sometimes, they may be the means for the Gospel to be carried to the very people amongst whom they study. Think for a moment of the great sacrifice missionaries often make for the sake of the Gospel and the considerable costs to the Church associated with sending. No one begrudges these sacrifices and costs as they are made in response to the Lord’s call on our lives. Yet the Lord has also allowed other means for the hearing of the Gospel and for engaging in mission, and that is mission based on returnees. International graduates are a great example of this. For the Church to ignore God’s call to missions sending is bad enough, but to ignore when He calls foreigners to be amongst us, would seem to be disobedient, not to mention pushing aside the logical, strategic, and cost-effective aspects to mission afforded by the diaspora in our midst, or as it has frequently been called, “the world at our doorstep.” With half the world’s international students now in the Asia Pacific region, the Church within will need to be awake and alert to grasp the opportunities afforded by international students in our midst.
There are many advantages to mission intentionally based on the potential of returnees. Returning graduates with a heart for mission have a number of advantages over cross-cultural missionaries, and some are immensely significant:

  • Returnees have a thorough knowledge and experience of the language and culture.
  • They are deployed at relatively low cost or no cost.
  • They have existing connections in communities.
  • Returnees are immersed in their communities, modelling incarnation.
  • Returnees do not face problematic visa requirements often experienced by external missionaries.
  • The length of service of a returnee is normally for a lifetime.

Returning international graduates who grow in mission involvement in their home countries can complement traditional mission approaches. It may not replace conventional mission sending, but it may offer a uniquely strategic approach that has the added advantage of providing the members of host churches a direct opportunity to engage in hands-on mission. The very process of engagement with international students provides indications and motivations for other forms of cross-cultural service such as, mission within local diaspora communities and preparation for other forms of missions sending.
Think how God’s purposes were met through returnees such as, Moses, Naomi, and Nehemiah, and how the early Church was established in Antioch and Rome through returnees who responded to the Gospel on the day of Pentecost. During the Colombo plan era of international education in New Zealand and Australia, many South-East Asian students returned home as Christians and over time matured into Christian leaders. One such leader is Jerry Dusing, who came to Christ whilst a student at Canterbury University and who is now the senior leader of a church network in East Malaysia. During the 1970s and 1980s, many Malaysians studied in New Zealand and Australia and have gone on, like Jerry, to become influential church leaders. Many began their working life following their field of study, but God later called them to be pastors, evangelists, teachers, and apostles in mission, as they saw the need and engaged with their societies. Many others could be listed, but some prefer not to have their names mentioned as they are working in restricted-access places. Even so, two names spring to mind. The first is Dr. Patrick Fung, the current General Director of OMF. Patrick became a Christian whilst studying in Sydney, Australia. The second is Professor Stephen Liu who came from China to complete his PhD in Taiwan under the supervision of a Japanese academic who was a Christian and led him to Christ. The disruptions in the political landscape for a freshly minted PhD at the time resulted in him serving in North and South America and for a period, in missions amongst diaspora communities in Brazil, but mostly in academia as a respected Biology professor. Stephen’s greatest influence has been amongst the science community in his academic role, but even more particularly in influencing Chinese scholars and academics for the Gospel. In Patrick Fung’s case he was called to full time missions leadership, and in Stephen Liu’s case. apart from an interlude as a missionary he has largely worked out his call in the education and science contexts. God calls some international graduates in time to full time ministry like Patrick and like Kai, but for some like Stephen they affect the market place of the world they work in. Both are relevant and especially relevant to the carrying of the Gospel.
Numerous advantages can be seen in mission engagement through returning international students. However, not all returnee stories are successful, and frequently returnees are far from being ready to engage. Hence there is much work that needs to be done to ensure high levels of success for this mode of mission. In Asia Pacific the rise of international student numbers is recent and is significant. Currently, in Australia, Singapore and New Zealand, international students comprise of between 2-3% of their respective total populations. China now has over half a million higher education international students studying in its universities. Australia has over 700,000 international students (with almost 200,000 in the city of Melbourne) and is the country with the highest proportion of international students to population ratio. Japan has over a quarter of a million. That’s just under half the numbers of China and Singapore, South Korea, The Philippines New Zealand and Malaysia all have from 100 to 150 thousand each. Numbers fluctuate but the trajectory is rising. India has over 300 000 and there are significant numbers of international students in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. What is lacking in these places are labourers who will work with the students to win, build and equip, and assist them in returning home. The opportunities are widespread, yet by the very nature of education are clustered around education complexes which are concentrated in just a few places and so any strategy has to identify key locations for focus. Mission strategy needs to deal with opportunity, where it is and what the nature of it is. There is a need for the Asia Missions community to engage with international student ministry practitioners, leaders and strategists to ensure we are moving forward to achieve within this harvest field rather than allowing it to wither.
Within our Lausanne movement’s Asia Pacific ISM focus, we have sought to be mission intentional, have identified three key issues and have been seeking to share amongst the respective agencies and workers to build capacity in these areas. The three key issues are:

  • The recruitment, training and development of staff and workers in our harvest fields.
  • Culture and contextualisation – the need to be aware of culture and context when reaching international students and in discipling them so that they fit well on return.
  • Preparing and supporting international graduates for and through re-entry.

Our perception has been that the greatest loss of fruit from ISM work is in re-entry. This is in part due to the cultural and contextual influences in the country of learning and is in part due to a failure on the part of disciplers to be relevant to country of origin cultures and contexts during establishing, and a failure to prepare them well for re-entry and provide encouragement and support in re-entry.
In identifying and working on these three issues, we will at least ensure a better level of outcome and productiveness from existing ministries. In effect, this is a growing characteristic of ISM in Asia Pacific: mission intentionality of ministries and a focus on doing well with individuals to ensure outcomes in the future for extending the Kingdom of God, in and through returning graduates.
The recruitment of labourers and their strategic deployment in a context of few labourers means we should target available places and contexts where there are strategic concentrations of students. For example, a particular University might be strategic for missions in that its student body is largely from places that don’t traditionally receive missions influence from outside. Or, it may be a place where graduates are able to move into contexts and professions of influence, or where there is a supportive church context that is committed to assisting the re-entry and encouragement of graduates returning home. There are many factors that can be influential in thinking strategically and prayerfully relating to the setup and outcomes from ministry.
Having in place connections with missions agencies and churches in advance of re-entry is another key item ISMs in Asia Pacific are seeking to develop.
In our Asia Pacific context, we consider the ministries in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea to have a degree of experience, maturity and resources to continue to develop their opportunities well, although they are all countries with large numbers of international students. In most of the other countries in our region there are needs for development assistance. However, the exciting thing is that there are opportunities for the mode of ministry to be varied and for discoveries to be made about new and effective approaches. For all countries in the Asia Pacific region there are opportunities to develop and needs for labourers.
The opportunities presented by the large number of international students right here, right now, so close and so accessible leads us to pray in alignment with Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:37-38: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Right here, right now in New Zealand, the world has come to our doorstep. We need to pray for workers and upcoming student leaders to enter this harvest field. Please pray for the ministries of ISMNZ, our workers, volunteers, all our students and alumni.

Terry McGrath

Terry McGrath is the Asia Pacific Facilitator, Lausanne GLN ISMs; Senior Consultant International Student Ministries New Zealand & Past National Director; International Chaplain Emeritus Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand. He earned a BSc (Chemistry) from Victoria University of Wellington,
Dip in Teaching from Christchurch College of Education, BA (ASIA Pacific History) and MPhil (Development Studies) from Massey University. He is currently an Elder at Kingston Community
Church, Palmerston North New Zealand. Terry is a well-known author of several books on missions and diaspora.

Victoria Sibley-Bentley
Victoria Sibley-Bentley is a Chaplain at Massey University and Vocational Deacon at All Saints Church, Palmerston North. She earned her Dips. in Christian Ministry & Ministry Leadership from Pathways Bible & Mission College, N.Z., M.A. in Religion & Public Life from the University of Leeds, and M.A (Hons) in Theological Studies, from the University of St. Andrews.

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