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Bringing International Students to Church?

Eric Warren writes about discipling international students within the context of a local American church and shares a new model for trying to address some common tensions.

A big issue that those who minister to international students wrestle with (or need to wrestle with more) is how to think about the relationship between international students (Christian and non-Christian) and our local churches in America. Mostly, the question is to what extent should we bring them to our American church services.

On one side of the question, we would say that we believe in the local church. The local church is God’s Plan A for the expansion of His kingdom, from back in the book of Acts all the way to today, and there’s no Plan B. DA Carson says that the local church is both the means and the goal of mission. As people encounter the living God through both His word and His body, the church, they see God through His redeemed people. So therefore, some would say, “Of course we should bring our international student friends to church, so the lost students can hear the Gospel and international Christians can sit under Bible teaching and godly authority and have corporate worship and community.”

On the other side, we could raise many questions about the wisdom of bringing international students to our American church services. Missiologist Nik Ripken writes about several reasons we shouldn’t bring them to church. Other mission thinkers speak about the pitfalls of many American churches and how they can potentially do more harm than good when internationals attend. The principle of reproducibility would lead us to ask if we’re showing them a church model that can’t be reproduced in their home country, if all they have seen is the American church. The principle of contextualization would lead us to question if a church that’s contextualized for Americans is really appropriate or helpful for international students from their very different cultural settings. Furthermore, the pace of the English sermons and the cultural references, may not be understandable or relevant to these students. Regardless of the reasons, the alarmingly high number (I’ve heard 70-80%) of internationals who profess faith in the US but don’t continue walking with Jesus after they return home ought to cause us to pause and consider this question.

Even local churches that are in the internationals’ language and culture, should they exist in your city, aren’t always the answer. Occasionally, doctrinal errors, legalism, hyper-traditionalism, or other factors mean that these churches still aren’t good churches for your international students. House church models/paradigms are another way that some answer the question, but there are a myriad of pragmatic and ecclesiological questions that could be raised there as well.

This article isn’t meant to settle this complex debate. Instead, I’m writing to describe one thing that we have tried in our church/ministry, and we’re continuing to refine, to help and to bless internationals in our community and on our campus. I’ve written for Collective about our normal ministry model with international students on our campus, but here I’m writing about what we have implemented after wrestling with this question about internationals and American churches.

Our Attempt – International Worship Gathering

Once per month, on a Sunday morning, we have what we call International Worship Gathering during the our church’s second service. While our regular service happens in the auditorium, we gather in one of our building’s smaller meeting spaces . It’s basically just like a worship service but specifically designed for international students. We’ve had between 15 and 40 attend the gathering. We ask our American leaders/church members to limit their own attendance at this gathering, so that internationals are the majority, not the minority, and so it can really remain a service for internationals. However, some internationals wouldn’t go without their American friend at their side, so we flex this one.

Timing: We do have an advertised start time, but we have a planned 10-15 minute delay because of what we know about different concepts of timeliness across cultures. We just encourage our international Christians and leaders to mingle and welcome everyone as we wait to begin.

Worship: We only select worship songs that have simple English vocabulary. We also have at least one song in another language at each gathering, trying to rotate through the different languages represented in the gathering throughout the year. We have as many of our international Christians with musical talent lead in worship. Otherwise, we just ask our Americans in the church/international ministry to help lead in worship. We’ve also used YouTube videos. We’ve even had songs where someone teaches everyone a dance associated with the song, that we all do together in the gathering as we worship.

Teaching: We have shorter sermons (≈15-20 min) with simple English and relevant illustrations. We have the international Christian men help co-preach the message with me, so they can get practice teaching and be mentored along the way, but I am still able to shepherd the flock and preserve the doctrinal integrity of what’s taught.

Discussion Groups: This is where it most differs from a common worship service. We move and sit at different tables based on language/culture. The international leaders lead these table discussions. They re-read the passage in their own language. They review the points of the sermon in their own language. They discuss application to their lives in their own language. They close in prayer in their own language.

Other Aspects: We’ve done communion together at this gathering. We have also used this gathering as a place to baptize people for whom it would be inappropriate (for their safety and security) to baptize at our large church gathering in front of 1,500 people and video cameras. Lastly, we often make a plan to eat lunch out together afterward, whoever wants to join, to continue the fellowship and connections.

Again, the International Worship Gathering is once per month, and we do encourage international students to attend our normal local church worship service all the other weeks (and now that they’re connected with one another, they often sit in the same section together at the services). However, in our discipleship and leadership of these students we can still point to the International Worship Gathering being the church model that is more like what they’ll go home to (or plant) when they return home. The International Worship Gathering is fully under the authority of the pastors/elders of our church. Furthermore, the once-per-month frequency isn’t too burdensome on our staff and leaders.

There are several big wins for us regarding International Worship Gathering. The biggest is that internationals have felt more connected to each other (and therefore more welcome in the greater body of the church). Also, they are more able to invite friends to church from their own culture or with lower English ability. It’s been an easier on-ramp for internationals to start coming to church. Lastly, they get more chances to exercise leadership roles in a worship service than they would have gotten otherwise.

Our international worship gatherings are a work-in-progress. The gatherings are helping us find some middle grounds on the extremes of the question “should we bring internationals to church,” and we see how our church is becoming a better church for international students to call home.