Amidst many sobering stories of religious crackdown in China, there is at least one ministry still continuing in relative peace. We spoke to Phil Jones about international student ministry in China.
TGCA: When we hear about “international students,” we mainly think about Chinese students in Australia. What’s does the phrase mean in China?
International students in China means non-Chinese students studying in China. We’re familiar with international students in western countries, but few people realise that China is the third most popular destination of tertiary international students globally behind the US and the UK. In 2017 China hosted 489,200 international students. (Australia was fourth with 371,885).
TGCA: Which countries are sending students to China and why?
The top 10 countries in 2017 sending students to China were South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan, the United States, India, Russia, Japan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, and Laos. Most of these are “gospel poor” countries where students are unlikely to hear about Christ.
Students arrive in China from a wide variety of places for very different reasons. Consider these two: a black Muslim from Nigeria doing a PhD in digital agriculture on a full Chinese government scholarship who’s left her husband and three little kids back home; a self-funded white wealthy atheist from Canada who’s gone for a fun semester of Chinese language and culture.
There are four key reasons for students going to study in China:
- China is cheaper than the West. China itself is exerting soft power by spending a tremendous amount on scholarships (58,600 scholarships offered in 2017). It increased its international student education budget by over 16% in 2018. Living costs are generally lower than in the West.
- China offers a high-quality education. Contrary to common opinion, China has a growing number of top-ranked universities.
- China is a rising superpower. China is well-known as an economic giant and soon-to-be superpower in the political and military domains as well. Students want to get on board with this global trend.
- China is culturally familiar for many Asians. Cultural stress is minimised for those coming from similar cultures or similar political contexts.
TGCA: What’s life like for these students in China?
Life for these students varies incredibly. Western students—who can pay for upmarket accommodation, travel, air purification and health care—have a fun adventure. Poorer students on scholarships struggle. They live in small dorm rooms, have little disposable income for entertainment or travel and find health care inaccessible.
The dominant experience of international students is one of loneliness. Chinese society is neither multi-cultural nor integrationist, and its homogeneity means that the “us-them” gap is enormous. Black students regularly encounter racism from the surrounding culture.
This loneliness, powerlessness, cultural disjunction and academic stress leads to a high rate of mental illness amongst international students.
Many Christian students come with the belief that there is no church in China. So, they don’t connect with an international fellowship but hunker down and prepare for isolation for their years in China. Those who do find international fellowships are ill-prepared for the often-monumental cultural hurdle they encounter. Although some do manage to connect and thrive in their faith, others bounce right out of their first Sunday at church, never to return.
TGCA: How is international student ministry (ISM) helping?
ISM provides a spiritual “home away from home” for Christian students, and international churches are a key place for this. These provide support, encouragement and training for Christian students. Many international students connected to Christian fellowships in China are strengthened and resourced to come alongside their unbelieving international student friends who are facing similar challenges. Through these relationships, many international students from gospel-poor countries are able to encounter the person of Jesus in the pages of the Bible.
ISM equips international students as gospel influencers not only in China, but also for their home countries, communities and churches.
TGCA: Can you give us a couple of case studies to help us see what’s going on?
A Brazilian student found herself sitting next to a male North Korean in her class. She shared one thing about Jesus with him each week. Initially she was met with “That’s not for me. I’m an atheist.” But as the weeks went by, he began to ask, “What are you going to tell me today?” Near the end of the semester she discreetly gave him printed portions of John’s Gospel in Korean. Who would have thought that a Brazilian studying in China would have the opportunity to share the gospel with a North Korean!?
Another example involves a North American student doing a master’s in international management. He had been an active leader in ISM in his home church and soon noticed the tremendous strategic opportunities for the gospel amongst international students in China. He is considering a long-term commitment to this cross-cultural mission field.
TGCA: We keep hearing of government crackdowns on Christianity in China. Does this apply to ISM too?
In general, the increased pressure on Christians does not seem to be impacting ISM, since it is largely a foreign-led ministry. In China the “international bubble” is somewhat isolated from the rest of China. The pressure has largely been on local, unregistered congregations. God has allowed an amazing degree of freedom for ministry to international students.
TGCA: Is ISM in China something that we should be leaving for the Chinese church?
International churches have much greater freedom (as long as they do not interact with local unregistered churches). So there is a role, in the medium term, for foreign ministries amongst international students in China. International students can freely attend international fellowships and witness the gospel amongst themselves.
On the other hand, loving the foreigner in China is the responsibility of the Chinese church. One Chinese pastor said that if the Chinese church does not love the foreigner in their midst, “We are sinning against God.” But they experience the fear of the “other” due to cultural homogeneity, political pressures and a deep sense of inadequacy. Only a few leaders see local-run-ISM as a great training ground for broader cross-cultural mission. Perhaps a global church response is to seek creative ways for foreign ISM workers to encourage and come alongside local churches eager to grow in this cross-cultural mission field.
TGCA: Who should be thinking about serving God with ISM in China?
- Ministry-minded students who have been matured in gospel-centred youth groups or university ministries in Australia who might speak Chinese. They can go to China on exchange for a semester or for a whole degree and connect with healthy international fellowships. Study-abroad programs exist through universities, campus ministries and mission organisations.
- Ministry trainees, such as MTS or AFES, who wish to experience a year or two of supervised ministry training in a foreign context. Such a time would be excellent for Chinese language and culture learning to be further equipped for ISM in Australia or cross-cultural ministry elsewhere.
- Christian Chinese returnees who’ve matured through gospel ministries in Australia. By virtue of living outside of China they are cultural “bridges” and better equipped linguistically and culturally. After successful re-integration into the local Chinese church these returnees have, under God, great potential to help the local church engage with ISM.
- Long-term workers ready to commit to 10+ years of ISM work alongside the international church or other potential places. Effectiveness is only reached with adequate Chinese language and culture acquisition, and an openness to abandon old models of ISM in favour of Chinese-context models.
TGCA: What else should we be doing if we want to help international students in China hear about the gospel?
- We can pray for international students and ISM in China. They are people made in God’s image, for whom the Lord Jesus died, who he is calling to himself. This is God’s ministry which we need to get on board with.
- We can encourage Christian students in our ministries to visit or go on exchange to China; to go specifically as a witness for Christ amongst fellow international students.
- We can help mission organisations to be aware of this strategic and under-resourced diaspora mission field. Such organisations could source and send culture- or language-specific ministry workers.
- We can establish ISM training in seminaries, Bible colleges and mission-training centres. And we can keep informed through ISM networks or ChinaSource.org.
Who will “declare his glory among the nations” in China (Psalm 96:3)?