Conference Voices: In the Name of God's Foreigner
Editor’s note: The China Partnership recently held its annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia. This year’s topic was “The Church in a Global-Local World” and we were greatly blessed and challenged by many excellent speakers. We are excited to make their ideas available through our blog to those unable to attend in person. Lisa Chinn, Inter-Varsity's former director of international student ministry, has said, “Statistics inform. Scriptures convict. Stories compel.” I’ll share some of all three with you today.
What are the statistics? Last year, a record high of 886,000 international students studied on campuses in the United States of America. The largest group, almost one third, come from China. Today there are 274,439 Chinese students on our university campuses. For the broader international student community, we are seeing a yearly increase of more than 8%. That number is doubled for China whose student population in America increases by 16% yearly. God has brought more foreign students to the United States than to any other nation.
This movement of people throughout the world is God's sovereign work. The brochure for this China Partnership conference quotes from Acts 17:26 inside the front cover: “[God has] determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”
How does God's word tell us to respond to the increase of international students within our boarders? What do the scriptures say? In Deuteronomy 10:19, God commanded Israel, "Love the sojourner [the resident foreigner] therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt." We further find Paul directing the church in Ephesians 2:12 with these instructions, "Remember that you were... separated from Christ, alienated from... Israel... strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world." We cannot look down upon resident-foreigners inhospitably. We were once foreigners to God’s kingdom; but, through Jesus Christ, God has welcomed us.
We just celebrated Epiphany (the coming of the Magi) in the historic church calendar. But before the Magi, others such as Rahab, Naaman, Ruth, Sheba, and more came to Israel. They represent “gracious disruptions,” sent by God to rattle and remind us that God's promise is not only for us and for our children, but for all who are far off, for as many as the Lord brings near. This convicts me. Christ has welcomed me when I was a foreigner to his kingdom, so I must reflect his love in hospitable deeds and gospel words. We were not legal immigrants, nor were we naturalized; rather, we were “super-naturalized” into God’s kingdom through the gospel.
I often say to church groups, "I greet you in the name of God's Foreigner. He came to his own people, but they did not welcome him. But to all who receive him, he gives the power to become children of God.” Sometimes we are like the lawyer who asked Jesus, "How big is my neighborhood?" And Jesus tells us a gospel story to teach us that we cannot define a neighbor. We can only be a good neighbor. One day, we will ask him, "Lord, when did we see you?" And he will say, "When you welcomed (or did not welcome) the foreigner, you welcomed (or did not welcome) me."
We’ve looked at the statistics and we’ve looked at the scriptures. Now, let me share with you some compelling stories. As my wife says of our time on campus, "God gave us stories."
After the events of 9/11 in 2001, a Georgia Tech professor from India (and an elder at our host church for this conference) joined with two international students to pray that America, and Georgia Tech in particular, would not close its doors or heart to international students. As a result of their prayers, I was led to become a campus minister for international students.
One evening, I met with eighty-five internationals in the Georgia Tech faculty dining room for RUF International’s “Dinner and Discovery” event. A visiting professor from China asked me about John 14, "What does Jesus mean when he says ‘my Father's house?’” I explained that Jesus is God's eternal Son, who was sent by God his Father from heaven to restore us to a relationship with his Father, because we have all shamed and dishonored God. So, Jesus describes heaven as "my Father's house." The Chinese professor asked, "Does this mean that Jesus has the key to heaven?"
"Yes,” I responded. And then I gave him an example. “My son recently brought something I needed to my home, and he was able to enter because he has a key to my house. But you could not bring anything to my home without a key, because you would be like a thief or a robber. But there is one way that you could come into my home." With a bright face and new insight, the professor exclaimed, "I could come with your son!" I replied, "Yes, and that is the good news of Jesus Christ!"
My wife’s wry response has been, "You would have been a much better preacher if you had worked with international students first!"
I once thanked a local church elder who serves as a faithful host for the weekly “Dinner and Discovery.” He said to me, "Coming each week to campus is not hard. But trying to go to sleep after I have shared the gospel with Chinese, Muslims, Hindus, and other internationals is hard." This elder’s church has now started an international Sunday school class and an ESL program focused on East Asians. His church has witnessed Chinese baptisms and a Chinese wedding.
One last story. This is a story about bi-directional world missions, the focus of this conference today. A married couple from China came to Georgia Tech from a major public university. They came to our hospitality events and to many exploratory Bible studies.
They later hosted me and my wife as we traveled to China. Afterwards, the husband contacted me and said he would offer a course on the Bible to almost three-hundred undergraduate students at his university. He asked, “Can you, or your friends in China, get me copies of a contemporary Chinese Bible to use with my students?" His students were incredibly engaged during his course. To reward the students, he played Handel's Messiah at the end of the semester for them enjoy.
Let me ask you: Do you think a Western missionary will ever teach a course on the Bible in a public university in China? But after returning from the USA, this professor sowed gospel seeds in an open academic course.
Flash forward three years. Another professor, a bi-vocational house church leader, came to the United States. As a Christian leader, this man led many Chinese students and visiting professors to the Lord while at a particular American campus. As he prepared to return to China, I showed him a picture of the previously mentioned couple who I knew were professors at his university. His eyes widened like saucers and he said, "He was my professor when I was an undergraduate!"
The words of Acts 17 are reflected in the stories of these visiting professors from China: “[God] determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”
Why have I enjoyed my ten years in international student ministry after serving in four pastorates? I now think of missions biblically, not geographically. World missions is not only “overseas.” Global-local missions is cost-effective and it is very strategic for the church of Jesus Christ!
Al LaCour serves as the nationwide director for Reformed University Fellowship – International. Al equips churches and campus ministries to “welcome the nations and equip kingdom ambassadors.” Al is a graduate of Georgia Tech and Westminster Seminary. He served as a church planter and senior pastor of four churches before transitioning to international student ministry.