Why We Need Internationals in Our Small Groups

You may have read how Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, called a guy he was discipling and said, “Come over quick, my wife and I are having a fight!” Trotman understood that beyond Bible study, we must also live life together as we follow Jesus; true teaching is not simply transferring information, but knowing and being known. In most American churches, small groups are one of the major ways that peer discipleship and fellowship happen. We experience Jesus revealed in each other as we know joys and sorrows, eat together, serve, laugh, and learn. We begin to truly know others, and allow ourselves to be known. For international seekers or new believers who plan to return to their home countries, being wholeheartedly welcomed into small groups can be very powerful, even if only for a short time. Let me explain this reasoning using China as an example.

I recently heard statistics that radically changed my perspective. Every year 18,000 Chinese Christians return home from abroad. I learned from Stuart Bullington of OMF’s Diaspora Ministries that 80-85% of these confessing Christians never commit to any form of Christian fellowship back home. Most who hear those numbers agree that they are “game changing statistics.”

Those who choose to go to a Chinese church here in the United States sometimes have a little more preparation for return. For example, they have already learned how to pray in their own language. However, this alone does not prepare them to thrive. They still have little understanding of how to live as Christians in the Chinese context. Bullington cites the following as some of the major obstacles:

1) Returning alone. 2) Lack of training before return. 3) No (or inadequate) introduction to Christians back home. 4) No help with reverse culture shock (including church culture shock). 5) Workplace challenges. 6) Family opposition.

The Bullingtons, among others, are dedicated to understanding these challenges and helping equip the church to do something about it. While these obstacles are overwhelming, what we do see is that those who “survive” are those who are not only in love with Jesus, but take their need for fellowship very seriously. In order to take this seriously, they have to truly experience it.

As Stewart Bowerman, co-director of ministry with internationals at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle points out, “It makes sense to have our small groups be the returnee support teams.” These people can pray for them, check on them, call them on Skype, and walk with them through the process of connecting back home. Those going home most often need a support group in order to “survive” this major transition.

It takes a whole team of people with different gifts to support one returnee. And it is important for the returnee to know a group that sees each other often, encouraging each other to help their returnee and pray together for him or her. If we share our struggles and joys together with our returning friend while we are together, we feel safe to share mutually across the oceans as our friend transitions.

Beyond the excitement of seeing one believer survive, there is a broader vision for why this fellowship is essential, even if someone is visiting for a short time. First, we need international men and women in our small groups, both seekers and believers. Whether through stories or questions or teaching, a person from another culture can reveal Jesus to us in ways we would otherwise miss. As Abraham welcomed the strangers (who turned out to be holy visitors) and was blessed, so we are blessed when we welcome. Inviting someone for whom English is a second language into a small group is not always easy. But it is most often the case that we meet Jesus through him or her.

Second, with God’s power working through our brokenness, we in America have the opportunity to impact and bless the church in China by fully adopting a stranger into our midst. By welcoming them into our beautiful and broken community life, we help prepare people to not only survive back home, but help serve and lead in the churches to which they return in whatever capacity God allows. We help defy the statistics each time we go deeper with someone in true fellowship.

There is value for the returnee simply in crossing cultures on a small group level. If this can be a positive experience, a returnee can use the same cultural competency skills to adjust back home. This is valuable not only for the individual returnee, but also for other returnees adjusting and integrating on a deeper level. Once a person has been a stranger welcomed into “the family,” he can in turn empathize with other “strangers” and know how to welcome them. We ought to shift our thinking from helping a returnee survive to thinking ahead to the impact they could have as leaders in their families, communities, and churches.

Beyond these rather strategic reasons for welcoming internationals into small groups, I believe this is God’s heart and will for us:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one…”   - John 17:20-22

May we be “one” with the church around the world, welcoming seekers and helping new believers even before they return home to continue serving and growing. May they have a chance to know and be known, and may they bless the church in China.


Heidi Ifland is on staff with China Outreach Ministries in Seattle, Washington. She graduated from Covenant College in 2005 and subsequently taught English at a university in China.