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Welcoming the world

The gospel opportunity that people aren’t talking about

This month droves of international students will be arriving in the UK, and for many it is their first experience living overseas. They come from hundreds of different nations and, for the next few years, will be living on the same streets as you and I.

Students like Albert who last year arrived in the UK from Hungary to study wildlife biology at the University of South Wales. He recalled, I arrived here not knowing a single person. The first month was tough: I had never lived on my own, so I had to get independent quickly. I started learning to cook, devising shopping routes and so on.”

Albert was later befriended by Christians. I was eventually invited to Bethany Baptist Church, where I witnessed greater kindness than I had ever seen. These people became my family.” Now, after only six months in the UK, he has made a faith commitment and wants to be baptised.

So, why are international students such a staggering gospel opportunity? Because there are many more Alberts out there. In fact, there’s more than one million overseas students studying in the UK, 450,000 enrolled at UK universities and another 550,000 short-term visitors here to learn English. China alone sends more than 100,000 students to our shores, and we get another 140,000 from the EU nations. Despite the fear and uncertainty surrounding Brexit, the number of international students enrolling at British universities continues to rise and indeed has doubled since 2001.

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These students are far from home, in need of friendship and desire community. As Christians we can provide just that. On top of this, many students come from places where they may never encounter Christians or the gospel. For example, Saudi Arabia sends almost 8,000 students and Malaysia 15,000. In addition, Christian organisations such as Friends International and UCCF, and church leaders situated in university towns, have recognised this exciting opportunity to share their faith and introduce students to Jesus.

Chris Kimbangi, lead pastor of Centrepoint Church in Guildford, explained, Every September we love to welcome in new students, including many international students. We give them serving opportunities, get them integrated into church life and help them to grow in their faith.” Yet, it is not just churches who are doing the welcoming, Christian unions (CUs) at universities play a huge role, too.

In Belfast, for two weeks each September, more than 100 volunteers, many from the Queen’s University CU, commit time, energy and resources to welcome hundreds of international students who’ve just arrived in the city. The fortnight of events begins with shopping trips to the local supermarket with organised mini-buses and volunteers, and it concludes with a coach trip to the Giant’s Causeway, one of Northern Ireland’s best-known tourist spots. In between, there are free meals for 250 hungry students – a practical and hospitable way to officially welcome them.

Another welcome initiative, this one involving volunteers from across London, is Meet and Greet at Heathrow Airport. Bob Dawson, director of ministries at Friends International, started Meet and Greet 18 years ago, which now works in partnership with Heathrow Chaplaincy. He said, We want international students to experience authentic Christian love through practical help. Tiredness, a crush of people and lack of familiarity with the arrival complex, lead to some students feeling and looking disoriented. A helpful individual with a smile on their face is a welcome sight.” Meet and Greet volunteers welcome arriving students and aid them practically, helping them get to their different destinations.

Welcome programmes, events and activities are happening across the country at this time of year, but the befriending and discipleship continues for a lot longer. Some international students become Christians while in the UK and Friends International has developed Reach, a programme of cross-cultural evangelism. Matthew Brindley has just started a second year with us as a Reach Trainee in Newcastle. 

He said, As well as learning how to study the Bible with Iranian and Japanese students, we learnt how to rest and how to reflect. Our study books have taught us the value of discipline and how to read the Bible as a whole. These things have really brought a confidence and a depth to my faith.” Through the programme students grow in their faith and learn how to share Jesus with other internationals.

Alan Tower, national director of Friends International, summarised the impact that can be made by simply reaching out to international students. In the last 12 months we have been in contact with 11,000 international students – 1,000 have attended a Bible study and we have seen 70 become committed Christians. Yet, we are still only scratching the surface.” 

Alan continued, Our vision is for churches to be full of international students, passionate and equipped to play a role in the mission and ministry of the church. As a result of the work of international student ministries, local church initiatives, and dedicated resources such as the mobile phone app Friends International has developed, we hope international students will not only excel in their chosen subject but acquire a life-changing relationship and understanding of who God is.” 

About the author

Jack Bentley is communications and media coordinator at Friends International, a Christian charity that supports international students in the UK.

See more from Jack Bentley

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