A Holistic Approach to International Student Ministry

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By Chase Jenkins, FBC Durham, NC.

I remember eight years ago being asked to serve as an English teacher during our church’s weekly ESL outreach, a ministry I didn’t know we had. It was an urgent need; the ESL team was already at capacity and needed additional teachers. My students would be Nepali refugees who spoke no English. Having no training I decided to do it by faith, trusting God through my uncertainty and nervousness. I began to wonder: Why did I not know about this ministry sooner? Why hadn’t I heard about this need before it became urgent?

God was gracious to provide for our international ministry’s needs, but He was also gracious to make us aware that some challenges we faced were due to weaknesses in our volunteer engagement strategy and ministry structure. At some point we had become a “silo” within the church, a small volunteer team eager to invite others to join in the work, but very busy maintaining what was already in motion. How could we structure our ministry such that it could sustain growth? How could we communicate that it was a ministry of the whole church, and not just of a few?

Team leadership knew that strategizing apart from the will and the Spirit of God was futile, so we embarked together on a journey of prayerful planning to solve some of these challenges, seeking to rely on Biblical principles for evaluation and innovation. We wanted our ministry to be an ongoing ministry of the church, not a temporary silo, where opportunities to serve and be equipped were numerous, accessible, and replicable as long as the Lord allowed.

The following are some lessons we learned through that process.

1. Cast a Clear, Biblical vision.
This seems obvious, but we realized early on that there wasn’t a clear “vision statement” for our ministry that brought unity and direction. We adopted a statement based on the great commission that could be summed up in three words: Connect, Engage, Disciple. Anytime our team met we reminded ourselves of this vision. It also became a ministry rubric, helping us evaluate our ministries, both past and future. We began to ask the questions: “How is this particular ministry helping us to connect with internationals? How is it helping us to engage them with the gospel? Is it producing disciples?” Adopting Connect, Engage, Disciple has afforded much-needed clarity and evangelistic accountability in our ministry, and provided a “hook” for the congregation to understand our purpose.

2. Highlight the Primacy of Prayer.
Individuals were praying for our ministry, but we were missing out on all the benefits of corporate prayer, such as sharing needs and encouraging reports. We established a once-monthly prayer meeting and extended the invitation to anyone in the church. We also encourage sub-teams to gather for this purpose. This has been perhaps the most refreshing and rewarding change we’ve implemented, and has helped increase our ministry’s awareness in the prayer lives of our membership.

3. Invest in Volunteer Training and Development.
When I walked in to my first ESL class, responsibilities and expectations were unclear. Since that time, we’ve invested time and energy into volunteer training in the forms of direct instruction and apprenticeship, pairing new volunteers with more seasoned volunteers in team settings. There’s also a more clearly-defined path of growth aligning with different skill sets and time allowances, open to anyone in the church. Investing in this kind of discipleship is critical for leadership development and affords room for new, fresh ideas.

4. Utilize a Ministry Team Dynamic.
When an entire system depends on a few, ministry effectiveness decreases and others are deprived opportunities to use their gifts. Burnout is also a real danger. To address these, we began to emphasize that ministries needed to be team-supported for the sake of prayer, momentum, and leadership development. For example, we recently had several individuals interested in working among Muslims in Durham. Before beginning a new outreach, we asked those leaders to join us in casting vision with some other interested parties and advertise to the church. Shortly after, the team grew to about 20 people and they are now serving together and supporting each other in prayer and accountability.

5. Build Affinity Group Teams.
To foster an atmosphere of ongoing missions education and development, we utilized the IMB-defined major people groups to organize teams of like-minded individuals who have an affinity for particular peoples, especially those peoples that were present in our community. For example, we have an “East Asians Team” comprised of individuals who have ministry experience with East Asians, some of whom speak Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, and who know those cultures well. They are not only a resource for the core international ministry team, but for the church at large when individuals have questions about how to reach lost co-workers, neighbors, or relatives who are from a different culture. This has improved ministry awareness within the church, provided an on-ramp for missions-minded individuals to serve, and has brought community to team members with similar interests.

6. Communicate Well.
We realized early that our communication was lacking, both within the team and with the church body and leadership. We started writing a monthly newsletter that includes prayer points, ministry updates, and photos and stories “from the field.” We developed literature and training resources that are available to everyone in the church. We also started utilizing our church’s website and app to share more focused needs and requests at the sub-team level. These changes have been very effective at increasing overall awareness of our ministry and maintaining a sense of community, and we’ve seen greater support in both prayer and participation.

7. Be Willing to Adapt. As we constructively critiqued our international ministry, it became apparent that following the Lord’s leading in certain areas was going to require cutting back in other areas. It’s very important to build into the team culture an eagerness to follow the Lord’s leading and to make changes as necessary. While shifting time and resources away from one ministry avenue to another can be painful, teaching and shepherding volunteers to be flexible can train them to have joy in following the Lord’s will in all circumstances.

The international ministry at FBC Durham was built long before me by faithful men and women who sought to obey the great commission and the command of Deuteronomy 10:19 to “love the sojourner.” It’s my prayer that the above strategic goals continue to place opportunities to connect with, engage, and disciple internationals before the whole church, making ministry more accessible for anyone the Lord may be leading to serve.

This article first appeared on the Collegiate Collective

To hear Chase talk about these concepts listen here.