International ministry right here
There is a strategic opportunity to share the gospel with people of many nations as many thousands of young people come to Japan to study
Lord Jesus, you told us to take your gospel to all peoples of all lands. But we find this too hard. We have to leave family, friends, and a familiar culture to go to a strange land to share your message in a foreign language with an alien people. Most of them already have religious practices woven into their culture and lifestyle. Besides, Christian missionaries are not welcome in much of the world and are forbidden to enter many countries. And the cost! If we really tried to reach the world in this generation it would bankrupt us all.
So we have an alternative plan. You bring the world to us. Have them come at their own expense and learn Japanese when they come. Bring the young, teachable ones. Bring those who are bright and vigorous and who will someday be leaders in their home countries. Make them hungry for our friendship, anxious to learn about our culture, and even willing to go to church with us. Arrange to have them stay for several years so that we can hang out with them, earn their trust, and win a hearing for the gospel.
How many, Lord? Oh, 200,000 perhaps, well spread out on campuses all across this country so that lots of believers and churches can take part. Especially, send many from countries where missionaries are forbidden to go including mainland China, Vietnam, and nations in the Middle East.
Now if you will do this, Lord, we promise to make the evangelizing of these students one of our highest priorities. We will welcome them. We will serve them. We will learn their worldviews and try to learn how to explain the gospel in terms they can understand. We will work and pray.
It may sound like a lot to ask Lord, but you can do it, can’t you?1
This tongue-in-cheek prayer is adapted from a prayer an American college student wrote back in the 1980s when he began to discover the foreign mission field on his own campus.The exciting reality reflected in his prayer is even truer today as the number of international students continues to rise, not only at universities in the United States, but all over the world.
This global competition for international students was sparked by the Bologna Process, a voluntary higher education reform process, begun in Europe in 1998/99. Its goal is “to reform and internationalize higher education systems and institutions and establish regional convergence.”2 One of the aims of this agreement was to enable universities in Europe to compete with those in the United States for the world’s best and brightest students.
In 2009, Global 30 was Japan’s attempt to enter this competition and get a bigger piece of the global educational pie. Global 30 is Japan’s Ministry of Education’s plan to fund major Japanese universities to attract international students. Part of the driving force behind Global 30 is the declining birthrate in Japan as well as the need for internationalization and globalization. The mingling of international students with Japanese students is a part of a strategic solution for globalization. The designers of Global 30 also hope that many international students who graduate will stay on in Japan and become part of the Japanese workforce.
As of May 1, 2015, there were 152,062 international students at Japanese universities and a further 56,317 at Japanese language schools.3 That’s 13.2% more students than 12 months previously.4 It’s a lot more than in 1983 when there were 10,428 international students.5 The original goal of the Ministry of Education was to have 300,000 international students in Japan by 2020.6 The sluggish economy plus the tsunami and nuclear accident of 3.11, among other factors, have had a negative impact. But the Ministry of Education continues to fund universities and press for more international students.
Hearing about the Global 30 initiative prompted my wife and me to consider coming to Japan to promote the vision of international student ministry. We visited Japan in the summer of 2010 with a group of colleagues to see whether international student ministry was viable here. After meeting with Japanese leaders and returnees, we were convinced that this was an opportune moment for this ministry vision in Japan. So with the blessing of our organization (International Students Inc.), supporting churches, and friends, we arrived in Japan right after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. We received a warm welcome at Musashino Chapel Center in Kichijōji, Tokyo, and an invitation to use their facility to launch an international student ministry.
After 30 years of serving international students in Seattle, we imagined that international students in Japan must also struggle with loneliness, homesickness, and isolation. And we found that to be true. Asa from Central America said, “I believe every international student experiences loneliness wherever they are, but especially in Japan. Japan is a beautiful country; nevertheless, its language, culture, and society make it hard for any foreigner (especially a student that comes without family) to feel at home.”
But this represents a great opportunity for ministry. Asa continued, “Accomplishing one’s dream to study abroad can be a great adventure as well as a lonely experience. It can also raise many questions. What is the true source of happiness? What is the next step for my life? Is there someone guiding my future? I believe this is the moment that the international student ministry can change a student’s life—there’s no better time to impact someone’s life with Christ’s love than when a person feels lonely, insecure, and full of doubts.”
International student ministry helps students make friends and meet Jesus. Our best efforts have involved Christian international students who partner with us to reach their fellow students. Daisy, a student from Africa, mentioned the need “to coach or help international students to be ambassadors of Christ at the university because that is where we spend so much of our time—so it’s our pulpit. But sometimes we don’t know how to do it due to a huge cultural and language divide so . . . mature Christians who have been in Japan longer could help us with good advice and guidance.”
So far, we have focused on serving students in universities on the west side of Tokyo. Our church facility has been the base for our initial efforts. We hold International Christian Fellowship (ICF) there every second and fourth Saturday of the month. On the in-between weekends we invite students to ICF friendship activities like a barbecue and Frisbee at a park, a pot-sticker-making party for Chinese New Year, or hanami (cherry blossom viewing). Friendships are born during these events, which is important since genuine friendships are a great context for sharing the gospel.
Our dream is for Japanese churches across the country to catch this vision and embrace this opportunity to make disciples from the nations who are living in their communities. We are convinced that this is the most accessible and cost-effective opportunity for believers in the local church to be involved directly in cross-cultural ministry—befriending, loving, and sharing the gospel with one international student at a time.
1. Glen Zumwalt, HIS Magazine, 1981.
2. “The European Higher Education Area and the Bologna Process,” European University Association. http://www.eua.be/policy-representation/higher-education-policies/the-european-higher-education-area-and-the-bologna-process (accessed Jan 6, 2017).
3. “The Growth and Increase Percentage in Number of International Students,” Japan student Services Organization. http://www.jasso.go.jp/en/about/statistics/intl_student_e/2015/ref15_01.html (accessed November 17, 2016).
4. “International Students in Japan 2015,” Japan Student Services Organization. http://www.jasso.go.jp/en/about/statistics/intl_student_e/2015/ref15_01.html (accessed November 17, 2016).
5. “The Growth and Increase Percentage in Number of International Students.”
6. “Greetings from the President,” Japan Student Services Organisation. Last modified April 2016. http://www.jasso.go.jp/en/about/organization/message.html