It is not unusual to hear stories of ministry to international students. But it’s not every day that we hear stories about the ministry of international students.
And perhaps that’s understandable. It’s not easy being an international student. Just going about your daily student life — catching the bus, buying your lunch, going to the library — these normal activities can be lonely, bewildering and overwhelming. In that situation many of us would be concentrating on just surviving — not on evangelism. Besides, you probably don’t speak the language very well; you don’t understand the culture. To share the gospel with local people seems impossible. You’re just an outsider. Unqualified. Right?
Kristine is 25 and grew up on the tiny island of Guam in the South Pacific. She’s an international student in Tokyo, doing a Masters in literature. And she loves Jesus.
The first semester was the worst. Peaceful island life seemed a world away from life in this sprawling, sleepless city of 38 million people. Yet Kristine felt alone. Her exchange friends were only there for a short time, and they liked to go out and get drunk. Kristine didn’t know about the Christian group on her campus. She wanted to get to know local people but struggled to move beyond ‘acquaintances’ into real friendship. They called her ‘gaikokujin’ — outsider. It was a daily reminder of her identity as a foreigner. She realised that no matter how good her Japanese language got, she would never be considered one of them.
“Why am I here, Lord?” she wondered.
Kristine soon discovered that her ‘outsider’ status was not necessarily a disadvantage. On the contrary, God was using it to open doors ‘insiders’ couldn’t access.
The mother of Kristine’s host family teaches English to people in her neighbourhood. She was planning a special lesson for Christmas and Kristine was invited to go along as a native-English-speaking guest. She agreed to let Kristine tell the Nativity story during the lesson and give out Nativity comics to the children. They listened attentively.
Another day Kristine met an elderly lady on the bus. The lady was intrigued by the foreigner. They got talking and swapped numbers. Two years on they still meet up every couple of months. Kristine is open about her Christian faith and asks this elderly lady how she can pray for her.
In the Japanese culture, it’s hard to share the gospel. Most people don’t want to hear it. Especially not from another Japanese person. It doesn’t fit with their expectations of what it means to be Japanese. Yet for foreigners, those social expectations and restrictions don’t apply in the same way. As an outsider, you can get away with more. Sometimes people are more willing to listen to the gospel when it’s shared by someone coming from outside their own context. And outsiders like Kristine have the added appeal of being fluent in English. Rather than being a hindrance to evangelism, the language barrier can be a useful tool, providing a way to meet people, build friendships and share lives together.
Investing on campus
After she had been there a while, Kristine discovered the KGK Japan group. A number of them decided to start meeting together every morning before class for a short time of Bible study and prayer. Two students were particularly regular and became close friends with Kristine. Each morning they’d share how God had answered their prayers of the day before. One of them enjoyed it so much that she started doing devotions with her family. Once a week she’d cook her parents breakfast and then sit down with them to study the Bible together. The other student was a new Christian, and the only believer in her family. Those morning devotions were a time of exciting spiritual growth for her. She decided to get baptised, and has started praying for her family to turn to Christ.
This life-on-life approach takes time, commitment and effort. But that’s the kind of investment Japan needs. 99.4% of people in Japan are not following Christ. That’s not going to change with a hit-and-run mission approach. They need to see life with Jesus lived out authentically, day after day, year after year. Kristine knows she might never see large numbers of Japanese people turning to Christ. But she’s willing to stick it out, for as long as God calls her to stay. She talks about having a ‘one-sheep mentality’ — a willingness to go all out just for one person, patiently sharing and living out the gospel, praying for the miracle of salvation.
For Kristine, this foreign country has become her home. She even found herself supporting Japan in the Football World Cup! Though it’s hard always being viewed as an outsider, she recognises the unique opportunity that that status affords to reach people with the gospel. As she’s spent time investing in friendships and praying for Japan, she’s grown to love its people more and more.
KGK staff-worker Yasu longs to see more servant-hearted international students moving to Japan:
“I think international students have the potential to influence the Japanese church and campus ministry positively. They bring new passion, energy, and perspectives. That will be key for the gospel to advance further in Japan.”
International students might seem unlikely people to share the gospel, given the language and cultural barriers. But Kristine’s story is a reminder that God is more than able to use us in our weakness, as the gospel is proclaimed among the nations.