(WNS) -- Touqi Zhang, a Chinese Christian studying animation at the University of Southern California, believes Christians in Los Angeles have the greatest opportunities to fulfill the Great Commission.
"[Christians] have the responsibility to go to all nations, but all nations have come to USC," she said.
Zhang is one of the 8,615 international students who enrolled at USC last year, joining a diverse group of students from China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Open Doors recognized the school as the most international campus in America for the 10th consecutive year, during the 2010-2011 school year. University of California Los Angeles was sixth on the list with 6,249 foreign students.
Nationwide, the largest group of international students in American universities -- 158,000 -- came from China, where religious expression and worship are only nominally tolerated. The second largest group came from India, followed by South Korea, Canada, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Vietnam, Mexico and Turkey.
The opportunity to reach these young people as they settle into a completely new world is something that excites Dan Lim, who works for International Students, Inc. (ISI), a nationwide organization that helps churches and pastors build ministry teams to work specifically with international students.
"[International students] are a bridge. ... They are right in the middle, where their perceptions of culture are being shaped day-by-day," Lim said, referring to the cultural shift international students face. "They are changing into something else and no one is there to help them with this process."
Lim heads Spectrum, an international student ministry at Lighthouse Community Church in Torrance, Calif. Spectrum provides different activities for international students, including Talk Time, where foreign students can practice their English with church members as they discuss questions ranging from "What would you do in a zombie outbreak?" to weightier issues like "What is the meaning of life?"
The leaders are Christians and present information from a biblical worldview, but the topics at Talk Time are not overtly Christian: "It's about building relationships, and as we continue building that friendship, the students get interested in why we are being so nice to them," Lim said.
Students who are interested in learning more about Christianity can attend Bible studies or get plugged into another ministry group.
Many churches are missing this ministry opportunity because they mistakenly assume international students will naturally funnel into ethnic churches, Lim said. But international students often don't get connected to any churches because they have difficulties making American friends and they usually congregate together: "They become almost an invisible people group and you just don't see them."
LA-area churches Reality LA, in Hollywood, Rock Harbor, in Costa Mesa, and Bel Air Presbyterian boast high attendance from USC and UCLA students but do not have specific ministries in place to reach international students.
On campus, different groups also are reaching out to the international students who are literally right at their door.
Erin Gillum, a staff worker for Christian Challenge at USC, believes something small, like inviting a foreign student to participate in a Christmas or Thanksgiving party, can make a meaningful impact: "We try to integrate [international students] into life groups with other students, so that our students can share the gospel with them."
Gillum befriended Archana Gopikumar, a student from India, after meeting her on campus one day. She became Gopikumar's first American friend as they regularly met up for lunch. After some time together Gillum was able to introduce Gopikumar to the Gospel.
Gopikumar said that Indians in particular are paranoid when someone talks to them about Christianity because conversions have divided families in India.
"Erin was different though because she was a true friend and respected the way I am, and so I respected her religion," Gopikumar said.
Zhang, the animation student, has noticed that her international peers are especially receptive to the people who reach out to them in America.
"When [international students] come to America, they open their hearts more, because they are alone here," said Zhang, who became a Christian in China. "People seek God when they are isolated."
On one hand, Lim says ministering to international students is very simple -- it's just friendship. But building relationships takes time.
"In that sense, it can become one of the most difficult ministries out there," he said.
Difficult, but incredibly worthwhile. Many of these international students will end up having immense influence on their own societies when they return home, Gillum said.
"These are future leaders of government, CEOs of companies; these are the people who will be making decisions that will impact the spread of the Gospel."
c. 2011 WORLD News Service. Used with permission.
Publication date: December 6, 2011