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26 April 2016

Reaching the nations without leaving Southampton

Ian Castro (LT pics 2016) Ian Castro Church member
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There is a rapidly increasing worldwide movement of students studying for first or higher degrees in countries other than their own. This gives immense opportunities and challenges for Christian people to obey the scriptural imperatives to welcome them, engage with them, and share the love of Christ with them.

Dr Yaw Perbi was, until recently, an African pastor of the English congregation of a Chinese church in a French-speaking part of North America(!) and is now President of International Student Ministries in Canada. In his recent book Thinking outside the Window, he explains that international student ministry is statistically sensible, scripturally sound, stunningly simple and strategically smart.

This is surely true, and it is why international student ministry has been going on in the UK and here in Southampton for very many years. There have always been some who have recognised the force of God’s commands to love the alien (foreigner) and share the hope of the gospel with those from all nations.

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Nearly one million international students arrive in the UK each year, and almost half of these are studying at UK Universities. They represent about 9% of the 5 million international students worldwide, second only to the US.

Where do they come from? The top non-EU countries sending students to the UK are China (89,540), India (18,320), Nigeria, and Malaysia. From within the EU, the highest numbers of students come from Germany (13,675), France (11,995), Republic of Ireland, and Italy1. In Southampton and Winchester, there are almost 9,000 international students and many visiting academics too, from over 130 countries.

It isn’t easy being an international student. They arrive, usually knowing nobody, in an alien culture, with alien weather, alien language, alien food, alien study patterns, alien everything, and are thus often lonely and confused. It is a real privilege to help them feel at home and walk with them as they come to understand more about UK culture and find friends.

God has called us to ‘go to the nations’, and that remains vital but, in his mercy, these days he sends the nations to us! Many of these students come from countries where it is impossible, difficult, or dangerous to speak openly about Jesus and Christian faith. And many of them go home to positions, eventually, of great responsibility and power.

The video recently produced by Friends International (FI) asks the following question: 'What if international students did respond to the gospel and then returned home and told their friends, family and colleagues?'

This does happen: by God’s grace we see lives being changed – and it is then important to help link such folk with local Christians and churches back home. But we long to see more. Is that your prayer too? Sometimes returning students become Christians later, outside the UK, as a result partly of seeds sown during their time here. It’s wonderful to have heard of some like this in the last few years who had studied in Southampton. God’s timing is perfect and His ways are sovereign.

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So we thank all who are already involved personally in this crucial, worldwide ministry. But the challenge to all of us is to consider whether we are playing the full part that God requires in ‘loving the alien’.

We can do this by, for example, offering meals to international students, coming alongside them at some of the Friends International events, studying the Bible with a few of the many who are interested, praying, giving financially to support the work more intentionally, or offering to give a year as a volunteer to help in the work. You will be blessed as you share what God has given you!


  1. Statistics from: UK Council for International Student Affairs ↩︎

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