International Student Ministry and the Workplace

Yaw Perbi & Emma Brewster

Editor’s Note: This GWF2019 Advance Paper was written by the Catalysts for the International Student Ministry Issue Network as an overview of the topic to be discussed at the related session at the Global Workplace Forum 2019 held in Manila, Philippines.


John and Edith Hayward of Winnipeg, Manitoba (and later Vancouver, British Columbia) in Canada who provided hospitality, discipled and trained a newly converted international student, Bakht Singh[1] were not, so-called, ‘full-time’ Christian ministers or missionaries. In fact,

Edith had always wanted to go to India as a missionary, but she could not go. Instead the Lord sent Bakht Singh to them so that they might disciple him for work in India and around the world. Little did they realize when they took in a newly converted international student that he would one day be the greatest evangelist and church-planter in India in the twentieth century.[2]

As well-illustrated by the above real-life anecdote, in this paper we assert what an untapped resource workplace Christians (‘Nehemiahs’) are in international student ministry (ISM). We lament how the church has limited Nehemiahs to peripheral voluntarism and often merely seen them as a source of funding ‘professional ministers’ and/or ‘career missionaries’ (‘Ezras’). Imagine the explosive synergistic impact if Ezras and Nehemiahs joined hearts and hands in the tri-directional mission ‘to diaspora, through diaspora and by and beyond diaspora.’[3]

Even when the head, heart, hands, and feet of Nehemiahs have been employed in ISM it has been disproportionately bent towards, or even limited to, hospitality and friendship, evangelism and discipleship, and financial giving. The thesis of this paper is that ministry to, through, by, and beyond international students and scholars will be significantly accelerated, exponentially expanded, and most sustainably impactful if many more workplace Christians were invited and significantly engaged to go beyond hospitality/friendship, evangelism/discipleship, and financial giving. While ISM today could use many more Ezras, Nehemiahs are the secret weapon hidden in plain sight.

Scope and magnitude of ISM

We are seeing hundreds of thousands on the move globally, crossing international borders in search for knowledge. Like Daniel and his three friends who were themselves identified as ‘brightest and best’ among the Israelite prisoners of war in Babylon and selected to be trained in the ‘University of Babylon’ for King Nebuchadnezzar’s service (Dan 1:3-5), today’s international students are among the ‘brightest and best’ of their countries. Billy Graham once remarked how those of us involved in reaching out to them, Ezras or Nehemiahs, ‘might be the person that God uses to bring the next world leader to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.’[4]

An international or foreign student is one studying in their non-native country. Globally the number of foreign students ballooned from 0.8 million in 1975 (just about the time of the inaugural Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization) to 1.3 million in 1990 (by the second Lausanne Congress) and then to 4.5 million in 2012.[5] Today there are well over 5 million international students in the world, and by 2025 there will be an estimated 7.2 million.[6]

While much has been achieved in world mission over the last two millennia since Christ gave the Great Commission and his subsequent ascension to heaven, according to Joshua Project there are still 7,063 unreached people groups. This constitutes 41.5 percent of total people groups in the world and represents 3.14 billion souls, each with an eternal destiny. Incidentally, the majority of international students hail from the very areas of the world with the most unreached and even unengaged people groups, with China and India being the top two while others like Saudi Arabia and Iran among the top 10.[7]

Matching the scope and magnitude squarely

An ideal international student ministry is one which empowers international students to impact the world through Jesus Christ—HELPS[8] international students to HEAL[9] the world.[10] In other words, the exemplary ISM is one that not only does ministry to internationals, but fulfills the other two dimensions stated by Wan: ministry through, and ministry by and beyond them.

There is no gainsaying that Ezras constitute the minority of warm bodies available for missio Dei—as low as one percent or as high as three percent. The open secret, then, to ideal ministry and mission to the already-stated ballooning numbers of internationals globally is to get many more Nehemiahs envisioned, engaged, and empowered to do ISM. No doubt ISM will be significantly accelerated and exponentially expanded if many more workplace people were given the opportunity to join hands with career ministers/missionaries in a meaningful way.

In the experience of International Student Ministries Canada (ISMC), as a case study, without this intentional approach there is no way the ministry could have experienced an average 70 percent growth in new staff and new cities over a two-year period if we were solely looking for fully-funded career missionaries to reach these key foreign students. While we use the term ‘associate staff’ for bivocational members (Nehemiahs) and call the Ezras ‘career staff,’ together we make mission to internationals happen. Quite frankly, the international student on the receiving end does not know the difference nor does he/she care! Needless to say, almost 100 percent of ISMCs over 500 volunteers are Nehemiahs.

Most ISMs, even if they involve Nehemiahs in the ministry/mission, are stuck in the realm of the ‘H’ and ‘E’ and we believe a significant call to and engagement of Nehemiahs will move them beyond these to the endgame of ‘L’, ‘P’ and ‘S’. In fact, while many Ezras even struggle with the concept of ‘leadership’ vis-a-vis discipleship it is literally a byword in the workplace to the extent that many Ezras almost forget leadership is God’s idea—a biblical concept—and not a business innovation or paradigm trying to invade the Christian world of discipleship.

Main problem, main solution

So quantitatively having more heads, hearts, hands and feet in ISM—Ezras and Nehemiahs alike—is great, but even more wonderful it is to see leaders qualitatively trained and developed among these international students and scholars: graduates strategically partnered with and sent to the least reached, unreached, and unengaged people groups of the world from which the majority of these students hail. Sadly, rather than seeing such thriving, even mere survival of international student/scholar returnees who have come to faith in Jesus Christ in their host country has been abysmal. In some instances as high as 80 percent who come to believe and receive Jesus Christ while studying in the West return to their hard-work pressure, persecution-ridden, restricted-access countries and jettison their faith!

We believe a lot of this sad phenomenon has to do with inadequate discipleship (including culturally-relevant, contextualized discipleship), anemic leadership development, and an abject failure to cast a vision for (and implement) post-academic partnership and impact regarding church planting among unreached people groups and/or workplace impact in every sphere of society.

The fact remains that these young people leave the comfort of family, friends, and home culture to become foreign students, with huge financial implications, so as to enter the workplace or enhance their socioeconomic value there. Issues surrounding work permeate international education, before, after, and in between. However, not many international students understand the purpose of life or have a sound theology of work. Frankly, how many Ezras are able to provide apt life-on-life discipleship in this area without apparent armchair pontification leaving students/scholars/alumni feeling these Ezras don’t really ‘get them’ or ‘get it’?

Surely this issue is something Christian professionals in home countries can help international students navigate even before they leave the shores of their homeland and when they return while Christian workplace leaders in their host country also come alongside them in mentorship, internship, coaching, and other forms of intentional discipleship and leadership development.

What could the future preservation of ISM fruit and sustainable impact in every sphere of society look like if many more Nehemiahs joined hands with Ezras to better prepare international students for post-academic transition, especially those who return to cultural contexts where the work environment alone—from inordinate busyness to stifling corruption—ends up killing their faith? Christians could be sitting on the greatest collaborative solution to the startling statistics of the number of returnees who lose their faith or become inept in ‘making a dent’ for Jesus when they arrive back in their home countries.


First and foremost, we need to call on the LORD to ‘replace various shades of blindness with clarity’ and to ‘call congregations, agencies and believers to be involved in ISM globally, and the preparation of Christian international students for their role in God’s mission back home or elsewhere.’[11] A call for Ezras and Nehemiahs to join hearts and hands in prayer to the Lord of the harvest is a great place to start.

Secondly, workplace leaders ought to be intentionally and strategically invited into the discipleship of international students for the marketplace by ISMs. The theology of work and its praxis ought to be taught by both Ezras and Nehemiahs, especially now that ‘tragically, at the very time when leaders of integrity are needed to combat the ballooning levels of corruption, many Western educators have abandoned the search for truth.’[12]

Thirdly, we would recommend leadership incubators, workplace greenhouses, and mission trips mentoring. We believe the best contexts for leadership development include not only campuses and church ministries but also the workplace environment. ISMs need to sound a clear message to marketplace leaders: we need more than your friendship and finances. As recently proposed by Perbi,

In addition to financial partners and friendship partners, international student ministries should have ‘professional partners’ to work together for the real-time, life-on-life leadership development of internationals in the marketplace beyond the walls of church and campus and the development of exemplary flagship leadership training incubators.[13]

Finally, in many ways, the corporate world has learnt to value and leverage the phenomenal ‘multicultural mind’[14] of internationals more than the Church has. We look forward to the day when marketplace Christians will help the Church, through ISM, do same.


Undoubtedly, ministry to, through, by, and beyond international students and scholars will be both quantitatively and qualitatively accelerated, expanded and be most sustainably impactful if an army of workplace Christians were envisioned, invited, and synergistically engaged together with professional ministers/career missionaries in this opportune stream of missio Dei beyond peripheral voluntarism and ministry funding. We long for the day when because of this synergy between Ezras and Nehemiahs in ISM, every international student/scholar from every nation in any nation will have the opportunity to encounter the gospel and become a catalyst for ‘an evangelical church for every people, Christ-like leaders for every church and kingdom impact in every sphere of society’ to the glory of God.


  1. T.E. Koshy, Bakht Singh: The Incredible Account of a Modern-Day Apostle (Colorado Springs: Authentic Publishing, 2008), 36.
  2. Koshy, Bakht Singh, 37.
  3. Enoch Y. Wan, Diaspora Missiology: Theory, Methodology, and Practice (Portland OR: Institute of Diaspora Studies: Western Seminary, 2001), 5.
  4. Tom Phillips and Bob Norsworthy, The World at Your Door (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1997), 14.
  5. OECD, ‘Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators’, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), (accessed 10 December 2014), 344.
  6. OECD, ‘Education at a Glance 2014’, 343. See also Study International, ‘Which country is home to the largest international student population?’ Study International, May 2, 2018 (accessed 1 January 2019),
  7. See Joshua Project, Country Profile of China (accessed 30 December 2018),; Joshua Project, Country Profile of India, (accessed 30 December 2018),
  8. H.E.L.P.S. Hospitality and friendship; Edification and Evangelism; Leadership development; Partnering; Sending.
  9. H.E.A.L. Hope; Edification and Evangelism; Attitudinal change (paradigm shifts); Leadership.
  10. Yaw Perbi, Thinking Outside the Window (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2015), 197.
  11. Leiton Chinn & Lisa E. Chinn, ‘Agents of Diaspora Missions in and from the Academic World’, Scattered and Gathered: A Global Compendium of Diaspora Missiology. Eds. Sadiri Joy Tira & Tetsunao Yamamori (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 230.
  12. Robert Osburn, Taming the Beast: Can We Bridle the Culture of Corruption? (St. Paul, MN: Wilberforce Press, 2016), 3.
  13. Yaw Perbi, ‘Foreign Students in our Midst: From Easy to Strategic Ministry’, Not-yet-published paper delivered at the Jaffray-Ang Symposium on ‘Beyond Hospitality: Migration, Multiculturalism and the Church’, 16-18 January 2019, Entheos Retreat Centre, Calgary, Alberta.
  14. David C. Thomas, The Multicultural Mind: Unleashing the Hidden Force for Innovation in Your Organization (Oakland, CA: Berret-Koehler Publishers, 2016).

Date: 01 May 2019

Grouping: GWF 2019 Advance Paper

Gathering: 2019 GWF


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