Ministering to International Students

“In Christianity, can a boyfriend and girlfriend sleep together before they are married?” Ahmed’s eyes are sincere. He’s never met a Christian before and has many questions.

Steven Jones shakes his head. “No. Christianity teaches sex is only for marriage.”

Confusion paints Ahmed’s face. “But there are many Americans who live together or have children, and they are not married,” he says with his North African accent.

Steven nods, sadly. “Most Americans aren’t Christians.”

“But America is a Christian country. I think most Americans say they are Christian.”

“That doesn’t mean they are,” Steven tries to explain to the international student. For the next hour, he answers more of Ahmed’s questions – does Christianity support abortion or same-sex marriage? If not, why do so many Christians? Steven laments the version of “Christianity” that is projected to the east – a religion that’s no different from secular culture.

Providing Community for Internationals

Steven is a campus missionary at an American university. Because of the sensitivity of his work, his name has been changed and details of his ministry are being protected. As the lead campus minister for international students, Steven and his team pick up international students from the airport, invite them over for dinners, assist them with strengthening their English, and even teach them to drive if necessary. They work hard to cultivate a loving Christian community where these students can feel at home while they’re away from home.

Most importantly, if the students are interested, they can have spiritual conversations with Steven and his team. It’s an incredible way to share Christ’s love and message to students coming from countries that are ordinarily difficult for missionaries to reach.

From the Military to Ministry

Steven grew up with parents who loved the Lord. He invited Jesus into his heart as a little boy and became a self-reliant young adult. After high school, he entered a military academy, and it was in boot camp that his confidence and independence withered. He gained a desperate need for God and His word in this time of brokenness. Staring out into the stars in the night sky humbled him, and it sunk in that there was nothing he could “do” to earn such a big God’s favor. Rather, he needed to embrace grace. Spending time at sea while serving as a Merchant Mariner allowed him to grow in deeper intimacy with Jesus, learning to love Him.

After college, Steven’s mentor took him to China to do mission work. He fell head over heels for the culture and people, and he knew he wanted to be in ministry serving the Chinese community here in the U.S. But when he returned to the states, he felt stuck because he owed five years of service to the military. His parents encouraged him to talk to the Missions Door missionary their church supported. The missionary became Steven’s supervisor and helped him fulfill his government obligation and serve the Lord at the same time.

Reaching the Lost, Strengthening the Saved

Through God’s providence, Steven and his wife, Vivian, found themselves in an American university serving the Chinese community they loved so much and many other international students. It started with one Christian Chinese student who wanted someone to study the bible with, then the community grew. For a few years, Steven juggled this ministry and working 50-60 hour weeks, not to mention being on call 24/7. After completing his government obligations, he was able to resign from his job, raise support, and join Missions Door in a full-time capacity.

The Jones work with students from all over the world who practice many different religions – Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. Steven notes that Chinese students are particularly hungry to learn about Jesus because their culture and government push an atheist agenda. Indian students, on the other hand, are coming from a highly religious country and don’t always express great interest in learning about Jesus. Saudi Arabian students can be similar, but because Steven and his team are often the first Christians they meet, they’re often curious.

The makeup of the international students changes every semester. Currently, the Jones are working with many Muslim students that no one else is connecting with. They also have a lot of Christian African students who come from different denominations. This doesn’t surprise Steven as the global center of gravity for Christianity has shifted from Europe to Africa. The average Christian in the world is no longer a European man, but an African woman. These African students, and some Indian Christians, are typically the most passionate and proactive in their spiritual growth and outreach. Steven’s team loves their excitement and vibrancy, and they’re committed to helping these future world leaders fan to flame the fire that is already burning within them.

The Challenges

Steven notes that after U.S. and China relations grew tense in 2016, the number of Chinese international students dropped. He’s also noticed that many Hindu students are reluctant to talk to him at first because they were warned that “American missionaries would try to convert them.” While many Indians love American Christians because of the schools and hospitals missionaries build, some view them as violent colonizers. For Steven, it’s important to build an environment of trust and respect so students feel comfortable talking about faith if they want to.

One of his biggest challenges is correcting students’ false ideas about America and Christianity that they’ve received from western media. He notes that it’s essential for Christians to witness foreigners living differently than most Americans. “We must help them understand who Jesus is. Not who America says He is.” While covid decreased the number of international students, it allowed his team more one-on-one time. They strive to make their weekly bible studies comfortable enough that the students will invite their friends. Unfortunately, Steven has yet to see a Muslim student come to Christ despite his team’s labors of planting hundreds of gospel seeds. Many international students know that often their families would reject them if they embraced Jesus, and this presents a huge challenge in ministry among them.

Our Support

Steven and his team continue to pour into international students. Because so many of them come from ultra-hospitable cultures, the Jones have had a student over for dinner or stay the night nearly every week for years now. Vivian is an especially gifted host and cook; she’s perfected many ethnic dishes. The Jones’ home may be the only American house these students step foot in while in the U.S.

Pray for Steven, Vivian, and the whole team – Steven maintains he couldn’t do this without them. Pray that he gets to work with more Chinese students and that Muslim students come to Christ. If you’d like to support Steven and his team, you can do so here.