This is an article from the July-August 2016 issue: International Students

A Generational Model for ISM Expansion

A Generational Model for ISM Expansion

International student ministry (ISM) in the US didn’t exactly have an auspicious beginning. One of America’s first foreign students was Francisco de Miranda, a visionary-revolutionary from South America. He studied at Yale University in 1784 and later fought in the French Revolution and with Simon Bolivar against Napoleon Bonaparte for independence of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. Perhaps the first international student to trust Christ for salvation was Henry Obookiah of the Sandwich (now Hawaiian) Islands. Timothy Dwight IV, Yale’s eighth president, gave him a room in his home, tutored him and led him to Christ. Obookiah was instrumental in marshaling efforts to evangelize his native homeland. Very little data is available on ISM throughout the 19th century, although several notable international students graduated from American schools and returned home during that time.

The number of international students gradually increased in the first half of the 20th Century. YMCA leader John R. Mott, cofounder in 1895 of the World Student Christian Federation, spearheaded the effort. But the big explosion followed World War II. In 1953 there were 33,647 such students in the US. Twenty years later there were 179,000. By 2001 there were over half a million. Last year (2014-15) their numbers topped 1 million for the first time. 

In the latter half of the 20th Century God brought about the formation of many ISM agencies, both denominational and independent. Most of them were created by the Builder Generation (born 1901-1925). Boomers (born 1946-1964) generally inherited leadership in them and maintained similar structures, policies and procedures. Since 2001 some changes have occurred in methodology and practice as Gen Xer’s (born 1965-1979) launched newer versions of ISM agencies with their particular understanding of how to reach the ever-rising tide of international students. In light of the massively growing numbers of international students, the primary question that needs to be asked in ISM is this: How can we reach them all? What has been done in the past? And what should be done in the future?

Virtually all ISM efforts depend on support from churches, those communities of believers that overwhelmingly meet off campus. I firmly accept this starting point. In the church we find cross-generational members and, ideally, cross-ethnic members as well. What better group of people demonstrates our hope and forecasts a picture of the Kingdom of God that includes “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9) with Jesus at the center? The nations will be around the throne then; they are gathered on the campus now. The church is obviously a major player in this picture. But are there enough churches to reach all the international students in North America? Do enough understand the opportunity? Are they ready to reach out? Sadly, the evidence of the last century indicates that contemporary churches in the West cannot reach a significant portion of international students, at least with existing strategies.

Another question seldom asked is this:  What about the “church” on campus? By this I mean the believers that live and move within the circuit of the classroom, cafeteria, library and dorm. With all the bad news about how many Christian students fall out of the church after going to college, here is possibly the best news: For every international studying in the US, there is an equal or greater number of Christian students who are not losing their faith! In other words, nationally there is a 1-to-1 ratio of believers living and studying together with their international peers. God has everyone right where they need to be: the spiritually needy (in this case, international students) and his witnesses. “Each one reach one” was never truer than now. What is needed then is a strategy to help these witnesses address this opportunity.

Over the last 10 years I have proposed, promoted and developed the Generational Model (GM) for ISM. Starting with Millennials (born 1980-2000/02), this new 21st Century peer-driven model is meant to augment, not replace, on-going models of ISM. Like all models, components are necessary. The GM includes a training curriculum, student and mentor networks, and free online resources. Let’s look at them.

The curriculum is designed for high school juniors and seniors in any educational venue: private Christian and home schools as well as church youth groups for public school students. Life moves like a stream, so we go upstream to cast vision among and train high school students because they are tomorrow’s college students. Training them into a growing dynamic force for redemption after they arrive at college is simply too late.

Elements in the curriculum include identity in Christ, apologetics, hearing God’s voice through Scripture, evangelism techniques and strategies, worldview frameworks and analysis, campus outreach and networking strategies, and exponentially reproducing small groups not unlike both church planting and disciple making movements (CPMs and DMMs, respectively). Small groups of 2-3 grow exponentially by adding one student per semester. When they reach 4 members they subdivide and continue the process. In only 10 years each small group of 2 that subdivides every year turns into 1,024 Christian students all meeting weekly for prayer, accountability and Bible discussion while extending their personal outreach to international students. There are very few things that could completely stop this from happening on every campus simultaneously. Can someone say “revival”?

The online networks follow. Once students finish their training and are accepted by their schools of choice, they can go on our website and find their schools listed in our student network. Whenever they sign on they will begin to find other GM trained students linked at their schools. In essence they can form virtual small groups even before they get to campus! No longer does any college-bound young person need to attend a college and not know any Christians there. Mentors can sign onto the mentor network, fill out a background form and link themselves to a nearby college/university. When Christian students want to find mentors, they go into the mentor network, go to schools and click on their school. They should find a list of mentors signed up waiting for contact. Both networks are free.

Resources are numerous on the GM website. One offers links to various ministries ranging from apologetics, Christian philosophy, prolife, persecution ministries, etc. Hundreds of devotionals, a quotes page and statement of faith are ready for reading. Video lessons are posted, and others are in development. Students must know they’re not alone and are well supported as they expand God’s Kingdom on campus. You can find it at where we utilize the military milieu for graphics. We are now working on the next brand for Generation Z (Homelanders or iGen, born 2000/02-~2025).

This model deliberately keeps Christ and his Kingdom front and center. No other name but Jesus is lifted up. We intend to see God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Everything we need is ready and everyone is currently in place.

Even though the nontraditional Generational Model is strategic for ISM expansion, has numbers in its favor, and costs very little, the response from the Body of Christ has been underwhelming. But, I am hopeful.  When the Church sees more clearly God’s destiny for her, ISM should finish its task better than it began and be central in global outreach until Jesus returns in Kingdom glory and all the nations are around his throne.


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