Returning home with Jesus: East Asian students’ stories

Anna* was very sceptical when her friend encouraged her to go to a Bible study group for students from East Asia.

Her initial resistance was evident in the quizzical look on her face as we read Luke 1 that first week. She returned the next week having read the rest of the gospel by herself and had four A4 pages full of questions about things she didn’t understand. By the end of the first term, she and her friend had both become Christians. They were nervous about being seen in church, asked for no photos to be taken, and declined being baptised in the UK because other students told them they could get into serious trouble when they returned home.

After her one-year course, there were a few months before Anna needed to return home. She asked how she could tell others about Jesus, because, she said, ‘I won’t be allowed to do evangelism when I get home’. Anna joined a summer programme welcoming other international students, while her friend went to Bible camps. When she got home, she was put in touch with a local church and was baptised. Both girls worked for the same company and soon started offering the Alpha Course to colleagues. Within five years, they had seen more than 40 colleagues and friends come to faith and had started their own fellowship, meeting in an apartment rented specifically for that purpose. From then on, a couple from the UK visited them every few years, encouraging and praying from afar between visits.

Tina* also became a Christian in the UK a few years later, but upon returning home found no local church and was feeling very discouraged. Anna invited Tina to join a weekend away that she was organising so that her fellowship could receive teaching from a visiting Christian. Tina was so encouraged to see many Christians meeting together that she wanted to do the same in her own city. She started lending Christian books to friends and colleagues. When she discovered that she had an aunt who was a Christian, she invited friends to start meeting in her aunt’s house for food and fellowship. This fellowship also grew as Christian students returning home from other universities connected with her.

Meanwhile, Anna’s church was struggling. They were looking for people who could help with preaching, but inviting local Christians in seemed to just cause tensions over leadership and doctrine. Anna started doing an online course in theology, gained a Masters, and went on to be a tutor and mentor for others doing the same course, including people in her fellowship.

Church life isn’t always plain sailing. Anna’s fellowship faced family issues and divisions over teaching, so lots of prayer was needed. The core group remained faithful for many years, but gradually each of those she had worked with moved away and started their own ministries. It was a joy to meet with some of the members of that original church in our last visit, to see three spiritual generations of faith, disciples making disciples, each with their own outreach and caring ministries.

Not everyone who attends a Bible study as an international student initially shows such promise, but staying in touch is important. Adam initially gave up when he went home, but then met a girl he liked who took him back to church. Her father was a pastor and it was not long before Adam and his new wife were baptising people in a paddling pool in a church they had started in the city they moved to.

None of these stories happened overnight; the process took many years. However, that is the advantage of working with international students who return home. We don’t just want to win individuals for Christ, but to prepare and equip them to return home and see God grow his kingdom in their own country. How can we best encourage them after they return? Stay in touch, do Bible studies online and most of all visit occasionally, if you can. They need support and encouragement through the good times and the bad. In more than 30 years of ministry, it has become clear that most really struggle for a few years when they initially return home, but if the seed of faith is watered, God often revives them and produces a harvest.

*names changed