For the last decade I have had the privilege of pastoring an ordinary church with an extra-ordinary opportunity. Beijing International Christian Fellowship began about 40 years ago and now 20 congregations grow in our massive capital city. BICF is an interdenominational church with members from almost 100 nations, one of the largest international churches in the world. About 15 years ago the elders of BICF had the foresight to plant a church amidst the many universities in the northwest of the city – BICF ZGC – Zhongguancun. When their founding pastor, a friend of ours, was returning home we were invited to come and serve. My wife and I had served the International Christian Fellowship in Almaty, Kazakhstan for a decade at that point. As we considered this new call, a friend in Almaty said, “Mark, Beijing is the new Rome!” When I heard that, I thought: “Well, I guess we better go!”
Beijing is rapidly growing into one of the world’s most dynamic areas for diverse international campus ministry. It is home to two of the world’s top universities, with 47 universities in Beijing accepting international students. As China, spurred on by rapid economic growth, has risen to prominence in the global marketplace, students have flocked to Beijing to study Chinese, coming just for a summer or semester abroad, or enrolling in full degree programs. It is one of the top destinations for international students studying abroad with over 70,000 international students at present. The nations have come to Beijing, and BICF-ZGC has been established under God as a light that potentially shines into every corner of the world.
Long ago Nebuchadnezzar sought to extend Babylon’s global footprint by enlisting the brightest and best from around his world for service. We are witnessing something similar in Beijing, China today. The brightest and best international students from far away nations are here to study in China’s universities. Students from literally every inhabited continent come to Beijing. They leave local communities, family, and childhood friends, and enter a world where they may have no relatives or friends for hundreds or thousands of miles. For some students, this may even be their first time living independently; away from home.
Just as the Lord God had a purpose bigger than Nebuchadnezzar’s, now He has a grand kingdom purpose for many who will again scatter from here to be leaders. BICF ZGC has a “working relationship” with China. They pay to bring students here to study, we evangelize and disciple them! BICF-ZGC is a registered international fellowship and openly meets with approval.
Many find, follow, and bear fruit for the Lord Jesus Christ in our BICF ZGC, and we are hearing great things about their impact as they return to the ends of the earth.
International students are at a key point in their life, open to re-evaluating what they believe and so may be more open to the gospel than at any other point in life. BICF-ZGC has many cultures, languages and nationalities already represented in their five congregations, so naturally members connect with a very wide range of students outside the fellowship.
Like any ministry, we face a number of challenges
- Number, cultural and religious diversity of international students is immense
- High turnover of students – some are here for just one semester
- Certain restrictions on size and contexts for group meetings
- Diversity of doctrine, usage of the Bible and church culture
- False teaching and nominalism
- Language and culture barriers
- Cultural stress and superiority and inferiority complexes
- Students geographically scattered throughout this massive city
When I arrived I learned the motto of ZGC – “Gathering, Growing, Going.” This catchy phrase helps us embrace the pain of transience as a ministry opportunity.
Gathering – People from many nations gather together to worship and serve the Lord Jesus Christ throughout BICF. We have students from about 70 nations and probably as many denominations! Each Sunday we preview the day those from ‘every tongue, tribe, people, and nation’ will gather before Him. He is the Chief Gatherer and He enlists us to bring people into the joy of His family. On Sundays we’re in a hotel ballroom. During the week we gather in dorm rooms, apartments, restaurants, parks – our Father owns this city! As we each share some of our time, talents, and treasures we see Him do great things for the glory of His name.
Growing – Jesus invites us into a life-transforming journey with Him – He’s given His Word, Spirit, and family. He is making us true ‘living letters’ for our lost world. The message of the Cross challenges this world. But a new world has been born in Christ’s resurrection.
Going – Jesus commands us to “make disciples” – from every corner of this city and into every nation. He holds “all authority in heaven and earth.” In ZGC we learn more about going with Him day by day so that we might serve Him around the world year after year. BICF is not their final home. It is not anyone’s final home. We are preparing people for their next assignment, because everyone is “Going.” Whether we go to another city or the Heavenly City, we want to be ready. ZGC is both a landing place and a launching pad. We want our people to “hit the ground running” as vibrant, Spirit-filled, God worshippers and witnesses wherever they next land.
We cannot keep our members – about a third leave every year – but we can strive for them to leave with a deep lifelong Gospel imprint for the glory of His Name. “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives growth” (1 Corinthians 3.7).
Our vision is “To present every international university student in Beijing mature in Christ by proclaiming him, admonishing and teaching them with all wisdom (Colossians 1.28). We yearn to see international students convicted by the gospel and trusting in Christ, living out the gospel in their Beijing context, sent as biblically trained, godly, mature graduates to be influencers for the gospel in their families, communities, nations and throughout the world, and for our church to be known in Beijing as a place where international students are loved, welcomed and can learn Christ.” Over 1,000 people take part in the BICF-ZGC community. Services and small groups are conducted in English, Korean, Mandarin, Japanese and Indonesian. There is an Africa Connect Fellowship gathering African students together, as well as various on-campus small groups meeting regularly.
International students are strategic in reaching the nations with the Gospel: they interact on a daily basis with teachers, classmates, language partners, employers (many international students teach English or take other part-time jobs), and friends. International students are also highly mobile. After a limited stay in Beijing (as little as 6 weeks), they move elsewhere or return home for jobs or further training. If we share the life of Christ with the international student community, that sharing can have an exponential effect on the world as these talented students build their careers and relationships around the globe.
Our church, in the shadow of many universities, is oriented to the academic year. We have a big “Fall push” and almost as big a “Spring push.” There is no sign for our church posted anywhere. We do have a website. Our main ‘advertisement’ is the witness of our members. Students bring their classmates and workers bring their colleagues. Many times people far from home are looking for some ‘foreign familiarity.’ People who might have walked away from their church at home are often willing to check us out. Putting some tasty food in the ‘trap’ really helps!
Every congregation around the globe is a gathering of saints and sinners. But those lines are often etched more deeply in an international church (I.C.). Some prodigals who have found themselves in a far-away land with a few extra coins in their pocket have begun to do things they hope their Father will not discover. Some tender hearts have brushed against really lost people for the first time. And now they are more zealous to confirm their own faith and convey it to others. Some have lost the secure footing of the familiar, far from the Jesus of their home church and family; now they want to fully embrace Him as their own.
International Churches around the world are making an invaluable contribution to the church’s mission to make disciples of every nation. Around the world, God is using International Churches to sow seeds of the gospel of Jesus Christ on the frontiers of lostness. Leaders in an I.C. must deal with people who are struggling with new tasks, strange customs and neighbors, missing friends, families, and foods, wondering about questions they have never considered, amidst the frustrations of gadget problems, money worries, and tummy troubles. These life-challenges often prepare our I.C. congregations to be like the one Peter met in the home of Cornelius, which said, “Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord” (Acts 10.33). God make us ready!
Every Fall and Spring, when most of our new folks arrive, we have a several week ‘Welcome to Beijing’ program following our Sunday services. Each Sunday newcomers are invited out for lunch with longer term members and we hope to connect them with our many small groups. The church also produces a Welcome to Beijing e-file with language tips, maps, lists of restaurants, government offices, and other information that would be of interest to new expatriate residents. During this month we will have a program with short talks on various aspects of city life – riding buses and subways, shopping on the internet, renting dock-less bikes, and other practical tips. This is a well-received program by people of different faiths and no faith.
The joyful surprises of Sunday morning are wonderful in any church. Anticipating who will come and what will happen is way beyond what our imagination can conjure up. Funny how that person for whom you have been crafting that sermon all week never seems to make it! But, as promised, the Lord Jesus arrives in the midst of His gathered ones.
The greeting time becomes a geography lesson! Members rush to meet visiting country-mates from the other side of the globe, only to find they’re from the same town, or church, or sometimes even the same family! That lonely nonbeliever who feels so alone in your city, who would never dream of visiting a church in their homeland, dares to come. A traveling seminary professor stealthily enters the assembly, then kindly corrects your exegesis as he bids you farewell. Muslims, Buddhists, Marxists, and Hindus take the chance to do what they have secretly wanted to do, but would never dare do at home — visit a Christian church! And then there is that heartfelt handshake from a dear saint who says with deep gratitude, “When I left home, I never dreamed I would find a church I could attend in this place. I am so glad you are here!” “Thus says the Lord GOD: Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.” (Ezekiel 11.16)
Passing the collection plate around a hall of students has not gathered enough to make me a prosperity preacher. Many give generously (I don’t see the books, and don’t want to!), but I know we run a lean mean machine. Our only full time salaried employee is our valiant administrator, who does an amazing job. We pay a blistering amount to gather in a hotel the government approves of in close proximity to the students…location, location, location! This means we are reliant on lots of volunteers.
And they do volunteer! We are a fully operational church of about 500, plus 100 under 10 who are happily thriving in a great kid’s program. Recruiting, training, empowering, managing, troubleshooting, and starting the cyle all over again is our constant routine.
We take the biblical standards for Deacons and Elders very seriously. We are just glad that Paul did not set a firm age limit. Our leaders, like our congregation, are young. We are thankful they strive to “set the believers an example” (1 Timothy 4.12). We miss the stability that older, longer term members bring to a church, but we are not lacking for zeal. Our members often marvel at how they are never allowed to “lead, preach, touch the sound board, or count the offering” back home. If they did not do it in our church it would not get done.
A common misconception about international students in China is that instruction is all in Chinese. While most instruction is indeed in Chinese, many students can do their studies entirely in English. Throughout China a staggering 6,870 tertiary programs are offered in English. For example in Beijing alone there are 17 universities offering 77 English-medium science-related programs (22 bachelor, 34 masters).
A second myth is that all international students speak English, so ISM means ministry in English. This is not true. As can be seen from the list of the top 10 sending countries (below), many international students don’t speak English. For example, Thai, Russian, Japanese and Kazakh students typically don’t have English, and many Francophone African students do not either. Many students study Chinese intensively for one year, then proceed with further studies in their discipline in Chinese.
As political and economic ties strengthen between many African nations and China, China has offered many top African students full scholarships for undergraduate and graduate studies. Many students from North America, Europe, Australia, and South America come for semester or year abroad programs, often as part of a gap year before going to work or college, or to continue language classes begun in their undergraduate years.
There is also a notable population of Southeast Asian students: Singaporeans, Malaysians, Indonesians, Filipinos, students from Macau, and more. Russian and South Korean student populations are noteworthy. Russian-speaking students, due to the close proximity of China to Russia and the former Soviet republics, are common.
South Korean student populations are very prominent as well, with many students coming to study at Chinese colleges as a close and cheap alternative to the Korean university system. Due to China’s relationship with more isolated near neighbors, there is also a notable number of students from these nations studying in Beijing.
All those in our I.C. share one of the main characteristics that describe the New Testament church: they are pilgrims, wanderers, and strangers in a foreign land. Abraham, who held a promise he never fully obtained in life, is the father of our faith. And it was those rare opportunities of hearing God’s voice, about ten times in a hundred years; that kept Abraham pressing on.
When Abraham took a ten-year detour in Haran on his trek from Ur to the Promised Land, God called him again. When he and Sarah cooked up shenanigans – twice – that almost compromised her dignity, God spoke with correction. When Abraham humbly allowed his upstart nephew Lot to choose the seemingly better land, God spoke with consolation. When Abraham doubted whether God would ever keep His promises, God took him outside to count the stars. When Abraham lacked a symbol to remember the covenant, God spoke and gave a sign of circumcision. When Abraham understandably wanted the best for his son Ishmael, God clarified His sovereign plan. When Abraham waved a knife over the head of his beloved son, God stopped him and commended faith and obedience. That might have been the last time Abraham heard God’s voice, and the day he “saw Jesus and rejoiced!”
We have the great responsibility of helping God’s people hear His voice each week. Obviously we don’t have the same omniscient insight into their needs as they journey, and each person is at a different place in the trek. But the Lord precisely ministers by His Word and Spirit in the hearts of all His children through us: “…you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4.21).
David Adeney said that hidden cultural prejudice is as obvious as garlic on our breath. We need to try to peel away our cultural appendages from our Bibles. There is nothing I can do about being a white American male – unpopular as that might be in the world today – but I can strive so that the only “stumbling block” in my practice and preaching be Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
But I know that I fail in many many ways that I never even notice. Cultural anthropologist Jacob Loewen said the global Church will more clearly understand the Bible when it is exegeted by believers from all nations. Being part of an I.C. moves us closer to that goal. This opens the very important topic of our cultural viewpoint as preachers.
None of us ever delivers a ‘purely Biblical’ sermon. The fact that we have chosen to speak in English, from an English translation of the Bible, in a three-point thirty-minute discourse conveys a truckload of our own cultural suppositions. We instinctively know this any time we preach anywhere, but this is also greatly enhanced when as we gaze out to faces from around the globe. When the “great multitude…from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” gathers before the throne of God, their song will not be from The Beatles, Barcelona F.C., or even the latest iPhone! As we well know, they will cry with loud voices, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7.9,10)
The biggest challenge in an I.C. is that if you ever get the mix right, it will change next week! Someone has rightly described I.C. ministry as trying to help someone on the down escalator as you pass them by on the one going up. One quick touch is all you get sometimes. Just when you finally get an awesome worship leader, a faithful, reliable team of Elders, and small groups where lives are being changed: somebody gets sick, businesses merge, economies collapse, students graduate, visa rules change, and that wonderful ministry tumbles like a house of cards.
It hurts to be pilgrims – a constant work in progress – aliens and strangers. Sometimes we ask why this era of salvation history is not more like the finished kingdom the prosperity preachers promise. But then, even as we ask the question, an even better worship leader arrives, more Elders line up, and small groups pop up that you don’t even know about! It really is His church. He knows best how to lead and equip it – because He bought it with His blood – and He will bring it to completion.
Phil Jones has recently written some excellent articles that give more helpful information about the unique opportunities of reaching students for Christ and His Kingdom in China.
Many Christians have been informed of the deep spiritual needs within China, and ministry organizations have responded with prayer, passion, sending ministry teams and resources. Those of us on the ground recognize the tremendous potential of the local church, but also see unique opportunities in the foreign student population in China.
Do you want to reach the far corners of the earth? Maybe the Lord of the Harvest has put some Gospel laborers on a University campus near you.
Mark Frederick Blair
Mark Frederick Blair, is the pastor of Beijing International Christian Fellowship, Zhong Guang Cun. In 1983, he obtained a Th.M. in Missiology from Westminster Theological Seminary, PA, USA. He is also a mission worker of Pioneers, Orlando, FL