Some people today question the role of the local church in reaching the nations for Jesus Christ. Some might see the church in the west as too insulated and absorbed in its own concerns to really care about the evangelization of the world. Others might feel that the task of reaching the world is complex and best left to professional Christian missions agencies, with the local church becoming simply a source of funding and prayer.
For the Horizons ministry team working with international students in Albany, NY, the local church is central to everything we do. Most of the 2000 or so international students and visiting scholars who come to us are not Christians and come from countries where it may not be easy for them to hear the gospel. In God’s providence, He brings them here where they are surrounded by Christians and Christian churches. The challenge is how to mobilize the local church to reach these students for Jesus.
In Albany our ministry is operated primarily using volunteers. Our leadership team comes from about half a dozen different local churches, including Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, and several independent congregations. This diversity reminds us that we represent the universal Christian church when we minister to the students, not just one local church or denomination. It requires that we focus on the central doctrines of the faith that unite all Christians, rather than less essential doctrines that tend to divide.
We hold a series of dinners and other large group events throughout the school year. Most of these events are hosted by local churches. The churches provide facilities, workers, food, logistical support, and other resources required to hold events that many draw more than 100 students and scholars. This represents a tremendous amount of work that does not fall onto the shoulders of the Horizons leadership team. The pastoral staff and members of these congregations are encouraged to come out and interact with the students and are integrated into the programs. Our host churches really look forward to supporting and participating in these events.
We also offer opportunities for Christians from our church network to form one-on-one relationships with the students through a Friendship Partner program. We match one of two students with an American family or individual for a semester, school year, or longer. It’s such a blessing to watch many otherwise ordinary Christians perform extraordinary ministry as they love and serve the students. Over the years many have been able to form deep and lasting relationships with their students and some have seen students come to Christ.
Finally, when students become Christians we always encourage them to attend a local church. We provide discipleship, but do not baptize students (except in special circumstances). Rather we encourage them to be baptized in their local churches. The benefits go both ways. Recently one of our key churches experienced a very difficult change in leadership that left many in the congregation disheartened and discouraged. Several international students attended the church during that period and one became a Christian through the ministry of Horizons workers. We asked this church to baptize the student. That morning many Horizons members came to support the student. After the worship service, the whole congregation stayed to watch the baptism in the back of the church. What an encouragement for the church to see new spiritual life spring forth in the midst of their difficult trial. What an encouragement for the student to see so many witness and support their baptism.
In John chapter 17, Jesus prays for unity among His followers. In first Corinthians 12 and other places, Paul expounds upon the diversity of gifts found in the church, the body of Christ. Both unity in purpose and diversity in gifts are needed if we are to reach the nations for Jesus Christ. This is certainly true for international student ministry and are best expressed as we develop strong relationships with the local church.