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International Missions: Essential or “Bonus?”

The discipleship needs of our students can be overwhelming. 

We want to help them learn to faithfully pray, read their Bibles, disciple others and share their faith. They also have areas of their lives that urgently need attention: breaking porn addictions, dealing with past hurts, and overcoming anxiety or depression. It is easy to feel like there are more opportunities and needs than we can effectively address in the few years our students are in college. There are some things we must address while other areas may simply be in the “bonus” category.

What about international missions? Is it essential to disciple-making or merely “bonus?”

I’m assuming we would all say that teaching our students to be on mission is an important priority. However, “missions” can mean different things to different people. Aren’t the campuses on which we serve our “missions field?” Couldn’t our students go somewhere domestically to help reach people with the gospel? Is it essential to make “international” a part of our missions efforts?

As an American who spent most of his adult life in Asia, I have heard the question hundreds of times, “Why do we need to send people all the way over there, when there is so much need right here?” Those who ask this question aren’t wrong in their assertion that there is great need “here” (especially on college campuses). However, I disagree with the conclusion that this minimizes the need to send “there.” 

Jesus calls us to “make disciples of all nations,” (Matt. 28:19). We may have different roles and areas of emphasis, but God receiving the glory due his name by “a great multitude…from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev. 7:9) is our ultimate goal. Every day, there are students who walk onto campuses around the world where there is no Christian witness at all. We cannot forget the profound truth found in Romans 10:15” “And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?”  

An essential part of disciple-making is sharing this vision with our students. 

Where the gospel has taken root, people must be raised up to take it to places where it has not been heard. The Apostle Paul, who wrote, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known” (Rom. 15:20) is a great example of this model. 

That being said, as a part of the CMT community you have probably thought some about how to incorporate international missions into your ministry rhythms. You may already be providing opportunities for your students to participate in international missions or hope to do so in the future. So, how do you know if international missions is an essential part of your disciple-making or merely “bonus?” 

Here are a few questions to consider:

Does hearing about international missions feel like a “guilt trip?”

Thinking about international missions may make us feel overwhelmed or like we aren’t doing enough. Don’t be afraid to start small and ask God to bring others to help you. Also, don’t believe the lie that elevating the importance of international missions means what you are doing domestically is less important. We are all on the same team!

Is international missions being lost in the tyranny of the urgent?

The needs of your students and the pressure to grow your ministry will always feel more urgent than the needs of far off places to hear the gospel. Are you finding ways to orient your ministry towards what you know is important, rather than just what urgently needs attention?

Is international missions becoming a part of the “culture” of your ministry?

For many churches and campus ministries, involvement in missions simply means offering a trip for students at some point during the year. There is much more to raising up Great Commission laborers than this!

Here are some ways you can help make international missions a part of your ministry’s culture:

Teach– In large groups and one-on-one discipleship meetings, talk to students about the scriptural basis for international missions and the statistical disparity in access to the gospel around the world. Bring in guest speakers who will reinforce these efforts.

Pray– Find ways to regularly incorporate prayer for the nations into your meetings and events.

Peer models– Invite students who are reaching international students or who have gone overseas recently to share about their experiences. Seeing peers who have served in this way helps your students see that missions isn’t just for super Christians.

Are you raising the bar for your students regarding international missions?

I was recently talking to a campus minister about an opportunity for students to serve overseas for six weeks in the summer. “Oh no, I don’t think our students would ever go for that long,” he replied. Our organization has sent out thousands of students to serve for this length of time over the past 30 years. What is the difference between these students and the ones who would never serve “that long?” Someone told them it was possible! If you don’t think your students can do it, they probably won’t either. 

Don’t be afraid to raise the bar and challenge your students to go longer and to less comfortable areas. College students have the unique opportunity to serve for longer periods during summer break. Anyone can “survive” for a week or two. Going for longer periods not only has a greater impact on the location they will serve, but it also has a greater impact in your students’ lives. 

Another common belief is that a staff member must accompany the students, which often limits the length of trips. Our organization sends out dozens of teams every year to serve overseas, and almost all of them have student leaders. With some investment and a good partner overseas, your student leaders can not only effectively lead the team but also grow in their leadership ability.

Too many short-term missions trips are determined by what seems “feasible.” We aim for what is affordable and attainable, rather than challenging people to sacrifice for the gospel. Instead of this “practical” approach, pray with your team about a place to serve where few people know Jesus and there is a strategic need for a team of students. 

Above all, whether you are just getting going or have been working with college students for many years, pray that God will help you align your priorities with His!