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Starting an ISM at a Local Church

(How to begin an ISM ministry in a Local Church)

EveryInternational’s series on God’s Heart for the Nations contains the video, “Two Suitcases, A Guitar, A Prayer, and A Purpose” in which my wife, Lisa Espineli Chinn, mentions that we started a church-based International Student Ministry over 30 years ago. She also shares about another church, “in the middle of nowhere” that we had the privilege to help begin an outreach among International Students in 2017.

And now I have the privilege of sharing how we were able to encourage and equip the two churches to venture into global missions at home… The two churches that God led us to guide into ISM are Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax City in Northern Virginia, within the perimeter of the Washington DC Metro area, and St. Matthews Parish in very rural Fort Motte, SC, in the midst of former cotton plantations about 30 minutes from Columbia, SC.  Truro had between 800-1,000 members on a Sunday when we began the ISM in 1985, and St. Matthews has about 50 members. Because of Truro’s size, location to many schools, and resources, we were able to consider providing a year-round and on-going variety of services.

Whereas, due to St. Matthews small size and existing commitments, we settled on a couple Hospitality Weekends a year that have been extremely rewarding for all involved…both the students and literally, the whole church.


Let’s first take a look at Truro Church, and what happened in 1985.   As far as I knew, there was no intentional church-based international student ministry in our city and surrounding area.   So I approached our rector, and asked if Lisa and I could start an ISM with our church, and he said, “Go for it”. So the first major green-light from God was the supportive approval by the pastor.  

A church’s leadership needs to own, approve, and support the birth of a new ministry vision and its catalytic leader.


In addition to the church leadership, it would be crucial for the full congregation to be exposed to the ISM vision.  So I took one of our Associate priests to lunch at a Chinese restaurant (and that ‘ethnic’ food was not accidental) and I shared the vision God had placed on my heart.  He said he was leaving for vacation back home in England and that he was due to preach immediately after returning, and asked if I would be willing to preach in his place.  That invitation was the 2nd major critical factor to setting the stage for a church-based ISM…to be able to preach the Biblical teaching on Welcoming the Stranger and Loving the Foreigner with God’s Hospitable Love…including the 10,000 international students at nearby schools and in the Washington DC area.  The strategic nature of ISM was also highlighted in the message.  And then the application of the sermon was the announcement of the launching of an ISM and the opportunity to respond to a survey insert in the worship leaflet.  The congregation could review the variety of volunteer needs we anticipated and come to an organizational meeting. Those who felt ready to participate could check-off the kinds of volunteer needs they were interested in.

Less than 10 people showed up at the organizational meeting, but they became faithfully committed as the initial core leadership team.

We decided to call our ISM, TIPS (Truro International Programs and Services)…we did not want our title or identity to be a “ministry”, but rather, a service for international students.


Our TIPS Team decided a Monthly Potluck & Program would be our regular flagship program and the service that would attract the largest number of students and volunteers from late August to May. During the monthly program we would announce other programs, events, and special opportunities and services for the students to consider, such as: day trips around the area, sightseeing in DC, free, used-but-clean winter clothing, items for the apartment, and driving lessons. Later on we added an English Conversation Partners Program for ESL students, called Tea ’n Talk, or Chai ’n Chat;  as well as computer lessons and a computer lab; conferences, and beach trips.  


For those interested in exploring the Bible, we had a Sunday morning class followed by the option of attending the worship service.  The Sunday morning class became the nucleus for Sundays At Six, an evening worship service led by and for International students and other diaspora peoples.  Our Sundays at Six leader of the multi-national worship team was a former white collar executive in Bolivia who learned to be a carpenter after he arrived in Virginia.  Partly because of his gaining ministry leadership experience through TIPS, he went on to seminary and then returned to Bolivia as an Anglican priest with his wife.


The evening agenda of the Monthly Potluck ’n Program usually had games and socializing before dinner, then a small-groups interactive time with guided questions and a facilitator, and then the main presentation of the evening.


The featured themes of the Monthly Potluck ’n Program generally followed a similar format each year:  the first topic for August or September was on Understanding Culture Shock, then it was Understanding Americans in October, then the history and theme of Thanksgiving in November, and the Music and Meaning of Christmas in December to complete the Fall Semester.   In January we featured New Beginnings, then Love and Valentine’s Day in February.   In March we had Food/Music/Culture of various countries (this allows the students to fulfill their ‘ambassadorial’ roles to proudly represent their nations), then the Music & Meaning of Easter in April, and finally, Honoring Graduates and Recognizing Volunteers in May.  Throughout the year, there could be special programs, such as Preparing for Reentry for those planning to return home.


In June we had a weekend retreat for the TIPS leadership team and it was a time of worship and thanksgiving in reflecting over the year and planning for the next year. 


How did we Recruit Students and Relate with the University International Student Services Office (ISSO)?

Initially we mailed out flyer announcements to the ISSO of all the schools in the greater Washington DC area, hoping and trusting that some offices would post the flyer on their publicity boards, and we waited to see who would come….not to our church, but to a horse-farm that had converted a barn into a renovated social complex where we could have square-dancing, and our program.  This was used up to November and then the students came to the church. As the students experienced genuine hospitality and enjoyed the fun, food, and fellowship with their hosts and other students, they would be a primary agent in recruiting their friends to come and experience the people and activities of TIPS.


We built a personal relationship with the ISSO at a nearby university about 3 miles away.  We asked the International Student Advisor to be on a panel with a Professor and International student to speak on “Succeeding As An International Student—Academically” at a monthly Potluck ’n Program.


What about Training our Volunteers?

We did offer some Saturday morning training for a couple hours, in which the university International Student Advisor came to share.  But after a couple sessions, the numbers of volunteers showing up began to dwindle, and so we took a different strategy. If volunteers did not come to us, we went to them by including Tips for TIPS, a single sheet with some practical ideas, in our mailings along with other TIPS announcements.  And now the EveryInternational series would be an excellent resource for training volunteers.


The TIPS leadership team received the most training in the natural course of learning to fulfill their responsibilities, along with the monthly planning and prayer meetings.  The other volunteers learned also by experiential immersion in serving and relating cross-culturally. In 1989 when we moved for a year’s study leave the TIPS ministry continued and flourished under another volunteer leader with the committed core team.


What is the Impact of an ISM on a Church and its Members?

Besides seeing the work of God in the students’ lives, from being loved, to growing in understanding of the Gospel, to believing and receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, to being baptized, and then sent as Christ’s emissaries to their country or another country or another place in North America, it was equally a joy to see the transformation among the volunteers and in the church as a whole.  

Prior to starting TIPS, we would count less than a dozen non-Anglos in the Sunday service.  But after several years of TIPS, the congregation’s ethnic diversity became more and more noticeable.


The benefits and blessings of TIPS upon Truro’s members and the church during our 8 years of voluntary leadership included:

  1. many hundreds of volunteers experiencing being a cross-cultural ambassador for Christ with students, faculty, and their families from over 100 countries; several volunteers shared how they previously had wanted to go overseas as a missionary, but those plans did not materialize, and how pleased they were to still be able to engage in global missions

without leaving home.  The volunteers and the rest of the church realized that ISM provided a tangible opportunity to personally participate in global missions beyond financial and prayer support, and to obey God’s command to love the foreigner He brings into our community and on our campuses.

  1. TIPS allowed a broad range of church members from children to retirees, to utilize their varied gifts for service—- hospitality, helps, administration, teaching, mercy, evangelism, leadership, etc.
  2. several volunteers eventually became full-time missionaries, serving on all the continents; two of whom continue in high level leadership roles with a mission organization, and another continues a pioneering service and ministry among the poor and orphans in a war-torn part of Africa.
  3. During our first year we had 15 volunteers who assumed a coordinators role to lead an aspect of the ministry.  This was practical discipleship and leadership development in process.
  4. international students may provide linkages and connections for missionaries or for church members planning to go to their home country for business, as tourists, or as students. One example is the family of an Ecuadorian student involved in TIPS, provided reciprocal hospitality to our daughter when she later did a study-abroad semester in Ecuador.  Our international students could be cultural and language mentors for short-term mission team members or anyone planning to visit their country.
  5. TIPS undergirded an often neglected command to extend hospitality to foreigners/strangers…not only to international students in our immediate area, but many church members hosted international students for a Bed ’n Breakfast weekend, who were brought in buses to us by several other ISMs in the Mid-West, Mid-Atlantic, or Southeast Region to tour Wash. D.C.
  6. The church’s pastoral team and leadership greatly appreciated the significant global impact TIPS had, without having to support it financially for several years; ISM truly is high yield with low or no budgetary cost.  After 9 years of volunteer leadership, Truro was persuaded to create a full-time TIPS Director staff position with benefits, and it was my joy to prepare the first director to assume the new staff role. 
  7. One recent blessing was seeing the fruit of our ministry as several international students who were part of the TIPS ministry over 30 years ago returned for a mini-reunion.

One couple returned from Malaysia.   We enjoyed time to share our journeys of faith over the last three decades and marveled that our young children are now parents with young children.  Then we participated in a current TIPS social event, a Volunteer Appreciation Dinner, and were recognized in the Sunday service.


Although TIPS was identified with a local church, we always welcomed the participation of volunteers from other churches and collaborated with other ISMs.  On occasion we asked another church to host an event and we publicized other ministries’ events for the students to consider.


Now let’s turn to see what God did with a small church located about 35 minutes away from schools in Columbia, SC.  Lisa and I were invited to meet with church leaders to consider how their church could host a reentry retreat for returned missionaries. 

The leadership felt their main resource to offer was wooded acreage and private ponds for a peaceful retreat, along with available lodging and hospitality.

In the midst of our discussions, Proverbs 16:9 took effect…”a man (or church) makes plans in  their hearts, but God directs (or, re-directs) their steps”.  While hosting a missionary reentry retreat could be planned for in the future, we suggested hosting international students from area schools within a few months.  They approved the idea and we partnered with them to help connect them to existing ISMs to invite their students for a weekend in the country to enjoy nature, Southern hospitality and culture, and to have a brief cross-cultural lecture. 

So St. Matthews Parish Church in Fort Motte, SC has been hosting international students from the University of South Carolina, Benedict College, Columbia International University, and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in the Fall and Spring semesters, and future plans include Clemson University and other regional schools.


A review of the Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon schedule includes a Saturday 2pm arrival for orientation; a variety of outdoor adventures from kayaking, canoeing, fishing, a walk through the woods, seeing gardens, an airplane ride using a grassy airstrip, and all-terrain vehicle rides.  Then a lecture on cross-cultural transitions and culture-shock in the Fall and Reentry Preparation in the Spring, followed by a pot-luck, and then learning the official South Carolina Dance—the Shag.

They go their hosts’ home about 8pm.  When they come to the morning service, a simplified Anglican liturgical format is used and explained.  The luncheon includes a time of debriefing and sharing by both students and their hosts, and it is a rich time of sharing new insights and mutual expressions of appreciation, and receiving a gift from the church.

During the farewell around 2pm you can witness the strong bonds of friendship that were formed in 24 hours.  Some families have invited students to return to their homes.


An ISM was successfully launched at St. Matthews Parish Church because the leadership wanted it, the congregation was willing to be hospitable, and collaborating with existing ISM’s was welcomed.


In Summary…..

  1. every church is unique and situated in a unique setting, and God will direct the birth of an ISM suited for the unique context of each local church.  While I have shared the story of two churches, there are other established church-based ISMs to glean ideas from.
  2. adoption, ownership, and support of the church leadership is indispensable for the birth and sustained development of any new ministry
  3. a visionary, catalytic leader with a committed, core leadership team of volunteers, exercising their gifts, is crucial 
  4. it is important to discern the resources and giftings your volunteers have to match the needs of the students and the implementation of your services.  As you consider supplemental resources, please review some websites of national ISMs.
  5. collaborating with area ISMs and churches is a high value

In conclusion, let us remember that it is God at work…giving the vision, raising up leadership and volunteers,  and orchestrating the variety of good works the volunteers are providing. While we serve in partnership with God and one another, it is God who gives faith to the students and causes spiritual growth.  We can relax and enjoy the food, fun, and fellowship with our students, share life’s journey and decision-making with them, and watch God at work.  

To Him be the glory, for ever and ever, Amen



Starting an ISM at a Local Church


God can use you and your church in powerful ways to reach the nations. Leiton will equip you with specific ideas and a timeline of activities to effectively launch a new ministry today.

God can use you and your church in powerful ways to reach the nations. Leiton will equip you with specific ideas and a timeline of activities to effectively launch a new ministry today.