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Community and Societal Development

How can cross-cultural development workers help communities and societies thrive by following godly principles?

Reflection: International Students as Redemptive Change Agents in Their Home Societies

WCIU Journal: Community and Societal Development Topic

November 5, 2015

by Robert Osburn, PhD

Few know that the great late 18th/ early 19th century British parliamentarian, abolitionist, and social reformer William Wilberforce was converted after a several months’ trip abroad with Cambridge university professor Isaac Milner.  Something happens when the geographical dislocation involved in study abroad combines with the temporal disruption created by university life and the cultural disorientation of living among people with vastly different assumptions than your own. This three-part mix creates the ideal conditions for international students to discover and dedicate themselves to a Kingdom-oriented vision for development back home. As a Korean PhD student recently told me, “Between the intense pressure to achieve top exam scores before university, and the similarly intense work pressures after university, the only time we have to truly explore life and to create our vision is while we are in the university.”  It is in this context that Wilberforce Academy, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is helping shape modern-day William Wilberforces.

Since the early 20th century when the YMCA began serving international students in the name of Jesus Christ, and particularly after the Second World War, American Christians have discovered that ministry among international students is like “reaching the world at our doorstep.”  Since the early 1980s, the strategy has especially born fruit in the tens of thousands of Mainland Chinese students who have become active, discipled Christians during their studies in the USA.  Now, with the growth of Kingdom theology, the re-discovery of Kuyper’s cultural mandate, and an exploding interest in the intersection of religion and international development, the time is ripe to integrate evangelized and discipled international students (many of whom also come to the USA as believers) into the Christian international development agenda.  In many cases the “crème de la crème” of their societies, and often destined for leadership positions in academia, business, education, and politics back home, they are uniquely positioned to be agents of redemptive change in their home societies.

The rich potential of this strategy to evangelize and train those who have come to our doorstep often takes decades to fully realize.  Scholars Carol Hamrin and Stacey Bieler, in their three-volume series Salt and Light: Lives of Faith That Shaped Modern China (2009-2011), have narrated the stories of the many Chinese Christian students who returned to China prior to World War II and became national leaders with great positive impact on their nation.

Founded in 2009, the Wilberforce Academy trains international students to apply a Christian worldview to challenges facing their home societies and workplaces.  Three basic assumptions inform the program. The first is that ideas have consequences, an idea well developed in Darrow Miller’s 1998 book Discipling Nations where he shows why the Christian worldview offers the best hope for human flourishing. These deeply-held assumptions about the nature of reality in general and, specifically, the essence of our humanity, the nature of society, and our relationship to the created world focus on cultural sources of social renewal.  Thus, international students prepare for long-term culturally-transformational investments that often involve a focus on education.

Sociologists like James Davison Hunter and Michael Lindsay highlight the importance of a second assumption: People in the upper echelons of society who work in overlapping networks of influence are the most effective in shaping broad social changes. Think the Clapham Community of Wilberforce’s time, packed with leaders from many sectors of English life. Many international students in the US perfectly fit this elite model, but we hasten to remind them that their call, in part, is to mobilize the masses.

The third and final assumption is that the church represents a powerful and under-exploited community for mobilizing God’s people for redemptive influence in society. Author Robert Moffitt champions this idea in If Jesus Were Mayor (2007). This third assumption is perhaps the most difficult to implement in the Wilberforce Academy model, as it ultimately depends upon the willingness of national church leaders to welcome returning international students.

The Academy’s primary strategy involves customized and personalized mentoring with a handful of students at any given time.  After having learned how worldviews influence social, economic, and political outcomes, students engage their mentor in extensive discussions over problems in their home societies, along with Christian approaches to addressing them. 

Students augment their mentorship with special courses on Christian political theory and comparative worldviews, and conferences that relate Christian faith to concrete challenges. Occasional Agents for Redemptive Change conferences help students find Christ-centered solutions to problem in business and other sectors.  L’Abri Fellowship, Disciple Nations Alliance, and other like-minded partners provide these supplementary programs. All mentees design a redemptive project that will be completed within 12 months after they end active participation in the program.

For those who return home, the Academy provides ongoing counsel via Internet technology and twice annual trips to overseas locations to further advise mentees.  Beginning in Fall 2015, the Academy is launching a series of biennial global summits for its Fellows.  Blog posts and other publications provide ongoing theological and cultural enrichment.

Based out of Minneapolis, MN, Academy mentee Kisongo Mbeleulu travels twice each year to the troubled eastern Congo where he teaches hundreds of pastors the framework of a Christian worldview, leadership development, community development, and economic development.  “When we taught about a Christian perspective on economic development” (in summer 2014), said Academy founder Dr. Robert Osburn, “pastors and other leaders kept telling us with great passion that ‘no one has ever taught us this before!’”  In early 2015, Mbeleulu will bring an expert who will advise on how to develop agricultural businesses in eastern Congo. 

Elsewhere in eastern Zimbabwe, Academy mentee Masango Matimura leads a Christian peace-building and reconciliation initiative, while another mentee, working in northeast India, has developed a Christian school in a very poor and troubled community there.  Other mentees advocate for children, teach in public universities, write curricula for schools, and otherwise advance Christ-centered solutions to social problems.

Academy mentees help disciple the nations when they create workable, Christ-centered solutions that relieve the agony of fallen creation and cultures (Romans 8:19).  “There is hardly any limit to the ways that redemptive change agents trained in the West can positively impact the destiny of their nations,” says Osburn.  “We need to realize that there is no time to waste until Jesus returns, and invest in the best and the brightest at our doorsteps makes strategic sense.”