What is ISM (International Student Ministry)?

Among our Communities is a strong International Students Ministry (ISM) within our universities. But what is ISM and how did it start? Compass interviewed Tim Mapperson for an insight.

Tim, what is ISM and what is your involvement in this ministry?

ISM is a door to the nations. Exciting and visionary, it is a massive band of faithful volunteers who give of their time or finances to see international students ‘belong’ to a community and come to believe in Christ. Kanini (my wife) and I coordinate the work around Melbourne and RMIT Universities.

How long has The Navigators had this ministry in Australia and how has it grown?

A dedicated ISM group formed in the University of NSW in 1974 under student Benjamin Wong (who later founded Global Cell Church Missions Network). Some alumni from the early Melbourne ministries include Chee Hoe (Navigators Director, Asia-Pacific), Michael W. (East Asia Director), Judy Leow (grass-roots labourer whose impact is vast and hard to quantify) and Alan Ch’ng (International Executive Team). Up until the 1990’s the demographic was predominantly Malaysian/Indonesian. After China opened up politically, mainland Chinese now make up our majority.

How is ISM different from other student ministries, and why are you so passionate about it?

ISM has major differences to local student ministries which give it a distinct flavour and strategic approach…

(1) We don’t retain many of our graduates but send them far away. This has pros and cons.

(2) Our demographic is often tilted towards the wealthy and influential segment of societies, notably from mainland China. This carries unique opportunities and challenges.

(3) The cultures our people come from are rapidly Westernising but have strongly spiritual heritages. They are more open to the gospel than typical Westerners.

(4) Our people often have a cultural curiosity towards Jesus and the Bible, or simply a desire to improve their English and they’re happy to use a spiritual text/discussion to that end.

(5) Our people are hungry for ‘family’ and community, having left those in their home countries.

(6) Our people may find Jesus in Aussie culture, but then have the unique challenge of figuring out how to follow Jesus in a completely different culture at home.

(7) We strongly find that our people ‘belong’ and then ‘believe’, as opposed to a traditional Western approach which is the other way around.

(8) The cultures our people come from have different values and shortcomings to our own culture, and so the inner personal needs are different. Family breakdown is typically very high, with a strong focus on performance, conformity, and seemingly conditional love.

(9) Our people are typically here for 6 months to 3 years, often giving us little time to build into them when they come as non-believers. Networking with like-minded believers in their home countries is critical to continuing the work.

(10) Our people are much more academically focused than Westerners, for cultural reasons and/or inefficient English. This makes the time given to their ‘kingdom growth’ more scarce and precious.

(11) Our people are ingrained with three goals in life: well-paying job, good home, affluent family. These tend to dominate their thinking and ambitions, even after Jesus comes into the picture. People sell themselves short if these won’t budge from first priorities.

(12) The majority of our people come from mainland China, and there are increasingly large security concerns imposed by the government there. This poses unique challenges for preparation of returnees and for their continued follow-up and effectiveness as lifetime labourers.

This ministry has powerful inroads into cultures that we have little or no access to. It forces us to re-think what the gospel means outside of a Western mindset, and it is beautiful to see the difference it makes to the lives of ‘hungry’ people. This ministry has a deeply communal feel, and many call it their family away from home. We thoroughly enjoy immersing our whole family into it as well.

Do you have any stories?

“Cindy” has become very dear to us. She came to Christ nearly two years ago and has been following-up/discipling other girls since then. Her passion to be a ‘missionary’ when she returns to China is empowering. She sees herself as here for training to be an effective kingdom labourer, whatever job she moves into. Cindy has graduated and is seeking work to stay here longer because, she says, “I need more training!” Cindy believes God will send her home one day, and her time here is short and precious.

Where do you see God taking this ministry?

We see God expanding our borders, growing seeds sown into communities we’ll never know about. It’s an ‘equip and send out’ ministry, unlike a traditional church that retains its people long-term. Isaiah 54:2-3—”Enlarge your tent, stretch its curtains wide, for you will spread out to the right and left, your descendants will dispossess nations” (paraphrased).

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