The idea of viewing one’s profession and education as a religious vocation and even an opportunity for Christian mission may have fallen out of favor in many Western societies, but no one has told this to the growing ranks of international evangelical students who are not hesitant about bearing witness to their faith while they work.
Union University sociologist Roman Williams has studied these new kind of Christian college students, often from Asia, and concludes that they may not be reviving Max Weber’s Protestant ethic as much as creating what he calls an “evangelical ethic and the spirit of globalization.” Williams, who presented a paper at the late October meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Baltimore, attended by Religion Watch, conducted interviews and other research in the Boston area among 46 international students from the five countries that send the most students to the U.S.—India, China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
About half of these students were Christian before coming to the U.S., but even those recently converted enthusiastically embraced the idea that their educations and future occupations should be based on evangelism and Christian service. Aside from the formal interviews, students were asked to document their daily lives by taking photos of important places, activities and objects in their lives. The missionary impulse was evident in the way many kept maps in their rooms showing the nations and areas they were praying for and eventually wanted to help evangelize.
Williams finds this fervor for combining mission with their vocation as being nurtured through groups back in their home countries, such as the China-based Back to Jerusalem movement and Issachar’s Seed, both of which actively encourage participants to use their professional skills to create opportunities to evangelize China and other countries.
Williams gives the example of a head researcher in China who uses her position to share her faith “with the people who work in my lab. They often leave as Christians.” Williams comments that “such use of workplace power for religious ends clearly runs counter to Western standards for employer conduct, but it is an example of how religious and cultural resources are mobilized and deployed by those who have embraced sacralized occupational identities in this particular context.”
He notes that his sample of students reflect wider trends among American international students. “On a national level, similar methods, programs, and goals are found among organizations that cater to international students. These similarities were observed at the annual meeting of the Association of Christians ministering to International Students and through conversations with students and leaders in the international student track of the Urbana 2006 [evangelical missions] conference.”