Church Participation as Intercultural Encounter in the Experiences of Chinese International Students in the UK

Yu, Y., & Moskal, M. (2018). Missing intercultural engagements in the university experiences of Chinese international students in the UK. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. doi: 10.1080/03057925.2018.1448259

Yun Yu

Dr Yun Yu


East China Normal University, China


Abstract 中文摘要

The recent flourishing of student mobility has seeded a booming research area in intercultural education and integration, as more and more students engage in this migratory trend. This project is a mixed-method analysis of church participation as a direct intercultural encounter in the experiences of non-Christian Chinese international students in the UK. The study employs survey, semi-structured in-depth interviews, participant observation, and document analysis as research methods to investigate the intentions behind and purposes of the intercultural engagement between churches and non-Christian Chinese students. The study also presents the western culture, Christianity, as well as the cultural/religious background of Chinese students, and highlights Christian ambitions and missionary strategies (working model) towards non-Christian international students. The findings indicate that social connections with the host environment and the nature of organisation play a significant role in the cross-cultural adaptation and individual development of international students. Besides offering an explanation for the mechanism behind the students’ church participation, the findings also indicate that the overwhelming Chinese students (especially in Business Schools) constrain their intercultural communication within the campus. Therefore, to some extent, it is the churches rather than the university facilitates the intercultural engagement for international students.


随着国际学生的不断增加,学生流动方面的研究主要集中于跨文化教育以及社会融入。本研究探索了在英中国留学生(非基督徒)参与教堂文化活动的社会现象。该研究采用多种研究方法,包括:问卷,半结构式深入访谈,参与观察以及文献分析,深入分析了基督教堂与中国留学生互动交流的原因,目的,以及影响。该研究还探索了西方基督教文化和中国学生的宗教文化背景,揭露了英国基督教堂对中国学生战略性传教活动以及拓展中国基督教市场的愿景。研究分析指出,国际学生与当地环境的社会联结以及互动平台的性质对学生跨文化适应以及个人成长发挥重要影响。 除了解释学生参与教堂活动背后的动态机制,该研究认为,大量中国学生涌入英国校园(特别是商学院)限制了学生多元文化交流。从某种意义上来说,教堂的一系列针对中国学生的文化活动提供了更多(相较于大学校园)的社会融入与垮文化参与的机会,大学需采取措施在多元文化的校园环境下推动切实有效的跨文化融合与交流。

This study focuses on intercultural encounters and engagement in the cross-cultural experience of international students. It investigates the cultural experience of Chinese students in and around religious organisations in the UK. At a general level, it explores the role of intercultural encounters and interaction in students’ overseas experiences; at an individual level, it examines in detail the intentions, the processes, and the influences of church participation on Chinese international students; and at the organisational level, the study analyses the motivations and missionary model of faith-based organisations through the social support they offer to the international Christian community.

The study aims to address the overarching research question: What is the role of Christian churches in the intercultural experiences of Chinese international students in the UK?  There are five sub-questions further developed from both student and church perspectives to comprehensively explore the main issue: 1) Why do non-Christian Chinese students choose to go to churches after they arrive in the UK? 2) Do Christian churches serve as a medium of intercultural encounter for Chinese international students?  How do they serve? 3) What is the institutional motivation of the Christian community for attracting international students, especially Chinese students? 4) What are the Christian churches’ strategies in working with Chinese international students? 5) What and why is more important for students, religious or intercultural experience?

In order to answer the above questions, the present study used a combination of survey, participant observation, semi-structured in-depth interview, and document analysis methods. The fieldwork took place in two Christian churches located in the area of an established university campus in the UK. In total, 501 Chinese Master’s students of the university completed the survey, of whom 15 students who were frequent churchgoers were invited to take part in semi-structured in-depth interviews. In addition, five Christian church representatives were interviewed, including group leaders and volunteers with different responsibilities in the international groups.

The study finds that, church participation as a form of cultural engagement was not an accidental choice for the Chinese international students. Instead, it is related to the students’ considerations of and negotiations with the challenging host environment. Expectation gaps (such as the language barrier), constrained intercultural communication within universities, public discrimination, and loneliness, all occurred simultaneously at the beginning of their intercultural interaction in the campus-based university. The students’ need for language practice, a social network, and cultural knowledge, together with their motivation to engage with the local community pushed them to seek broader social contact to obtain the resources required to complete the adaptation process. Church participation for Chinese students seemed to be a mark of desperation in their pursuit of interaction with natives outside of the university, since their courses and the university provided so little opportunity due to the high numbers of students there from China. Therefore, the cultural interactions around the Christian churches responded in a supportive way to fill the gaps and meet the needs of Chinese students.

Interaction between the churches and the non-Christian Chinese students took place on common ground but with divergent ultimate goals. Showing mutual understanding of and tolerance towards each other, both sides worked together and actively communicated in the Christian community. In terms of their divergent ultimate goals yet clear mutual understanding, on the one hand, the needs of the Chinese students in the adaptation process made it possible for the churches to organise social events in order to attract students. However, on the other hand, most Chinese students tended to be indifferent to the mission orientation of the churches and instead concentrated on the social support that was helpful to them. Therefore, for the Chinese students, church participation had more of an intercultural than a religious meaning. Nevertheless, although it was simply a kind of intercultural experience for the majority, for a few of them it brought religious transformation.

This study establishes that the nature of the organisation in the host country has a profound influence on intercultural interaction and engagement for international students, and highlights the potential effects on behaviours and values after religious communication and interaction have taken place. It identifies the social connections with the host environment and organisational factors that play a significant role in the cross-cultural adaptation of international students. It contributes to an understanding about the diversity of intercultural encounters in a meaningful sense, and uncovers the essence of individual interactions and social integration in the cross-cultural interaction.

On a practical level, the study reveals the problem of university involvement for international students. The findings emphasise the needs of international students particularly in terms of cultural engagement and involvement within the campus-based university and calls for UK universities to consider ways to establish an inclusive atmosphere in the international education they claim to be offering. It also emphasises how the acceptance of host nationals and inclusion in social activities bring a sense of belonging for international students in the host country. Meaningful intercultural contact and learning depends on a multicultural environment, the facilitation by institutions, and the students’ motivation to engage. Facilitating intercultural communication requires considerable effort to nurture intercultural competency and provide sufficient and meaningful intercultural encounters.



Dr. Yun Yu is Post-doc researcher in Faculty of Education, East China Normal University (ECNU), China. Her research interest is around international and comparative education, social mobility, cross-cultural adaptation, intercultural engagement and inclusion. She is the author of Missing Intercultural Engagements in the University Experiences of Chinese International Students in the UK (Yu and Moskal, 2018).

Her prior research in doctorate study was Church Participation as Intercultural Encounter in the Experiences of Chinese International Students in the UK. If you have any enquiry, please contact

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