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Hosting Students for the Holidays

Hello, My name is Blake. My wife and I have ministered to international students for more than a decade. One of our great joys in life is to be able to welcome internationals into our home. We’ve had the privilege of having students live with us from Brazil, Guinea, and Iran. Even though we are quite comfortable with having internationals in our home we are still learning how to practice hospitality.

If you have made it this far in the courses, then you know that biblical hospitality is not an event. It’s not about perfectly entertaining people in your home. Rather, it’s about sharing your life with a stranger. It’s about being generous with your time, attention and care to those in need. It’s a way of living and there is no one greater we can learn from than our Lord Jesus who perfectly shares His life with us.

In our community, we often tell volunteers that ministry to internationals is as easy as setting an extra plate at your table. It’s about inviting them into what you already do. One amazing opportunity the Church in North America has to practice hospitality is to invite internationals into our homes during the holidays.

In this session, I’d like to give some insights I have learned over the years in ministering to internationals during these special family gatherings. So to be clear when I say holidays I’m primarily thinking of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

First, I will talk about why I think they are some of the most strategic times we have to minister to internationals. Secondly, I will discuss some tips on how to be a good host during these somewhat chaotic family gatherings. And finally, if you are a ministry worker or a church volunteer who focuses on internationals, I will discuss how you can  create a fruitful outreach using the holidays.

So first, why is this one of the most strategic things we can do? It’s simply because Internationals are looking to connect with their host culture in meaningful ways.

After I graduated from college, I had the incredible opportunity to live in Moscow, Russia as a campus ministry intern. While I was there, I studied the language and pursued college students with the Gospel. I myself was an international student! As for most internationals, I remember experiencing many challenges with language and cultural differences. Of all my memories that year, a special moment for me was when I was invited to a Russian’s home. My friend’s mom cooked a meal for me. The warmth of friendship I felt in that home had an incredible impact. When I think back, it’s really nothing so special. I ate some food with a couple Russians in a small apartment. And to be quite honest, it was one of the worst meals I had that entire year. So why was it so meaningful? It’s because I had a longing for a deeper connection with my host culture that I couldn’t provide myself. I needed a Russian to provide that for me.

Because newly arrived internationals are curious about our religious and cultural festivities, many are open to connect with complete strangers in their homes. This presents a missional opportunity for the Church. Every year, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter are natural ways to connect spiritually with internationals. Even in these sometimes chaotic family gatherings, the gospel can be displayed in powerful ways through our love and care. Simply setting an extra plate at our tables provides the Church one of the easiest ways to get connected to some of the least-reached peoples on Earth. It’s really that simple. The potential for these friendships to continue after the holiday is the goal. And God works powerfully through these relationships to have an eternal impact.

As a full-time ministry worker, every Thanksgiving we work hard to match host families and international students because we have seen students come to Christ through these relationships. You could just as easily do something similar for Christmas and Easter.

What would be the Kingdom impact, if families from every Gospel-centered church near a university campus participated in hosting internationals during the holidays?

So the opportunity is clear. But how do we go about helping our international friends feel at home during these gatherings?

Thanksgiving is usually the only time my extended family comes together in the year,  but even then it feels as if we are rushing to be done with our pumpkin pie. We love each other but our extended family just isn’t as close as I wish we could be. It’s reality for us and you might feel the same. When I think about inviting an international into this setting inevitably they will see our messy lives. Additionally, they will experience cultural differences. But this is an opportunity for both the host and the guest to grow in being a learner of culture.

One of my Chinese friends described the experience of being hosted for Thanksgiving during her first year in the U.S. This is Ting’s story:

I remember my first Thanksgiving in the States. I was invited by a couple to their condo for a Thanksgiving meal and the second I stepped into their home, I remember instantly being overwhelmed: I hadn’t expected to see so many people! And then… the unthinkable happened. My hosts left me alone. The wife introduced me to all of her relatives and then disappeared into the kitchen with her husband to finish preparing the meal.

At the time, I was a freshman international student who had only been in-country for 7 months and spoke broken English. What was I supposed to do? I  felt helpless deep inside of my heart. I remember wondering, “If they invited me as a guest, why didn’t they take care of me? Why did they leave me by myself?” I thought of the ways we treated our guests in China and found myself wondering why things were so different here in America. I had expected people to greet me, to offer me a drink and to give me snacks while we waited for the meal. At the very least, I wanted someone to initiate with me, not just to leave me standing by myself, feeling weird.

While I wouldn’t say I “enjoyed” that experience, when I look back on it now, I appreciate it. I got a first look at one of the main differences between being hosted by an American and a Chinese family: here they treated me as an independent adult! They didn’t treat me differently just because I was an outsider but believed that I was capable of figuring out things on my own. In time, I learned to just put myself out there and make myself available in a gathering. I got comfortable making myself at home.

What stood out to you about Ting’s experience?

Honestly, I felt pretty discouraged after reading her story. How am I to meet the needs of someone from another culture? Well the truth is we won’t entirely be able to. And that’s ok. It’s important to take the posture of a learner and that means we need to give ourselves grace when we make mistakes. However, what stands out to me is how Ting was positively impacted by this experience. In fact it was through the love of Christians that she eventually trusted Christ later that year. Even though we will likely make cultural blunders, God will use these relationships to make a difference in the lives of internationals. All we have to do is to step out in faith and in the power of the Holy Spirit. So don’t let the thought that we need to be perfectly trained prevent you right now from inviting internationals into your lives.

In any case, there are things we can learn from Ting’s story, so I’d like to give some tips on being a good host during a holiday gathering:

I want to discuss some things that might be helpful to do before you gather:

First, it’s about the importance of Communication

If it’s the first time you will meet your guest, send an email or text with your picture and a short note sharing how you are excited to have them over. They are taking a courageous step to put themselves in this cross-cultural environment.  If possible, let them know they can invite a friend. Having someone else there allows them to feel more supported. Also help them know what to expect during their time in your home. Share the time frame of the gathering, and ask if they need a ride to your place.

Secondly, what about their dietary needs?

The main point here is that you DON’T need to cook an entirely different meal just for your guests. But as a host, it’s really important to ask internationals if they have any food restrictions and to consider this in your meal planning. This is a great way to show care.

If they are from India, you don’t need to go out and buy a tofu turkey. But don’t assume they are all vegetarians. However, the vast majority will not eat beef. It’s better just to ask. If they are vegetarian please provide enough options that go beyond just a salad and potatoes. Make them feel like you were intentional to meet their needs. Don’t stress out about it. Just put yourself in their shoes and consider what they might need.

If they are Muslim, you can show great concern for them if you avoid using pork. But if you do please let them know which foods they need to avoid. I know of one family that blessed their very conservative Muslim friends by buying a Halal turkey. Let me say a word about alcohol. Depending on your convictions, it might be common for families to include alcohol during meals. Knowing this is a possible cultural difference, many internationals sometimes assume this to be normal for western countries and in fact many are comfortable with it. However, if you know they are from a very conservative country or faith background I would consider not serving alcohol so that it doesn’t distract from creating a meaningful connection. You may need to discuss this ahead of time with your family.

Bottom line, as you communicate with them and ask about their needs the more you will feel prepared and the more they will feel at ease.

Lastly, Plan Ahead

Before they arrive, take some time to plan some fun things you could do together.  Involve your family members especially if you know you will be busy preparing food. You don’t have to change what you normally do with your family. But try to do most of the preparation before your guest arrives so you can be fully available to them.

Ok now it’s the big day. Your new friend has just arrived to your home. During the gathering, we have two important roles as a host: to be an Includer and Guide.

Find ways to include them in your conversations. Also, you can include them in the preparations, so that they can feel like they are contributing. They need an advocate who will help them feel like they belong.

As a guide, let them know that it’s ok to ask questions. If during Thanksgiving your family watches football make sure to explain the rules. But I wouldn’t let watching sports be the center of what you do together.

As a guide, it’s important to explain the traditions of the holiday. Ask if they have ever heard the story of Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. This is great chance to share openly about your faith if the opportunity comes up, but you don’t need to force or manipulate the conversation. I would also encourage you to pray at meal times as a way to witness of your faith in God. You can also ask about their cultural and religious holidays. Ask about their families and different traditions they have together and even about their faith background. The holidays are some of the best times to get into spiritual conversations so be prayerful that God would open a door.

Also, as a guide if the conversation with family members moves toward a direction that is not helpful in making your guest feel at home be quick to redirect the conversation to a different topic.

The goal is to build trust and meaningful connection that will continue after the holiday. 

After the gathering: the most important role you have is to be a faithful steward of this relationship. Even in the busyness of life, find creative ways to include them in what you already do. Make an effort to touch base with them once a week. You can easily do this through social media or a simple text. Find ways to stay connected throughout the year. We see the relationships that have the most impact is when the host continues to initiate after the holiday.

My time in Russia taught me the power of hospitality. Sharing our lives with an international tangible provides something they desperately need, an invitation to belong.

In the familiar saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” I’d like to show a picture that to me depicts the hospitality of God. [Icon of the Trinity]  This is a famous Russian icon that describes the story of when Abraham was visited by the Angel of the Lord in Genesis 18. Every part of this painting is Packed Full of meaning. The artist interprets that the three visitors in the story represent the three persons of the Trinity.  What intrigues me is how this picture draws you in. It’s as if there is space for a fourth person at the table. In fact I believe this is intentional to help you see we have access to the community of our- Triune God. In the Gospel, God has invited us to His table. Through Jesus he has welcomed us by setting an extra plate. And because of this relationship we are called to go out in the power of the Holy Spirit to invite others to experience our welcoming God. Holidays are one of the best ways we can do that. As you invite internationals into your lives during these special times, God will draw the nations to Himself.

Hosting Students for the Holidays


Have you ever invited an international into your home? The holidays are an easy and meaningful opportunity to host an international for a meal. Blake shares how you can welcome an international and build a relationship that goes beyond just one special day. 

Homework: Interviewing an International

In this supplemental video Blake shares tips from his own experience on how you can organize a large number of volunteers and international students for a holiday meal.

Play Video

Supplemental Notes - Hosting Students for the Holidays


Have you ever invited an international into your home? The holidays are an easy and meaningful opportunity to host an international for a meal. Blake shares how you can welcome an international and build a relationship that goes beyond just one special day.