“Houseparties” are memorable events for international students who discover a warm, loving community of Christians and learn more about Jesus Christ there. They are also memorable for campus ministry staff and volunteers who discover a unique and beautiful way to communicate love along with the Gospel in a festive atmosphere while celebrating Christ’s coming during the Christmas vacation period.
The name probably originated in the British InterVarsity movement, where a lengthy holiday away from campus life was an established norm for students wanting to share their holiday periods with international friends and communicate the Gospel message through a whole-life approach to evangelism by living together. Were they effective in reaching internationals for Christ in those years? One story here might illustrate their impact:
While I was on a year of study leave in India, a professor of Education at Benares Hindu University knocked on my door to welcome my wife and me to the faculty hostel. As we got acquainted over tea, he asked me: “What are the spiritual foundations of western culture?” This led to a discussion of the Gospel in which I found that he already had a firm grasp of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which he said he had learned while a student himself in London in the 1950s. As he went on to describe a conference he’d attended there I realized he’d been to an “international student houseparty!” Later I mentioned his name to some other Hindu faculty in the same hostel. Immediately one of them said, “Oh, he’s not a good Hindu…he thinks like a Christian, talks like a Christian, acts like a Christian…he might as well be one!”
Houseparties in the American InterVarsity movement were introduced to Bear Trap Ranch by David Adeney and Gene Thomas on December 20-26, 1954, soon after the Ranch was purchased by InterVarsity. David Adeney, a graduate of Cambridge University, had become a missionary-in-residence for InterVarsity USA after returning from mainland China where he’d been a missionary with the China Inland Mission (now OMF). David loved to speak at houseparties, which he did all over the country as often as he could, all the way into the 1990s! These houseparties at Bear Trap were so popular in InterVarsity they would become an annual tradition. A Thanksgiving weekend event was also held in Chicago the following year, Nov. 24-27, 1955, showing how the idea was catching on all over North America.
The deep sense of mission throughout the InterVarsity movement, strengthened by the student missions conventions starting in 1946, had already stimulated such events on both coasts. For example, as a young staff in the early 1950s, Peter Northrup recalls having a houseparty at a location near Washington, D.C. where over 80 international students showed up (it was always hard to tell in advance how many to expect!). Paul and Marie Little ran similar events when they were first on staff in New York City. A transcription of the series of messages Paul gave at the Lake Tahoe, California houseparty in 1959 was the foundational material for talks he would give in dorms and fraternity houses all over the country. This was the houseparty in which a young student from Iran, Nate Mirza, made a commitment to Christ. (In the 1980s and 1990s, Nate himself would become a regular speaker at the Bear Trap Ranch houseparties, where many more would come to Christ).
In one year during the late 1950s there were houseparties in four locations at Thanksgiving (NC, DC, IL, and CO), in six locations at Christmas (MA, FL, CO, WA, and 2 in CA), and in three locations over Easter or Spring vacation periods (DC, NC, and CO). The CO ones were all at Bear Trap Ranch!
My first recollections of a houseparty at Bear Trap Ranch was in December 1964. Ed Mihevc, one of our more “faith-full” staff in downstate Illinois, had been “praying for snow” for this houseparty, because snow so greatly enhanced the ambiance and recreational fun of a houseparty. I joined with a volunteer and recent graduate from Wheaton College, David Hull, in driving a car full of internationals all the way from Chicago to Colorado Springs. We had to purchase tire chains when we arrived in the Springs because the snow storm that hit that day had deposited over a foot of snow on the mountains, making the Old Stage Road to the Ranch almost impassable! (An obvious answer to Ed’s prayers, which lifted all our spirits!). After one day of heavy snow it cleared, and the rest of the entire week we had ideal conditions for enjoying snow sports at the Ranch!
Paul Little was the speaker each evening and gave his usual compelling series of messages on the meaning of Christ’s birth and Christmas as centered on: Christ’s coming as fulfillment of centuries of prophecy, his death for the sins of all humanity, many evidences for his resurrection from the dead, and the importance of turning our lives over to Him for salvation and a renewed life of holiness and love here on earth as well as in the life to come. I still have a taped copy of those memorable messages. Many of his arguments were his standard ones given to students all over North America in evangelistic meetings from the early 50s until he died in 1976. Terrell Smith still remembers Paul standing in the middle of the Cook House lounges with “wall-to-wall students” packed-in, listening in rapt attention.
The spiritual impact of the whole houseparty experience was evident. Although there were usually only a few that became Christians during the houseparty, we knew that most students were just beginning to learn about Jesus and that others were giving serious consideration to becoming Christians. David Adeney had made it amply clear to us that “it is like a miracle when an international becomes a Christian…after all, they have everything to lose (in this world) and little (at first glance) to gain by becoming Christians.”
We counted on the ongoing friendships with Christians before and after the houseparty to bring those He was calling to faith in Him. The houseparty therefore was like an accelerated boost to the learning process, and we left it to the Holy Spirit to bring many to faith in Christ in His own time and way.
Paul was quite busy in the late 60s preparing to direct Urbana 70 and his classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. However, he never lost his love for internationals and for houseparties as one of the very best methods of “walking” as well as “talking” internationals toward Jesus. In January 1974, as a Regional Director in charge of structuring events for the former(14 state) Central Region, I received a phone call from Paul Little. He wanted me to know that if I needed him for speaking at a houseparty at Bear Trap Ranch that December, he was available. Paul gave memorable messages at that December 1974 houseparty…it became his last and his best one.
Another frequent speaker at houseparties in these years was Dr. Glen Zumwalt, a Distinguised Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at Wichita State University and a former InterVarsity staff in Texas. He spoke at one BTR houseparty around 1970 on “the relevance of Jesus Christ to our present society and the essentials of Christianity.” Ben Thurber, our staff in Denver, directed that one. The total cost for that full week, Dec. 21-27, was $45.00 (up from $35.00 in December 1963 and $22.50 in Dec. 1956!).
Though houseparties were going on in other parts of the country, often over Thanksgiving weekend, only Cedar Campus and Bear Trap had consistently held them for a full 5-7 days over Christmas. Dr. Archie MacKinney, who was a frequent houseparty speaker at Cedar Campus, began bringing his entire family to BTR from Madison, Wisconsin. They each played a musical instrument and so new “sounds of music” gave them the reputation of being the “Von Trapp family musicians of BTR.”
Since the houseparty had become an annual tradition at Bear Trap Ranch (except for Urbana years), staff generally took turns directing them. In December 1971 then-Area Director Bill McConnell directed the houseparty with Ned Hale as the speaker. To ensure strong attendance during the 1970s, I made sure as Regional Director that every staff in the region was assigned to at least one houseparty during their first few years on staff. Paul Steeves, InterVarsity staff in Lawrence, KS, and Dick Young, Director at Bear Trap Ranch in the early 1970s, directed some, as did many other staff leaders.
In 1979 the Iranian crisis took place and many Iranian students were polarized politically. This had spiritual repercussions since politics and religion are so interwoven for Muslims. I spoke at the Bear Trap houseparty that December. After one of the meetings, an Iranian student got me aside quietly and said: “Mr. Hale, I don’t know what to do. I want to believe in Jesus, but I can’t. Please help me to believe!” He went on to explain, “I grew up in Qom, the home city of Khomeini, and one of the most conservative of Muslim cities. I wanted to be a Mullah when I grew up. Now I am a student in South Dakota and am so disillusioned with Islam I can no longer be a Muslim. Yet I have always had a strong faith in God and can not live without religion. All my life I have been told that I must not believe in Jesus as Christians do….that it is the sin of blasphemy against God to do so. Can you help me believe in Jesus?”
Wow! A contemporary version of “what must I do to be saved!” I gave him some further words from scripture and, at his request, a brief explanation of the Trinity. He said, “I’ll let you know before the conference ends what I decide!” The conference ended and no word from him…so I concluded that he didn’t have the courage to tell me he could not yet believe in Jesus. Two weeks later, back at home, I decided to write him a letter to find out “how he was doing” etc. I got a letter back immediately in the mail: “Dear Brother Hale: This past weekend I was baptized in the church here in Vermillion. Praise God!” Years later I met a church leader from that Baptist Church in Vermillion who confirmed all he had said to me in his letter and much more about his continuing on with Christ and in fellowship with these Christians there in Vermillion.
In the 1980s houseparties took on new life with the re-establishment of a national department of International Student Ministries, or ISM (the previous department from 1958-1964 had been dissolved when Paul Little moved into full time evangelism). Starting in 1981 new ISM staff “specialists” began to be added to regional and area staff teams, and new houseparties consequently sprang up in various regions. One of these ISM staff, Al Fairbanks, became a frequent houseparty speaker. New media (MMCP’s “FRIENDS” show and an IVP book, The World at Your Doorstep) were produced for Urbana 84, and a wave of new interest in internationals on campuses were reflected in the growing census figures of internationals getting involved in InterVarsity chapters everywhere.
Bear Trap Ranch responded to this by launching a houseparty during an Urbana. More students than usual came and everyone was asking, “why hadn’t we thought of doing this before?” Up until then, staff had been seen as the backbone of houseparties. But with increasing numbers of community volunteers getting involved and helping, it had become apparent that staff could attend an Urbana, volunteers could run a houseparty, non-Christians could attend the houseparty and Christian internationals could choose between the two.
Around that time, Bob Culver, then on staff with ISI in Houston, brought a van full of internationals to the Bear Trap houseparty. The idea caught on and soon others from Oklahoma and Kansas were also bringing vans full, and Bob even brought a bus full at one point! From then on Houston volunteers always brought a large group to Bear Trap and if there was ever a question about it, Jack Burke, then-University of Houston Foreign Student Advisor, made sure of it by finding a volunteer willing to drive a group to Bear Trap!
Another response of Bear Trap to the exploding interest during the mid-1980s was to add a second houseparty over New Years'. (Cedar Campus had done the same). There was even experimentation with a third (summer) houseparty at one point (e.g.: August 1985-88). In December, since the New Years dates were a little easier to fill than Christmas because of some American families’ and students’ needs to be at home together, the Christmas houseparty suffered a little in numbers by comparison. But both were needed given the lack of room to accommodate all who would have come to only one houseparty as before. This too became a tradition by the 1990s, so that every year there are two houseparties at BTR, including Urbana years (you can usually count on it!).
Speakers were always a special concern because they needed to be fairly knowledgeable, not only about how to present the Gospel in engaging and relevant ways, but also about the backgrounds and needs of those from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. Staff or faculty were needed who had experience working with internationals and were willing to speak during the Christmas period. Ned Hale spoke at the 1985 and 1986 Christmas houseparties at BTR. During Urbana 87 (without staff present) the houseparties featured former InterVarsity staff, Lendol Calder (then a PhD candidate at the Univ. of Chicago), and a long-time faculty volunteer in ISM, John Stanford, from Iowa State University. A former Regional Director and InterVarsity Press Director, Jim Nyquist, directed this latter one. The August 1988 houseparty featured John Hoyt, who was born and raised in China. Like David Adeney, his experiences of living in China for many years and knowing the language had special appeal for many east Asians.
Here is what one staff director reported about the impact of starting a houseparty in another region in the mid-80s: “The houseparty was an incredibly effective tool for many reasons. First, it brought together interested individuals and families who have a heart for internationals. People supplied cookies, gifts, scholarships, and transportation. One family said, ‘This is a dream come true.’ God obviously had prepared the community for the houseparty. I feel God used it to mobilize individual efforts in reaching out to international students."
“The houseparty catered to the special need that non-Christian international students have. About 90% of the students were not Christians and many responded positively to the gospel. The community of people there set the context for good Bible studies, large group talks and conversations. The experience brought about a more defined identity for the international student work in the region too. Momentum was established with the schools represented, and all are committed to come again. These will be an example to others in the region. The Christian international students also profited. They had the chance to invite friends and follow-up back on campus. During the houseparty they learned more about the gift of service as they helped with the various tasks required to run the houseparty.”
Starting in the late 80s, Bibles were made available by the International Bible Society so that internationals could receive a free copy of the Scriptures in their own language, especially at houseparties. This complemented the optional daily Bible studies in small groups using English Bibles that had always been a vital part of the Bear Trap program.
A very special event took place in 1987 during the Billy Graham evangelistic campaign in Denver. During four of these ten days of meetings, July 17-21, about 425 internationals and friends came from all over the continent to Denver and lived in the homes of families in two churches. Where do you suppose many of them went on a specially planned one-day “site-seeing trip to the mountains?” Bear Trap Ranch! This occasion inspired similar visits by internationals in the early 1990s. During August 8-13, 1993, for example, a special “International Holiday Tour” to Denver included “a day in Colorado Springs, a drive to the top of a 14,000-foot mountain peak, and a day and night at Bear Trap Ranch including horseback riding and hiking.”
As we entered the 1990s, some former staff emerged as houseparty speakers and directors at Bear Trap. Ron Nicholas came from California to speak at one. Jason Chen, a Christian Reformed Church pastor from Iowa, originally from mainland China, became a popular speaker and we began to see a larger number of conversions among the students in this period. During the 1990s it became clear that the presence of foreign-born speakers, like Jason Chen and Nate Mirza, made a real difference in convincing some students of the reality of Jesus Christ and their need to take the step of commitment to Him. Rev. Telles Ritian (Indonesia) was invited to speak at the December 1993 houseparty, Dr. Li-wen Hammer at the December 1997 houseparty, and Dean Papajohn at the December 1999 New Years houseparty.
Many reports of spiritually changed lives came out of these houseparties. Cookie Walden and Mark Enger had played leading roles as Ranch administrators in promoting houseparties and recruiting students and volunteers during this period. After one Bear Trap houseparty in 1995 Cookie sent me a wonderful story as as part of her feedback. She quoted this volunteer: “A family group leader told me that a Korean student was close to making a decision. The next day after the group lecture, I visited his cabin. We talked for 1 ½ hours and I shared a clear presentation of the Gospel with him. God’s Spirit touched his heart. He asked me to pray the sinners' prayer along with him, and then he asked Jesus into his heart. Praise God!”
After that houseparty in January 1996, she received a letter from the family group leader: “Last Sunday the Korean student from Kansas, who accepted the Lord this year at Bear Trap, was baptized. Another international from Oklahoma who was in my family group came to visit Wichita two weeks ago on Jan. 12. He was asking about being baptized. I was thrilled! This showed me that he truly committed his life to Jesus at Bear Trap. Another (from Sir Lanka) is continually taking steps toward God. He has come to church each Sunday since Bear Trap.”
Christian internationals also experience growth in Christ at houseparties. One young woman from Japan put her experience this way: “Before I went I was eager to love and serve God by loving and serving His people, by being a witness. But the entire time, I was amazed by how much I was loved and served and cared for by others. I was so thankful to see the way the Gospel was communicated; loud and clear, not watered down, not apologetic; and yet there was so much sensitivity and respect for those who were not Christians. The staff and families involved were so welcoming and the students all felt genuinely loved and cared about. It was so encouraging for me to meet people who love the Lord and who have a heart to serve Him. And it was also exciting to share my life with people who do not know Christ, but were eager to seek.”
The Bear Trap houseparties even inspired some to start similar local and area events of their own: After visiting a houseparty to “see it for themselves,” a group in Dallas decided to start a retreat for internationals studying at SMU. Similarly, another group started a holiday conference for internationals at Huntsville, TX. Another group in Cedar Falls, IA began taking groups of internationals to Minnesota over the holidays “because it was closer.” At one point staff directors in the North Plains considered seriously starting a houseparty in northern MN and another in Rapid City, SD.
Michael Henson in AZ persuaded his church to sponsor a conference there for internationals patterned after the houseparty. These conference groups were smaller (20-50 instead of the 90-125 we would usually get at Bear Trap) but this was a plus in many ways because it created even more intimacy and sharing opportunities. Of all these, only the Dallas one continued more than one or two times, most of them foundering for lack of finances or administration, but the experiences were worth the effort.
The houseparties at BTR during a 10 year period 1989-98 were statistically analyzed by Jeff Yockey, BTR’s Director. The Christmas ones averaged 47 internationals in attendance. The New Years ones averaged 54 internationals. Including Americans, the average of all houseparties during this period was 97 students at each houseparty! The typical houseparty at BTR would draw together about 35-75 students from 7-8 central USA states with about 20-25 countries represented. About 50-75% of them would be non-believers. A good mix of Christian internationals, InterVarsity staff, faculty, and community volunteers would make up the rest with special programs being added sometimes to help the Christians, and sometimes special optional seminars on topics of interest. Usually there were 1-4 students who made a serious commitment to follow Jesus, though a houseparty was considered a success if a large majority of attendees were all moved in even small ways closer to Christ.
Under Craig Colbert’s leadership, directors began measuring these movements toward Christ with a special questionnaire used during the houseparty. This became an encouragement to the planners and supporting community as it underscored and illustrated the “process” toward conversion most internationals experience, e.g. moving from “Atheist to Uninformed” or from “Uninterested to Curious” or from “Curious to Seeker” or from “Seeker to Right-with-God.” It was particularly helpful to those of us schooled in the “Engel’s Scale” approach to evangelism, which shows that the inner working of the Holy Spirit can be seen in a person moving even from “no-knowledge-of-God” to an “understanding-of-the-Gospel” or “some-affection-for-Jesus,” etc.
In February 2000, a major new reorganization for administering and funding of houseparties was agreed upon between the principle ISM staff involved and the Bear Trap leadership. Jeff Yockey, BTR Director, and Craig Colbert, ISM staff in central MO, negotiated an agreement to ensure that houseparties were staffed and funded for the future. Ned Hale and ISM Training Coordinators then met with Don Erickson to review the proposal. A Steering Committee was proposed which would consist of five people (including one BTR staff and at least one IVCF ISM staff) and chaired by an ISM staff member. This committee would meet twice yearly to create and maintain vision, policies and standards, establish dates, make program decisions, recruit speakers and program staff, raise funds to subsidize program staff and keep program costs minimal, and evaluate specific houseparties each year.
A number of improvements have taken place under the leadership of Jeff Yockey and Craig Colbert. New four-color brochures for houseparties have been developed, many new photos of internationals at BTR houseparties have been posted on InterVarsity’s ISM website “photo gallery,” a new online initial-registration format has been devised to give early and easier access to students and others interested in getting more information, and a summer houseparty is envisioned as a new development which will hopefully take place May 25-30, 2002.
The events of 9/11/2001 may have opened new doors to the hearts of some Muslim students. Conferences for international students are springing up in some local areas now as staff sense the need and the opportunity to draw students together in shorter weekend events. Sometimes amazing experiences illustrate God at work in special ways, like the November 2001 conference in West Virginia reported on by a volunteer, Katie Weakland:
“He had fallen asleep during York’s talk that night, and while he was asleep he heard Jesus say to him in Arabic, ‘I am pleased with you.’ At IV’s mission conference, Urbana, we learned that 25% of Muslims are converted after having a dream or vision of Jesus.
Both Ishmael and Hagar, his sister, were struggling with guilt all weekend about coming to a Christian event, being that they are Muslim.
“Ishmael did pray with Sean and accepted Jesus as his Savior. Sean came over to me at this point and said we needed to pray for Hagar. As we were praying I looked over and saw Norma, a girl from Colombia, sharing with Hagar, from Iran. I thought to myself, “this is so God.” It was so awesome just to sit back and watch as God answered prayers and the Holy Spirit changed people’s lives.
“Both Hagar and Ishmael became Christians, and I have never seen 2 happier or more joyful people in my life. Hagar shared that she always felt guilty and full of shame, like she would never be good enough to be loved by God, and now she felt forgiven, loved, and free. What a blessing to be a part of God’s work and see people literally ‘re-created’ right before your eyes.”
At a more recent conference for international students in March 2002, a Muslim student from Turkey wrote on a response card, “Now there is a struggle between my mind and heart. They’re hitting against each other. What I believe is that coming to this conference is not just a coincidence. I pray to God and beg his guidance and help for me to go through this struggle.”
In December 2001 Craig Colbert wrote in his prayer letter to friends: “We will be taking 13 or more internationals from the University of Missouri to this year’s house party. Most are seekers and several are very close to the Kingdom… We recently received an e-mail from one of the folks going saying ‘thank you for giving us spirit food.’ She is from China and regularly attends the Friday night GIG’s (God Investigation Group). The openness of many internationals is amazing, but they do not ‘cross the line’ easily or quickly. We hope that the houseparty experience creates an environment where it is more natural and easier for folks to cross over into God’s Kingdom.”
Craig’s observations here illustrate the realities as well as the hopes of all the staff and volunteers who bring internationals with them to houseparties. It underscores the previously mentioned truth that for most internationals it is a commitment of breath-taking proportions for them to risk leaving so much behind to become a Christian, and we should consider it a miracle of God’s grace. It also illustrates how the houseparty usually takes place in the midst of an active involvement in a local ministry and set of friendships, all of which are important in helping someone eventually “cross the line” into faith in Christ. In Craig’s region the impact has been powerful for all of InterVarsity there. In a recent year, the number of international student conversions even outnumbered American student conversions, and Bear Trap houseparties were a large part of that!
International conferences and houseparty events have been around a long time. They have been tried in many circumstances, including hotels, retreat centers, local churches with host families, and recreational camps and conference grounds. They have been anywhere from a weekend to 7 days in length. They have been sponsored by many different organizations and churches and often co-sponsored by a coalition of groups (though mostly just by InterVarsity). They have been located in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries, Germany, Austria, and the United States. They have been directed by faculty, community volunteers, and (mostly) by full time ISM campus staff workers. They have attracted international students with a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds as well as Christians of all ages and backgrounds with a variety of involvements with internationals both on campus and in the communities surrounding the campus.
The most enduring and effective form of these events, however, has been the week-long “international houseparty” held over the Christmas and New Years vacation period using the basic model (with program variations) of recreational activity combined with “low-key” presentations and discussions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Bear Trap Ranch has been at the core of maintaining and developing this traditional houseparty model to the praise and Glory of God. May it continue as long as there are international students eager to come, hear more about Jesus Christ, and see His love lived out in a community of believers.