Thousands of Urbana Attendees Bring in New Year With Commitment to Missions

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Steven Lawson

Thousands of college students from across the United
States and Canada rang in the new year by making a fresh commitment to
missions, responding to a call to their generation to mesh evangelism with
social advocacy.


More than 16,000 students, missions leaders and pastors
converged at the Americas Center in St. Louis, Dec. 27-31 for the 22nd
tri-annual Urbana Student Missions Conference sponsored by InterVarsity Christian
Fellowship. Focusing on the conference theme “He Dwells With Us,” Urbana 09
director Jim Tebbe called on attendees to expand their vision of missions,
seeing it not only as a global thrust but also as a local Bible study, outreach
and service project.

“We want to see people start to live out what
they have learned within weeks rather than waiting years to go on the mission
field,” added Urbana spokesman Gordon Govier.

With an eye toward immediate mobilization of
attendees, the Urbana conference featured Bible studies, plenary sessions, and
workshops tailored to specific themes. Tracks included evangelism, business as
mission, environmental stewardship and for the first time, advocacy and
poverty, a track sponsored by World Vision, the International Justice Mission
and Sojourners International.

“Young people are thinking more globally and
have a passion for justice issues,” says Heather Sells, a reporter for CBN News
who attended Urbana to shoot a feature story on what she calls “the justice

Keynote speaker Ramez Atallah, who is the
general secretary of the Bible Society of Egypt and chair of the program
committee for Luasanne 2010 in South Africa, challenged attendees to embrace
and build upon a rich heritage of evangelical leaders such as Bible teacher
John Stott but to avoid past mistakes of Christians who sometimes transformed
money into a goal rather than a means to communicate the gospel. “When that
happens, what becomes of the universal character of the church?” he asked.

Reconciliation leader John Perkins applauded the
conference’s recognition of justice issues as a major call in a Christian’s
life, noting that when he and Evangelicals for Social Action President Ron
Sider spoke at Urbana in 1982, their voices were in the minority.

“This is a post-racist generation that is ready
and able to take the gospel further than any one of us has before,” said
Perkins, who led a leadership workshop with Shane Claiborne, co-author with
Perkins of Follow Me to Freedom, and spoke to participants in the
advocacy and poverty track.

Oscar Muriu, senior pastor of Nairobi Chapel in
Nairobi, Kenya, talked about a shift in missions that will mobilize more
believers from Asia, South America and Africa. For centuries, Muriu observed,
most missionaries came from European and North American nations and ministered
in Third World Asian, South American and African locales. Now, with the church
growing in these places, communication technologies advancing and European and
American culture becoming more secular, the dynamics have changed, Muriu said.

“Is there a tipping point to a new model to do
missions?” he asked. “The tipping point may not happen for 20 years, but we do
not need to hurry, the shift has happened.”

What will the new model look like? “For 200
years missions was driven by a money model,” Muriu observed. “In Africa, we
just don’t have the resources. In Asia, they don’t have the resources. In Latin
America, they don’t have the same resources. We can go into communities of need
with nothing and depend on God and their hospitality, but we cannot go in fully
funded. So we need to move from a money-driven model of missions to an
incarnational model.”

The booth for ministries such as Word Made Flesh
and InnerCHANGE-groups that place workers to live among the poor in some of the
world’s neediest places-were busy with inquiries. “Be the generation that rises
up to do missions like Jesus did, truly dwelling among the people we are called
to serve,” Muriu said.

Attendee Cody Nielsen of Santa Ana, Calif., said
he was inspired to do something in his community. “Now I need to muster up the
courage and resolve to actually start a Bible study or find a way to express
God’s justice,” said the 17-year-old.

“I am learning about different cultures and how
to apply biblical missions in my life right now,” said Jessica Schweim, 20, a
nursing student at the College of the Ozarks in Missouri. “It is our job as
Christians to pray for passion and then go out and be His hands and feet no
matter where that takes us.”

Although overall attendance is down from the
20,000 who came to the last Urbana in 2006, more students attended this year’s
conference, Govier said. The crowd crossed denominational lines and included
some charismatics, he added. A group of students from Christian Assembly in
Eagle Rock, Calif., drove across country to attend, and on the last night,
Pentecostal speaker and writer Brenda Salter McNeil was the featured speaker.

Salter McNeil challenged attendees to be
credible witnesses of Christ and His transforming power. “We must be willing to
go outside our comfort zones to places where our knowledge, education, jokes,
manners and skills do not work, to places that people need us just to show up
and be authentic,” she said.

“This call to engage the world is more than just
a social presence,” she added. “It is more than fishes and loaves or building a
house. We must do that, but we cannot do it in our own strength. This is a
spiritual practice. It is allowing God to break into our human affairs. Good
works and social justice must be accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

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