I had the wonderful privilege to go to Urbana's triennial conference in St Louis this year (Dec. 27-31). I am so thankful to Corinth Reformed Church, FWC and ACR for sending me. I am honored to have been sent, and I was blessed in so many ways, that I cannot write them all down in this report. Nevertheless, I think it's appropriate to tack down some of the main themes (and some minor goodies) that I experienced there. Mostly, however, Urbana isn't about me or my personal experience. Rather, Urbana is about the God who is working! God is working in incredible ways around the world today. It may be said that today is the most exciting time in history for missions, evangelism, and ministries of justice and mercy, simply by virtue of the vast amount of growth happening all over the entire planet.
Urbana is hosted by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, best known for its campus ministries. Intervarsity started just after WWII in Britain where a team of evangelical scholars were rightly concerned that college students had no Christian fellowship groups to attend, and had no recourse for good books or campus leaders to edify them, especially as many of these students were bombarded with non-Christian worldviews in the class and on campus in general. Churches were of no help, as orthodoxy seemed to be slipping away...(sound familiar?).
Urbana is normally hosted in the town of Illinois by the same name, but this year it was in St. Louis at the Edward Jones Dome and America's Center (the place is huge and takes up a whole city block!). The theme this time focused on John 1-4. In John 1-4, we see Jesus who incarnated himself into our world, bringing the good news. Another element of focus was ministries of mercy to the poor. The poor include people who live in garbage cities outside of Cairo, victims of sex-trafficking and slavery, those who have no clean water, and others whose lives are blighted by pain, loss and suffering. We were also reminded of the 300 million Muslims who have never heard the gospel, 200 million Hindus in the same rank, and other people groups in the millions and millions who need to hear the good news of God's forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
Of the 18,000 people there, 16,000 were college students, and it seems to me a good majority of them were Asian. The rest were white, Hispanic, African-American, Indian, or another racial group. Why so many Asian Christians? Because God is working like mad in Asia, building his church faster than spreading flames on a dry, forest floor. The church is also growing by leaps and bounds in Latin and South America, and Africa. Jesus is building his church!
Among the some 400 exhibitors represented with a view for recruiting missionaries, ministers, and pastors, there were: college campus ministries, vocational ministries in the medical, business, and engineering fields, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Jews for Jesus, a number of seminaries and Christian colleges, missions agencies that serve in the deepest jungles or the middle east to Muslims, and on and on....I represented ACR, the Association for Church Renewal.
When I discussed ACR's vision to prospective missions-minded young adults, they perked up and with raised eyebrows said, "That's a very good idea!" What was the idea? ACR's vision is to take America's historic, mainline churches, which are dying off or closing doors due to lack of membership, and re-plant churches there, making them a vital part of their normally-located, downtown areas through renewal and missions-mindedness. ACR is hosting a conference in Chicago this summer, and our agenda was to promote this conference. I normally said to people, "You know those beautiful downtown churches with the great architecture? Well, those churches are lying empty in our urban areas. What we (ACR) want to do is put evangelical pastors in those churches and revitalize them, and make them missional churches that will serve in their urban settings and through renewal, be missionary-sending churches." The vision caught hold as we had 20 people show up for a meeting on how to do this hosted by John Roberts (an evangelical pastor in the UCC). Some were from mainline churches and were also seminary students in the mainline. We hope they come to Chicago.
Now, 20 people may seem small in light of the 16,000 that were there. But remember that most of these young people want to go to Africa "yesterday." Through engaging these folks and handing out our pamphlets and our www.mainlinecall.org carabiner highlighters (which were a huge hit!) we pray that many seeds will be planted for young people to consider the pastorate in a mainline church. These churches can play an indispensable key to world missions, but we need more pastors!
One particular man I met was Joseph. Coming back from where, I don't remember, but I see a man standing at the ACR table. I say hello, and he says to me in a gruff, thick African accent: "I was told there was a man at this conference who could help me. I told the people here about my problem. My problem is that my diocese is dead. There is no spiritual life there. Now, the people here told me about a group called the Association for Church Renewal. I said, 'Ah ha!' I must talk with this group. So, they said, 'There is a man here who can help you.' You must be this man!"
Joseph lives in Lesotho, South Africa and is an evangelical pastor in the Anglican church there. He is very concerned about his diocese, and desperately wants renewal. He wants to come to the ACR conference in Chicago this summer and get help in revitalizing his diocese. After a good long talk about ACR's vision, he and I prayed together, and we have had contact since Urbana. Joseph wants to come to Chicago, and perhaps ACR will help him get there, as there are costs involved, but Joseph has little to spare.
How many more stories could I tell about the people I met? How much could I say about worshipping with so many people from so many nations in different languages, with a praise team that was absolutely incredible? How much could I say about the conversations I had? There was the plane ride with Brittany, the Harvard grad student--a Christian--who happened to be sitting across the aisle and reading Atlas Shrugged at the same time as me. There was Ryan, til 1:15am at the hotel bar, a young man, now an atheist, with a Jehovah's Witness upbringing. "You're the first Christian I've ever met who not only knew what he believed and why, but more importantly, was civil. Thank-you for this conversation." There was Rachel, the anthropology grad and possible missionary with the Jewish dad and the European mom, who didn't grow up "religious," but was won over to Christ through loving Christians on her campus. There was Larry and Joseph, who grew up in the rough neighborhoods in Dallas, and can't get enough Scripture and theology (especially John Piper). So many people the Lord has touched and changed who want to be agents of his mercy and grace. .
And then there was the Intervarsity Press bookstore...I brought home 52 pounds of books.
Ah yes, Urbana is a missions conference, and it is so much more. It is a time of worship, study, introspection & prayer. It is a chance to meet fine, young people who want to bring Jesus Christ to a hurting world through preaching the gospel and helping the poor, the orphans, the widows, the children in sexual slavery. There are wells to be dug, and clean water given to drink. There are pastors needed in our mainline churches who will preach the gospel. I have come away answering this question from ACR with the affirmative: "Will you answer the call?"