ST. LOUIS (BP)–Answering the call to missions and seeking clues to global issues facing the church, record numbers of college students and youth converged in St. Louis for the 21st Urbana Student Missions Conference at the Edward Jones Dome and America’s Center Dec. 27-31.
Conference officials reported 22,256 registrations from 144 countries as of Dec. 23, which is an increase of 1,500 over the previous convention held in 2000.
During an opening news conference Dec. 27, Alec Hill, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, said a special emphasis would be placed on calling students to make long-term commitments to missions.
“This event is not just another conference. Urbana conventions … have been a catalyst for thousands of people to make life-long commitments to cross cultural missions,” Hill said. “Urbana has been and we pray will continue to be a watershed event for thousands of students who make life-altering decisions here.”
The North American missions convention, sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and Canada, seeks to mobilize students for missions by offering a platform for spiritual introspection through worship and Bible study, missions education through specialized seminars, and opportunities for service. This year, more than 270 mission organizations stand ready to sign up willing participants for trips and missions activities in the exhibit hall.
The week-long conference includes guest speakers Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, and Ajith Fernando of Sri Lanka’s Youth for Christ, who will explore the theme “Live a Life Worthy of the Calling,” during daily Bible teaching sessions in Ephesians.
Along with an overall increase in attendance, the conference has seen a record number of Canadian youth respond to the Urbana challenge, according to Geri Rodman, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of Canada. With 2,150 delegates this year, Canadian representation more than doubled over the previous conference.
“That’s a very significant reality for us,” Rodman said. “We believe that God’s hands are upon the students who are coming. We did better in our recruitment, but there is something additional that we believe is going on with the students in terms of their spiritual life. They are ready to hear from God, and they are ready to make the next step.”
Dubbed the Millennial generation, students born between 1977 and 2000 have been touted in the media for their ingenuity, ability to assume new technology, and social-oriented personal goals.
“This generation of Millennials, they are just fabulous,” Hill added. “They want to go. They are optimistic. They are missional in their focus and their orientation, and they are global. We love this generation of students.”
Millennial Ellen Jenkins has served as a missionary in Poland, Swaziland and South Africa with the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. At Urbana, she’s recruiting her peers for summer mission tours to Zimbabwe and Malaysia.
In speaking to the students, Jenkins has found most are using Urbana as a vehicle to uncover God’s purpose for their lives even if they are unsure about participating in missions.
“The ones I’ve talked to have a heart for the Lord,” she said. “They are here seeking out His will for their lives.”
Hoping the event brings clarity to the students for those called to missions, Jenkins said most Millennials desire to make their faith an everyday reality.
“I definitely know that in my own life, as part of this generation, that sometimes when I look at the calling that the Lord has placed on my life, I feel so honored and so blessed that He would use me to bring His second coming one step closer,” she said. “That is probably the viewpoint of a lot of people.”
Imbued with a global perspective, Jenkins believes Millennials see missions in a personal way.
“There is more access to what goes on in the world than there used to be. They have more ability to see the needs of people than maybe they had in previous years,” she said. “And there is more an emphasis on ministering to people in the way Jesus did. There is more an emphasis on going.”
Believing the current generation of students to possess the ability to change the face of missions, Urbana organizers are offering seminars that address global realities plaguing the North American church. Four new tracks provide inquiry into the globalization of the church, urbanization of the world’s population, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and mobilization of business leaders as missionaries.
Jim Tebbe, Urbana director and InterVarsity vice president of missions, said conference organizers wanted to address some of the great missiological challenges that students will encounter in the field.
“One of [these issues] was AIDS and how the church engages with AIDS, and the second [issue] was … urbanization,” Tebbe said. “More than half of the world’s population lives in urban centers and yet much of our missiological imagery and models are rural. Thus comes the emphasis on the city.”
Beyond special tracks, the conference features more than 200 seminars and workshops led by ministry leaders, missionaries and InterVarsity staff from across the world. Although attendees include a diverse range of ages, Hill said there’s a specific reason Urbana focuses on students who are transitioning into adulthood.
“College students and recent graduates are forming habits and priorities that will shape their lives for the next 60 years,” Hill said. “That’s why we are so passionately committed to students and the university. If we can effectively present the case for global missions now, they will make life-long commitments by going, giving and praying. And the ripple effect of thousands of these decisions will change the world.
“Our prayer is that mission leaders of tomorrow will be the engineering students, the English majors, the med students, the artists and the political science students who made commitments this week,” he said.
In a pre-conference survey, students were asked why they chose to attend Urbana 06. From eight possible answers, 72 percent of delegates indicated a search for God’s will motivated their attendance, 49 percent desired to learn about missions, 43 percent indicated they wanted to learn about what God is doing in the world, and 39 percent wanted to experience the conference.
“We have a very serious group of students who are keen on what they want to do. I was glad our theme for the convention was you have a calling,” said Tebbe, noting that Bibles printed with the phrase ‘Live a life worthy of the calling’ will be given to attendees. “Our emphasis is on calling, because that seems to be what the delegates are most looking for.”