I’m at Urbana 06 in St. Louis! This is InterVarsity’s 21st student mission convention, and it’s the largest ever, with over 22,000 delegates in attendance from every state and province and 144 countries. It’s been amazingly busy here, so there’s not much time to blog, but I’ll try to get a few posts in here and there as the convention progresses.
This is my fifth Urbana; I attended Urbana 93 as a college senior, and then I worked at Urbanas 96, 2000 and 03 in IVP’s onsite bookstore, first as the bookstore logistics coordinator in 96 and then staffing the book info booths in 2000 and 03, wearing fashionable bright orange Home Depot-like vests and helping students find the books they’re looking for. We at IVP attend many various conferences, conventions and trade shows each year, but Urbana is one of my favorites because we get to interact with the actual readers of our books, not just intermediaries like bookstore buyers or distributors or whatnot. It’s thrilling to see folks with armfuls and stacks of IVP books.
And though I’ve been to larger events, like Promise Keepers, I think Urbana is by far the most intense convention experience (often described as like trying to drink water from a firehose). There’s something extremely compelling about an arena of 20,000+ enthusiastic college students all eager to discover how God can use them around the world. The theme this year is “Live a Life Worthy of the Calling,” and we’re spending the week dwelling in Ephesians. Ajith Fernando is the Bible expositor for the convention. The opening night, Urbana director Jim Tebbe noted that this is the 200th anniversary of the Haystack prayer meeting at Williams College in 1806 that launched the modern missionary movement.
During a prayer response time, the prayer leader challenged us to pray big prayers that only God could answer, things that we could never personally accomplish on our own. Struck by the potential of what God could do through the lives of all the people in the room, I prayed for God to transform whole countries and continents, for the gospel to shape societies and nations in ways that even secular historians would have to recognize as being the result of the Christian faith. That Urbana 06 delegates would be called and deployed to cure AIDS, to relieve poverty, to stop wars and bring healing, reconciliation, justice and salvation to the ends of the earth. I haven’t prayed macro-level prayers like that for a while.
There are various tracks and emphases this year – urban issues, slum communities, business as mission, AIDS, much more. For certain delegates that are housed together in tracks, experiential discipleship is integrated into the program. In the slum communities track, housing is such that people are crammed into rooms with insufficient bedding, and some were issued a five-gallon bucket upon registration and told to use those five gallons of water for the totality of their bathing and washing for the week. Tonight for an AIDS emphasis, dinner will be a basic porridge (recipe from World Vision) that is easily digestible and provides needed nutrients for people who have the AIDS virus. The cost saved by having this meal instead of usual convention dinner fare will be donated to global missions.
Some of the most compelling components of the program this time are the theatre team’s platform presentations. For several Urbanas now drama has been used to act out Scripture passages as well as stand-alone sketches and parables. This time, the dozen or so theatre segments tell an ongoing, episodic story of a group of college students as they grapple with the realities and challenges of campus witness and global justice. Meg sees a university service project as an opportunity for mission, Paul thinks she’s being naive but Meg thinks Paul is too wishy-washy, Joe is excited to go on a short-term trip to Egypt but stumbles over learning Arabic, another student is conflicted about his ethnic heritage and family issues while another seems to have an eating disorder . . . (The dramas, as well as plenary talks and much of the program, are available online on Urbana’s webcast.)
It struck me that historically, different eras of students have resonated with different aspects of the program – back in the 60s and 70s biblical exposition took center stage, with expositors like John Stott unfolding Scripture. In the 90s musical worship came to the fore, and mission and worship fueled each other. Now theatre and drama seems to be what resonates with a generation raised on reality shows and episodic TV like Lost and Heroes. On a practical level, the dramas are keeping students coming back session after session because they want to find out what happens to these characters. On a larger level, it’s a great model of narrative theology and the power of story. We want to be part of a story of significance, and we see ourselves in these characters and can envision how God might work through us in the story.
What are your big prayers for the world? If you could, please do pray for the Urbana delegates, that they would hear God’s call for them and discern their role in the dramatic story of God’s mission. (BTW, one Urbana delegate was standing in the IVP bookstore when she got a call on her cell phone that her brother had been killed in an accident. She and her IV staff worker are headed home. Please pray for her and her family as well.) More later.