This is an article from the March 2001 issue: God’s Story

Worship Becoming Mission: Urbana 2000

Worship Becoming Mission: Urbana 2000

Urbana 2000 was characterized by Jubilant praise to the Father which transformed into burning desire to proclaim His glory among the natons.

Over 19,000 worshipers--mostly college-aged--crowded into a domed arena they affectionately called "the mother ship," to sing high praises to the Father and His Son, Jesus. Beginning on December 27 and finishing the year 2000 together, many of these worshipers began to see a transformation in their lives, one that had been underway since before they were born. As they experienced the missionary heart of the Father, their own hearts were transformed to recognize His missionary call to them. Such was the significance of the InterVarsity-sponsored, Urbana 2000 convention for the crowd of hungry-hearted delegates.

"Urbana's book"
In each delegate's bag of materials came a thick book. The title "because God first loved us" appeared on the book's cover, but its spine revealed the contents: Holy Bible.

The Bible has been called "the book of Urbana," and rightly so, since the convention has held Biblical teaching as a high priority. Explaining the goal of the plenary sessions, Barney Ford, director of Urbana 2000, stated succinctly, "We're trying to help students understand the Biblical basis of mission." Methods for reaching that sometimes elusive goal vary, and Urbana 2000 took a unique approach to the task. Instead of having lots of messages focused specifically on traditional missions topics, InterVarsity's Urbana team planned the content of the entire conference to enfold the message of missions into the context of God's love. Ford explains why they chose a story format: "We are praying that God's Scriptures--Genesis to Revelation--will grip students' lives so they will never be able to understand the Scriptures any way but correctly--which is that 'God is on a mission and they are on a mission with Him.'"

Ken Fong, senior pastor at Evergreen Baptist Church ofLos Angeles in Rosemead, California, led the delegates through key chapters of God's story each morning. The first morning focused on God's "first kiss" to humanity at the creation in Genesis 1. The next day Ephesians 1 and God's desire to adopt us were in the spotlight. Weaving together the joy of His love and our response to Him, Fong said, "You know what it means to be a missionary? You catch God's character of pre-loving, and you begin to love a people you don't even know." For Fong, the message of adoption is a particularly meaningful one: After several years of trying to bear or adopt a child, he and his wife were able to adopt a baby girl. In a touching display, he brought them both up on stage and, cradling Janessa in his arms, said to her, "You are a pre-loved child."

The miracle and significance of Pentecost from Acts 2 was the theme the following morning. He explained that it is God's Spirit breathed within us that helps us overcome our self-consciousness and self-centeredness. When we are "drunk" with the Spirit we can share of His love freely, just as the apostles once did. But this gift is not to be hoarded: "The Holy Spirit is given in cooperation with being sent."
Read more of Ken Fong. 

The final chapter closed with the worship of God by all nations in Revelation. Fong shared that his role was "to ruin you so that you can't think below the 'Kingdom of God' horizon."

"An instrument in His hands"
The historically triennial convention has been a key in student mission mobilization for over half a century. The first convention of the Urbana tradition was held in Toronto, Canada in 1946. Stacey Woods, InterVarsity's General Secretary at the time, expressed his hopes after that meeting:

    We are praying that this convention might be just the beginning of a mighty missionary movement on the part of thousands of Christian students throughout North America. We hope that we may be an instrument in God's hands not only as a home mission, preaching the Gospel to America's college students, but also as a foreign missionary recruiting agency supplying a stream of trained missionary candidates, a pool of consecrated manpower for the evangelization of the world.

Since that first gathering, which drew 575 students, some 213,000 people have attended an Urbana convention. In 1948, the student convention moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where it has been based ever since. Over the years, the name of the convention and the city have grown to be synonymous.

With temperatures well below freezing and an abundance of ice and snow, many students from warmer climates chatter out, "Why does it have to be here--in the middle of winter!"

Aside from the strong pull of tradition, the practice of the University of Illinois to have students vacate the dorms over the winter break has helped to facilitate the crowds that the conference now generates.

"Any gospel that does not speak..."
One of the key themes of Urbana 2000 was racial reconciliation in the Church. The diversity in the Church was emphasized first by the lineup of speakers, which included more women and ethnic minorities than previous conventions. "1970 was the first time that they tried to diversify the platform," said Fong. "This would not be the same conference if it was all done one way, one culture."

As Fong alludes, 1970 brought a major shift in Urbana's focus towards the issue of ethnic minorities and missions. In the charged atmosphere of the '70s, Tom Skinner laid out for Urbana delegates a brief history of racial oppression in America. At the close of his talk he said, "Any gospel that does not speak to the issue of slavery; does not speak to the issue of injustice; does not speak to the issue of inequality; any gospel that does not want to go where people are hungry and poverty stricken and set them free is not the Gospel." There were roughly 500 African Americans among the 9,000 delegates in 1970. The Urbana 2000 team was quite actively trying to attract a greater percentage of African Americans. The roughly 700 who attended fell short of original estimates.

But the picture is really brighter than those figures might indicate. Asian Americans constituted a full 26 percent of over 20,000 delegates; Hispanics, 3.5 percent. There was also a small Native American contingent. About 10 percent of delegates did not specify an ethnic background. All told, ethnic minorities constituted more than 35 percent--maybe as much as 40 percent--of the entire convention. Participants walked away with a sense of the breadth of Christ's body. "Better than any other year is the emphasis on the global Church. The precedent it sets is phenomenal," said one mission representative.

"First, they learn that He loves them"
Many found the message of diversity powerful but perplexing. Presumably, most would agree that we must work as one body to obey the Great Commission, but sometimes the connection was not clear to students. Some were asking, "Wasn't this supposed to be a missions conference? Why did it take three days to reach the main point?" Agency representatives, too, were commenting that past meetings have included more foreign missions content: more missionary testimonies from cross-cultural church planters and more information on unreached people groups.

Some of the criticism was that the punch of past Urbanas was muted by the emphasis at this convention on seeing God's mission in context with His complete work in the believer's life. Urbana 2000 was storyboarded--planned from start to finish like a film--as never before.

Barney Ford laid out the "story" of Urbana 2000: "God has given this generation worship to draw them into His heart. First, they learn that He loves them and made them valuable." Then, they must "tell the truth about what is going on inside ... and the need for justice in the world." In chapter three, they "experience a generosity that empowers us to get outside ourselves, that puts us in mission." In chapter four, God invites them to "join Him. That is a part of the gift of worship. We get the gift of being on a mission with God."

According to Paul Borthwick of Development Associates International, and a veteran of seven Urbana conventions, in the past "the speaking team has been more like an all-star team, where everybody comes in and tries to just smash it out of the park." While that strategy has made for many powerful moments, it was probably weak on continuity and seeing the whole story, God's big picture. For past speakers, "whether you were listening to the guy who went before you or woman who followed you was not really that relevant," Borthwick continued. "It has been an amazing experience of the Urbana team working as a team." Maybe some students will take to heart the method as well as the message.

"We always get recruits"
Perhaps the most practical aspect of the conference is the exhibit time. With over 2,500 of the delegates arriving at Urbana already sure of their calling to missions (and over 5,000 more who felt they probably would go) the big question on many students' minds is: Where can I serve God in missions? On another level, nearer to the heart, they are asking: Where do my interests and gifts fit in the mosaic of His master plan?

Some 320 mission agencies and schools were on hand to try to help students search out answers to these questions. Dean Young of Servant Partners saw great interest among students to live out the Gospel among the unreached urban poor. Their booth was designed to look like a cardboard shack, highlighting their emphasis on incarnational ministry to the poor in the U.S. and overseas. Other notable booths included a reconstruction of the Taj Mahal by Frontiers and Operation Mobilization's dramatic evangelism extravaganza.

A new addition to this Urbana was the Cooperative Mission Exhibit staffed jointly by eleven different agencies to "provide a visible demonstration of non-competitive recruitment." They used a database where students could look up opportunities that match their skills and interests.

Mission agencies have continued to look to Urbana for new recruits: Urbana 2000 drew 45 more exhibiting organizations than they have had in previous years. George Verwer, founder and director of Operation Mobilization, said, "They invite these proactive mission groups to be here and recruit. That's why OM is here. We always get recruits from Urbana." He continued, "Our first burden is to partner with them, have input into their lives, that they may be effective in building the Kingdom for the rest of their life, whether it's in their hometown or in the regions beyond."

Mixed in among those exhibitors and delegates were over 1,600 missionaries in contact with the students. The teaching and testimonies are a tremendous means to pump passion into the delegates, but the importance of the missionaries' presence among the students should not be underestimated. A number of studies have recognized that as a person moves ever closer to reaching the field, he or she needs more personal attention to be able to take the next step. Translation: big meetings open their eyes to God's mission; one-on-one is what it takes to get them to the field.
Read more from an exclusive with George Verwer.  

"An issue of obedience"
The journey to the mission field begins with simple steps of obedience. The delegates took a firm step in the right direction by raising over $1 million for the poor. More than $900,000 was received in an offering, and over $100,000 more was saved by fasting one meal.

Then, with a message centered on passion, servanthood and sacrifice, the Urbana story reached its climax with Paul Borthwick's direct challenge to cross-cultural mission. Resisting pop culture's tendency to water down a meaningful word, Borthwick explained, "Passion is the zeal to be so intensely committed to something that we would be willing to suffer or even die for it."

What is the focus of our passion to be? Echoing Jesus' words in Matthew 24:14, he declared, "The great story of God's redemption must be proclaimed to all nations, all peoples." As he issued the invitation there was little room for excuses: "Being involved in God's global purposes is not an issue of guidance or calling. It's an issue of obedience." Thousands who felt called to cross-cultural missions stood, testifying to the decision in their heart, "Yes, Lord, send me!"

"I've never seen people pop up like they did," said Borthwick, reflecting on the moment. "I almost hadn't finished, and they were standing up."

But he also recognized the value of the written response to substantiate a would-be missionary's resolve when the swell of an emotion-charged moment has receded.

The following morning the delegates filled out the detailed decision card. Out of the 14,500 cards submitted to InterVarsity, over 10,500 were committed to becoming World Christians, "organizing my life, resources and values" around God's mission. Over 5,000 (35 percent) felt called to "cross-cultural missions as my vocation." Some 2,100 were committed to serve cross-culturally for more than 3 years, and over 7,000 were ready to serve for 1 to 3 years.

But what steps do they need to take to get there? Most delegates felt the need to focus on foundational aspects of their growth, committing to study the Bible and to face sin in their lives. Nearly 4,000 said they would make a lifestyle change to be better stewards of their time and money. Many chose to get to know a missionary or be mentored by someone. (See more Urbana 2000 Stats.)

"The final chapter"
On New Year's Eve, the delegates gathered one last time to share in the Lord's Supper, foreshadowing the day when mission will be transformed back into worship. As they ushered in the new millennium, they envisioned a day when a new age would begin with worship from every nation--directed to the Lamb that was slain. And they will sit down at His table together. Then mission will be over. Let the worship service begin.

Ian Downs is an assistant editor for Mission Frontiers. Last year he was assigned to cover several events, including Amsterdam 2000, The Call DC and Urbana 2000. He is currently studying journalism at Pasadena City College.


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