This is a guest post that does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Loch Raven Presbyterian Church.
Urbana is a tri-annual mission’s conference put on by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship which is a Christian organization on college campuses all over the world. Urbana’s purpose is to provide an avenue for students to explore the possibility of their call in God’s global mission.
Before Urbana, I had experienced some stuff in my personal life that brought me to the end of myself… but by God’s grace I had just enough faith to go running towards Him rather than away from Him. The first heart-to-heart prayer I had with God was simply saying “Lord, I’m not asking you to change the situation… But I need you to change me.” Looking back, that prayer was answered in so many different ways and Urbana is a big part of the story. In the month before Urbana, before I even knew what Urbana was, I had dove headfirst into just seeking God in a new and deeper way – learning His character in order to better understand His will. I was absorbing as many church sermons and messages that I could find online, reading scripture and books, and attending another Saturday church service. I was noticing my heart changing and being softened to be more receptive of things that were presented to me that may be God’s way of preparing me for the future plans He had for me.
One such example was when Pastor Milligan invited me to a dinner with a missionary that Loch Raven supports. Even attending this dinner was tangible evidence to myself that God was working in my heart. Normally I would have just declined the invitation – and done one of a dozen other things that night. But I said yes.
The missionary spoke about his experience attending Urbana with his girlfriend (now wife). Afterwards, Pastor Milligan mentioned, in passing, that Urbana was coming up at the end of the month and maybe I’d be interested in going. I was really worried about going to a “missionary” conference – where the goal is to get people to become missionaries. The idea of that was well beyond my comfort and not at all in whatever minimal plan that I thought I had for my life. But I prayed about it and talked with a few people and basically made myself available if God would provide the means. And He did – Almost immediately. I’m thankful for the outpouring of support and prayer I received. It was truly visible how good God is. But still, I ONLY HAD 2 weeks to “prepare” for a week-long trip with a few complexities: getting time off work, finding transportation, and finding a hotel room amongst 16,000 other people (who booked their rooms months in advance!).
God working things out
I contacted nearly every campus Intervarsity Staff leader in the Baltimore area to figure out travel arrangements and see if I could get hooked up with a group of people. The response I got back was as equally a “God thing” as hearing about Urbana – nearly everyone contacted back and tried to offer their assistance and encouragement. But I couldn’t find a place to stay.
The day before I was set to leave an Intervarsity staff member said 1 spot freed up in one of their hotel rooms and asked if I wanted it. I followed up immediately, but I never heard back from them. So ultimately, I boarded a plane to St. Louis for a weeklong conference with no definitive idea where I would be staying. Also, the night before Urbana, my flight was cancelled – just simply cancelled without any promise of a re-booking that day. This whole trip was going against my personality of planning and having some sort of control or idea of how things were going to pan out. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into – and I was kind of ok with that –which was so strange to me. Well I made it out there and eventually was able to find the room I was going to share with 3 strangers.
Finally at Urbana!
The first nights main session really set the stage for how this week was going to go. Worshipping with 16,000 other people at the same time was just incredible. Any fear or worry went out the door that night – and I was just excited to be with God and take in whatever God would say to me through this experience.
Each day started with a “small-group” bible study through different pages of Luke. And by small-group, I mean 200 to 300 people. That Bible study was the size of most of the retreats and conferences I had gone on previously. Then we’d go to the morning session. Every session started with really powerful worship. Each day there was a creative video skit portraying a portion of The Parable of the Great Banquet. Then we’d usually hear a testimony of someone who had attended Urbana in the past and were now in the mission field. Then one of several speakers would speak on different topics of spreading the gospel, making disciples, and mission work. After the session we would be on our own for lunch in the city. 16,000 people going to a couple dozen restaurants was quite a challenge… but it was actually really awesome – because it allowed for strangers to just sit down wherever they could find a seat and share their story.
The afternoons were a time for attending sessions on a huge range of topics from human trafficking to medical missions to missions in the workplace to suffering and faith. With over 100 session options to choose from you had to narrow it down to 6 total – 2 sessions per afternoon. I chose “Business as a Mission” which dealt with how to run a business that doubled as a mission.. “Suffering & Faith” which dealt with the Christian response to suffering and tragedy locally and around the world.. “The Role Of The North American Church in Global Missions” which was a panel of missionaries from other countries speaking about how to “do missions” in a way that is truly beneficial to the ones we are trying to serve. Some of the things said were very enlightening – like some of the ways we treat missions trips are actually destructive to the communities being served as Americans go into these countries trying to “fix” their problems in the American way rather than learning and coming alongside of the natives.. Then there was “6 Ways to Reach God’s World” which was a group discussion on what we can be doing in global missions – which is to Learn, pray, welcome missionaries, send missionaries, mobilize, go).. Then my favorite was “Making Disciples: From Skeptics to World Changers” which basically ran through how to help a non-believer through the process of knowing Christ and ultimately doing something / spreading the Gospel after being saved.. And then there was “Seek God: Seek Justice” which was put on by the International Justice Mission – this was the one that has had a visible impact on me personally. It basically briefly presented the issue of modern day slavery and human trafficking – in the world and in the United States. It’s estimated that there are currently 27 million slaves in the world contributing to the 32 billion dollar per year industry. I talked with a representative from the organization later in the day and it sparked an interest to want to learn more about the issue and get involved somehow. There’s a local organization called Araminta Freedom that is committed to seeing human trafficking in Baltimore end. I’ve signed up for a 5 week class to learn more about the issue and how to be involved in making a change.
So in the evening’s there was dinner provided to all 16,000 attendees – which was quite interesting – but it allowed you to meet and talk with many different people throughout the week.
After dinner was the evening session – which again started with worship. Each night there were creative arts – interpretive dancing or really well-done skits of Biblical stories. And then another speaker would speak. While exhausted from a long day, every nights session was just so powerful.
16,000 people assembling medical kits
One night, everyone together assembled 32,000 basic medical kits for Christian caregivers in South Africa. (Latex gloves, cotton swabs, anti-fungal cream, petroleum jelly, soap, wash cloths, water purification packets) The caregivers are simply people in the community who are gracious enough to travel to people’s homes and provide basic care for those unable to visit medical facilities which are few and far between. We also wrote notes of encouragement to the caregivers and included them in the kits. This was put on by World Vision – and it was the largest Caregiver Kit assemblies in their history.
As you can tell, the whole week was packed – there really was no free time. Being surrounded by thousands of other Christians who were passionately seeking God’s direction for their lives was just so awesome. It was great to have the little conversations I did with people. Throughout the entire week I never met a person from the same place. I had conversations with people from Ireland, South Africa, Japan, and a handful of different states. The whole conference was so well done and organized – it was incredibly impressive.
This may sound like I just “went to a conference” – but it was not that easy for me. There were a lot of personal things that changed for me that allowed this to happen. It was, and still is, God working through me in so many weird, funny, ironic, amazing little ways that all weave themselves together and it would take much longer than the time I have now to explain it – but God is so faithful and amazing when you make time to make yourself available to listen to Him.
So after Urbana, I’ve been continuing to seek God deeper, growing in my relationship with Him and doing little things to serve Him while I’m discerning His will for my life – whether that’s just a continuation of these small experiences and the life I’m living now or something more drastic – I’m listening and available to receive – which is humbling. My current life verse is James 1:4 which says, “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” I have desires on my heart that I never had before – and I want to do things now that I didn’t even truly consider before. But I also realize that, while we can be useful to God’s mission anytime, sometimes we need more refining before stepping into God’s future plan for our lives.
A song that has really captured me recently, and may be encouraging to you as well, is “Called Me Higher” by All Sons & Daughters. It says:
I could just sit and wait for all your goodness
Hope to feel your presence
And I could just stay right where I am and hope to feel you
I could hold on to who I am and never let You change me from the inside
And I could be safe here in Your arms and never leave home
Never let these walls down
But you have called me higher
You have called me deeper
And I will go where you will lead me Lord
I will be Yours for all my life
So let Your mercy light the path before me
Simply worshipping on Sunday and being a consumer of the church is not what God has called us to do. He has called us to spread the gospel, make disciples, and take care of those in need – to actively participate in His kingdom. While all of us are not called to be global missionaries and go overseas, we are all called to be “missionaries” of Christ exactly where God has put us – in our homes, at school, at work, in the neighborhood.
We all have skills and abilities that can benefit the church and those who are called to be missionaries. We may not go out in the mission field – but the organizations that support and manage missionaries need the same sort of talent and skills that you possess and use in your day job. Consider serving them. Lastly, (well, really firstly) prayer is such a critical part of God’s work. Be in prayer for those that have been called to serve. Be in prayer for those they are reaching. Be in prayer for the churches that are sending – for the people that are supporting.
Ultimately, we need to be open and available to God – getting out of our comfort zones and abandoning our craving to create our own sense of safety and security – being thankful to God for salvation and His blessings today and living out the Gospel of God’s radical grace and love… as if tomorrow was not promised.