First day at Urbana student missionary conference

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By Bill Bray

First night's gathering, Urbana 2012
First night’s gathering, Urbana 2012

Despite horror stories of all night drives and delayed flights, over 13,000 young missionary candidates squeezed through stadium doors last night to attend the opening night of Urbana 2012. The world’s longest running student missionary conference, surveys show that half the Protestant missionary force from the USA has made career choices at this event.

If the fervor demonstrated last night is any indication, that statistic is going to remain true for another student generation. ASSIST News Service is embedded at the “International Track ” hotel that hosts at least 600 foreign students, many of whom will be going back as missionaries to their own home nations.

No wonder that over 250 mission agencies spend millions of dollars to exhibit here this week and interview potential candidates. Over 16,000 students are registered to attend from over 100 countries.

Over 44% of the attendees are ethnic minorities (African, Latino and Asian) with separate hotels, lounges, and daily prayer meetings to help them process the rich program content in context of their own languages and cultures. Indigenous missions both in the USA and in “all nations” are well represented.

Speakers, music, and dramatic productions are presented by messengers who often share in the context of their own past decisions made at one of the previous 23 Urbana conventions. Last night’s preacher for example was Kenya’s Calisto Odede, who told the students that when he sat in their seats, the Holy Spirit told him to go back to Africa and start an Urbana-like conference there.

Today, Odede heads the Commission Conference in Nairobi which pulls 3000 African young people from 16 countries to hear the challenge of completely reaching all the 600 nations of Africa with the gospel. He begged the students to lay aside their ambitions and personal plans and urgently listen to the Holy Spirit in the week ahead.

The students for the most part responded soberly and seriously to the extended times of worship, prayer, exhortation and resources. The book of the day was “Western Christians in Global Mission” by Paul Borthwick.

Urbana 2012 is jointly sponsored as a ministry to the whole body of Christ by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (USA) and Inter-Varsity Canada. The conference actually began in Toronto, 1946 and has largely shaped post WWII missions. If the thoughtful leadership being demonstrated here this week continues, Urbana is likely to make a strong impact on Century 21 as well.