Urbana – if you’ve ever done anything with InterVarsity, you know all the specs already — the largest missions conference in North American, 18,000 students gathered to be mobilized for the Kingdom, you know, all that jazz… the kind of stuff that goes REALLY nice on a brochure.
But if you’ve ever done anything with InterVarsity, you know Urbana is more than good PR (even tho it is). So much more. Life change. Turning point. Revolutionary. Pinacle. I’ve met 60 year-old IV alum in farm towns in rural Illinois tear up when they talk about New Years Eve communion at Urbana in the sixties. Four out of Five IV staff cite Urbana as a key factor in the decision to do campus ministry.
For me, Urbana has marked the seasons in my adult Christian life like towering goal posts. Life is never as cut and dry, but Urbana helps me organize the seasons in faith journey more clearly than most other events. Urbana 03 – the plucky, conflicted, semi-confused Korean American youth group student encounters a God and a Kingdom much bigger than anything he could have imagined. Urbana 06 – the naive young, unfunded staff sets out on the long journey of ministry.
And not that Urbana embodies the Kingdom of Heaven anymore than any other conference, any other week, any other time for that matter. God is omnipresent, I have to remind myself. Yet, there is something about Urbana that is Costco-sized kairos time, an opportune moment… when supreme and universal themes of God, humanity, mission, vocation come swirling together in the fierce urgency of now… perhaps something college students can resonate with moreso than your typical adult.
My journals from my first Urbana in 2003, a young InterVarsity student fighting cynicism, holding back. A committed Christian, yes. An active leader, yes. But unsure if all this excitement about Jesus was worth it. I remember getting caught up in the emotional synergy of 20,000 dancing, jumping students and wondering, am I getting too much into this? I wrote things like this following my return home:
I know that God is up to something in this world. I was skeptical going into Urbana. With all those people, I was bracing for emotional manipulation up the wazoo.
And it was emotional. You should have been there at 11:59December 31, 2003. 20,000 exploding Christians exclaiming “YOU ARE! YOU ARE! YOU ARE!” May seem like an incomplete sentence and grounds for minus points, but that phrase makes a lot of sense when you realize that.. God, well, He just is…
But I digress. Amidst all the hoopla, I sat down in my seat as they began holy communion. (doing it for 20,000 people took some time). While most people were singing, or praying, or looking flat out spiritual, I just kinda sat. I thought about a lot of stuff. And you know what I realized? The emotion. The tears. The ups and downs. The struggles. The trials. The temptations. You know, they come and go.
The feelings that I’m all spiritual and holy and stuff. It comes and goes. You that feeling that I can take on the world and change the world for Jesus? It comes and goes. You know that moment in worship when you think that this is the most amazing experience in the world and that I can’t wait to go to heaven. Well, sadly that comes and goes.
I remember now, where I was then. Struggling with sin, guilt, feeling on one hand waaaay too confident in myself and my abilities. And on the other, like I had this dirty little secret about myself that nobody knew. I was good at repressing/ignoring the second part.
Urbana punched a whole in that cynicism. Not by more emotional hoopla. Not by bigger, better worship, or bigger and better speakers or lights, multimedia and slick graphics (tho Urbana had all that). It did it by presenting Spirit and truth. The undeniable, undescribable truth of who God is, His essence, His love, His mission, His Gospel, His word. And infusing it with Spirit. The awe-inspiring sense of His total presence that transcends emotion. The weightiness of His presence.
Urbana was the same as any other conference I’d been to in that there is the same spiritual peer pressure. The same group impulse to ride the emotional roller coaster together. But the difference? Well, I’ll let 2004 Andy Kim explain:
But what totally knocks me over is the realization that while so many aspects of my spirituality and my faith waver, whats TRUE doesn’t. I think I miss that sometimes. When I’m in a spiritual rut. When I’m wondering what the heck I’m doing with my life, I realize that the truth that “God is.”
This truth doesn’t make my problems go away. It doesn’t make me suddenly feel happy or make me want to become a missionary to Antarctica or anything. The strange thing is, well maybe not so strange, the truth stays true no matter what I do. And because I can confirm this truth in everyday life as I look at the world and I look at the church, I know that this truth is worthy to be adhered to.
So what I got at Urbana was a lot of stuff (some good stuff and some bad stuff) but most importantly, I experienced the truth. And that doesn’t change when I’m sitting at my computer in Evanston. And it won’t change for my missions organization reaching out to the peoples of Antarctica.
Reading my journal, even from my post Urbana03 experiences, the tone is still hesitant, excited, but still unsure. I honor that. I know students will probably be in the same place.
What I can say confidently, 6 years later. That cynicism of Urbana03 is washed away. What remains is an undeniable affirmation of the truth of God’s mission and the amazement that I am a part of it. I’m not revising history, I’m refining history — leaving what really matters, what really lasts.
I have new cynicisms now, I have new fears, new uncertainties. But I know how far I’ve come. As I look forward toward the next 5 days, the 16000 students that are making their way to St. Louis. I am excited. Sure, a little scared and uncertain. But excited and hopeful. Knowing that God has done this many times before, and He’s in control.