By Tom Lin

Ditching the Shallow: A Radical Generation at Urbana 12

I’m still in awe.

What would happen if this generation embraced a vision to give their whole lives to God’s global mission?

Exactly one year ago, 16,000 participants from diverse backgrounds across North America (49 percent were not White) came together to engage this vision at the triennial Urbana Student Missions Conference. After hearing the extremely challenging call to missions from Scripture throughout the five days, I was in tears as I watched thousands of people respond by committing to long-term and mid-term service. It ended up being the most commitments we had seen since 2000, and the highest percentage in several decades. 

As students were challenged to “ditch the shallow,” one Urbana historian shared that it was “the most challenging Urbana since 1987,” while others were reminded of the 1970s Urbanas, known for their clear focus on sharing the gospel with the nations. The powerful Bible expositions by Kenyan pastor Calisto Odede anchored the Conference, while God used the theater sketches, multiethnic worship, and artistic elements to clearly contextualize the message to the language and culture of this generation.

I’m in awe of how Urbana tackled some difficult topics—topics like transforming charity and activism to gospel-centered mission, and not reducing the gospel to just praying a prayer nor “reducing Jesus to a puny Savior,” as David Platt challenged.

The growing influence of the Majority World church was captured by testimonies from a Latin American missionary serving in Europe and a Brazilian pastor preaching in Spanish, in addition to Calisto’s messages.

I’m in awe of this generation of students that engages action-oriented learning, like the live blogging and 40,000+ tweets at the Conference as well as Urbana’s first app (for the Urban Poverty Track). The innovative Launch Lab, an interactive place where participants incubated their missional ideas with the help of coaches and mentors, couldn’t hold all the people who wanted to participate.

The most interactive learning activity, which happened to be the biggest new undertaking of Urbana 12, was our “Join-In” plenary session. An amazing picture was painted that night: the floors were cleared, semi-truck trailers took their place in the Dome, and every participant used their hands to assemble a record 32,000 medical caregiver kits while giving hugs to the real hero of the evening, a World Vision volunteer in Swaziland. I was in awe of how this generation’s hearts and minds were engaged, and how the elements of the evening came together to proclaim a powerful message: we are all invited to serve alongside our brothers and sisters in the good work God is doing through the global church.

“There’s something radical about the group of students at this Urbana” was a phrase echoed by many organizations that exhibited as they interacted with thousands of students. “We saw a passion for sharing the gospel that we haven’t seen for decades,” they said. Indeed, over 6,400 students committed to leading an evangelistic Bible study after the Conference, a record number since the invitation was first given in 2006. 

I’m in awe of this student generation that is so equipped to embrace rapid change and innovation, to cross cultures in their local context as well as the global context, and to resource places of need.

I’m in awe because as North Americans, we continue to be invited to play a part in God’s global mission. God uses the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, older graduates and younger students, and the many who never imagined that they would participate in his mission, because it’s an “all-play” mission. Every Christian student has been invited to participate.

Every Christian student is a missionary. (Click to tweet this.)

I’m in awe that God continues to use Urbana as a special place to mobilize the next generation—to call generations into global mission and into life trajectories that have not only brought others to Christ, but have also transformed our country and the world for the better.

I can’t wait to see what God will do at Urbana 15. See you in 730 days!


Check our blog this week and follow Urbana Missions on Facebook and Twitter for ongoing encouragement and reflections on Urbana, including emcee Greg Jao in a Santa hat!

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Tom Lin is InterVarsity’s President.

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