Paul Borthwick was 19 years old, attending his first Urbana Student Missions Conference, when he realized that God spoke with an accent. Listening to the Bible exposition of London pastor John R.W. Stott, Borthwick heard the gospel message explained for the first time from other than an American cultural perspective.
Getting a global perspective on how God is at work in the world, and responding to God’s global invitation, is what InterVarsity’s Urbana Student Missions Conference is all about. The next Urbana conference begins one year from today at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
A Global Sneak Peek
Because Paul is a missions consultant who travels the globe and also teaches at Gordon College in Massachusetts, he can offer a global sneak peak. He did that recently with InterVarsity employees, before meeting with the rest of InterVarsity’s Urbana leadership team to help plan the Urbana 12 conference.
"Somewhere between 1985 and 1987 the Bible believing church became predominantly non-white, non-western," Paul said. “Our faith is being molded by, and is molding, the cultures of the world. It challenges all of us when we're interacting globally to suspend some of our theological judgments to listen and try to understand how somebody else from another land is hearing the scriptures, maybe for the first time."
When Christians in other parts of the world consider American perspectives on the gospel they sometimes see naïve optimism, according to Paul. And that’s not necessarily a negative assessment. One group told him, "We need American zeal.”
Paul shared five observations about our globalized society and Christianity.
- The world is young, restless, and uncertain. More than 50 percent of the world’s population is under the age of 25. "It's one of the reasons why your work in student ministry is so significant,” Paul said. “Because that is still the most moldable age, where people shape their world view and decide not only what kind of world they want to enter but what kind of world they want to help create." However, many of the world’s young people live in situations with little hope. “The church is the place where there is a message of hope” he added.
- The Christian faith is non-white, non-western, and non-wealthy. "One of the great challenges we face in North American mobilization is the downsizing of our expectations and our American sense of entitlements,” Paul said. "Our faith also has to go hand and hand with poverty alleviation because the grim reality is a large number of the places where the gospel is growing the fastest are also the poorest."
- The church is globalized, technologized, and lonely. “We are more connected than ever and our relationships are more superficial than ever,” Paul said.
- We're living in a world of faiths in conflict. Paul noted that when he taught in Nigeria in September he discovered that every student he talked with knew someone who had been killed in the ongoing conflicts between Muslims and Christians in that country.
- We live in a world of migrations and urbanization. “World religions used to be some exotic thing in other part of the world. Now, migration means we have a Hindu neighbor, a Buddhist coworker and a Muslim doctor,” Paul said. He added that African Christians are now planting churches in the U.S. and Europe. "The Redeemed Christian Church of God in Nigeria already has 500 churches across North America," he said.
Over the past century the Christian church has grown tenfold or greater in Africa. "On a global scale we are living in the fruits of the labors and sacrifices of the last 200 years of people who gave their lives to spread the gospel," Paul said. "In the 1880's there was scarcely a Christian in Korea. Now Korea is the second largest missionary sending country in the world."
You can hear or download his complete talk here. At Urbana 09, Paul shared a similar overview, called Around the World in 60 Minutes. The world is shrinking and changing with increasing rapidity. There will be even more to share a year from now at Urbana 12 in St. Louis. More perspectives on Urbana 12 one year away will be shared this week on the InterVarsity blog at www.intervarsity.org/blog.
Although InterVarsity is primarily a US-focused campus ministry, world missions has always been one of our priorities. This is expressed through our triennial Urbana conferences, as well as through the relationships we maintain with the 155-plus campus ministries in other countries that make up the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Those missions connections are growing stronger as we find ourselves in an increasingly globalized world.