My Unexpected Urbana Journey

I don’t know why I went.

I was a poor college student who was nearing graduation and beginning the job hunt. I had worked as an editorial assistant for a humanitarian journal my last two years of college and loved it; I wasn’t looking for a career in missions. Yet I dropped roughly $700 (when all was said and done) to make the journey to the 2009 Urbana missions conference. I don’t remember praying about the decision. I only remember my friend Ashley saying, “Even if you’re not interested in missions, you’ll get something out of the conference.”

Wow, was she right.

Missions had not been unfamiliar to me; I just didn’t see it as my thing. I had visited Nicaragua on two college spring break trips. My heart broke for the impoverished conditions of the people, but spiritual poverty was not as central on my radar. I loved Jesus and wanted to see Nicaraguans know him, but I was most driven to combat the barriers to faith in my own country.

Clearly, my personal agenda didn’t matter much to God. As the Urbana sessions moved along, two things hit me hard.

One was the statistical reality of global missions efforts around the world. Christians weren’t spending their resources in the most spiritually needy places. Two billion people lived without access to the gospel. As I learned later from The Traveling Team, only three percent of foreign missionaries were working to reach the billions of unreached people in the world. It all seemed so unfair. Was this not a problem the church could fix?

As I mulled over the discouraging statistics, God reminded me of his sovereignty and power. Speakers from those unreached regions stood up at the Urbana podium and testified to God’s deep love for them.

Who was this Creator who wielded such power and love for all cultures and nations? I had known him since I was a little girl. I had spoken passionately about him to my friends. But I had not seen him like this. I knew in my head that all people needed the gospel, but I didn’t feel I had experiential proof. Now, here it was: an Indian reverend, a Kenyan pastor, and a formerly Hindu young woman—all declaring that they had been saved. They held up Jesus to the audience as if showing off a precious jewel. His brilliance shone in their eyes. I was struck by the beauty of it all.

Urbana was not turning out to be the interesting, fun conference I had expected. It was weighty. I carried around big things in my heart now. What to do with them, I wasn’t sure.

Then came the afternoon options; either attend a seminar or take a break and visit the exhibit hall, where more than 250 missions organizations offered short- and long- term opportunities. I was about to graduate and was looking for a career; I didn’t see the purpose of checking out missions trips. But, that still, small voice—my mother’s—echoed in my head saying, “Just take advantage of the opportunity!”

I talked to three organizations in total. The third was OMF.

I knew nothing about East Asia—the region that OMF’s banners said they had a heart for. But I mistakenly made eye contact with a smiling face and the representative struck up a conversation.

Before she could offer me an English teaching opportunity, which I was ashamedly not interested in as an English major, I said, “I’m just a writer. Can you do anything with me?”

She teared up. “We’ve been praying for writers to come talk to us,” she said. “We can absolutely use you.”

What followed was a time of wrestling. I went from being clueless about missions and East Asia to leading a short-term missions trip to the slums of Indonesia. Instead of pursuing an editing position at a company that could offer me a stable salary, I was committing to be a writer who would live on others’ financial and prayer support. For a year-and-a-half after college graduation, I set aside thoughts of being an independent career woman; I spent my days living with my parents, nannying and giving presentations to raise up ministry partners, never quite knowing when and how it would all pan out.

Six years after the 2009 Urbana conference, I look back on those beginnings not as a sacrifice, but as an incredible undeserved blessing. Who am I that God chose to show me the depths of his heart for the world?

Today, as a Writer and Assistant Editor for OMF’s U.S. Communications Team in Littleton, Colorado, I write about God’s movement in remote villages of the Mekong region, in towering skyscrapers in China’s business districts, and on the home side, as U.S. churches take on the burden of prayer for unreached people groups. I get to advocate for those who don’t yet know the God for whom their souls long. I can say with the psalmist: “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples” (Psalm 96:3).

I pray that this year’s Urbana conference catches the attention of anyone whose worship has grown stale or whose heart questions the power and love of their God. He invites us into a global celebration with all of his children. We might have to wait for heaven for that, but a crowd of 17,000 Jesus-loving college students isn’t a bad place to start.

What doors will God open for you at Urbana? We’d love to hear how God is leading you. 

By Megan Sarian

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