by Megan Sarian
I was overwhelmed, amazed and by the end of five days, slightly delirious. It was the 2009 Urbana Student Missions Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.
On a whim I browsed the exhibit hall where organizations offered mission opportunities. I walked up to the OMF International booth. I knew nothing about East Asia. I only knew that I loved Jesus and wanted to serve him. I was also looking for a job but as far as I knew, mission organizations wouldn’t find my skills helpful.
“I’m just a writer,” I told a friendly OMF International representative. I waited for her to ask if I would consider English teaching instead. To my surprise, her eyes welled up as she said, “We’ve been praying for writers to come talk to us. We can absolutely use you.”
Two years later, I settled into the Littleton, Colorado office as a Writer and Assistant Editor with OMF International. A year after that, I joined the OMF International representatives at the place where it all began.
As students approached our exhibit at Urbana, I could see them processing the same challenges that I had three years ago—the call to radical discipleship and the eye-opening glimpse of a powerful, compassionate and global God. “What is God teaching you at Urbana?” we would ask. They would look at us, then up at the ceiling, then off into space.
“Hmm, I don’t even know. There’s just … so much.”
And there was … so much. The Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri packed in 16,000 college students and mission-motivated participants. Over five days, ministry leaders, pastors and church planters taught from scripture, shared about God’s work around the world and challenged students to obey the Great Commission. In the exhibit hall, more than260 mission organizations stood ready to receive inquiring students and offer opportunities.
OMF International was one of the larger exhibiting teams. I confess wondering if it was excessive. We brought 32 representatives, 16 representing fields and 16 from the home side. I quickly repented of my doubts when the constant inflow of students left us physically exhausted but spiritually energized by the end of each day.
Over the course of five days, we engaged in over 800 conversations. Of those contacts, 405 people expressed interest in short-term opportunities, 141 sought mid-term service, 186 inquired about long-term work and 53 will seriously consider leading prayer groups on their campuses. Our prayer leading into this event was to see 12 committed long-term workers, 12-24 committed short-term workers and 12 prayer group leaders. Certainly God gave us this potential!
Rodney Pennington, a long-term worker in Northern Thailand, was encouraged by many participants’ openness to God’s calling. He saw Urbana’s strong emphasis on the Great Commission and solid biblical teaching influencing students.
“Time after time, students would come and talk with me about how their thoughts on living the ‘American way of life’ were altered during this event because of what God was revealing to them through the speakers, workshops and conversations they were having,” Rodney says. “This couldn’t have been a better blessing in my life.”
The presence of both field- and home-side workers afforded a great opportunity to engage deeply with students over their specific interests. I directed a young man interested in missional business to a field worker involved with a handicraft business in China. Those interested in Japan could talk with Steve and Kathi Weemes, who recently took roles on the U.S. home side after serving for 22 years in Japan.
And there you have a special feature of Urbana – the international reach. Not only do speakers and exhibitors offer international perspectives, but attendees come from diverse backgrounds and leave with callings to reach every corner of the earth. The Asian American-presence was particularly noticeable. Ethnic minorities comprised 44 percent of Urbana’s population, of which more than half were Asian American.
According to Erin Kawaye, a Japanese American and OMF International’s Serve Asia Follow-up Coordinator, Urbana’s theme of The Great Invitation, based off the banquet invitation in Luke 14, resonated with Asian Americans. “Asian Americans excel at hospitality,” says Kawaye. “But the youth don’t always realize that they have something to offer the world.” The Pan Asian North American Lounge provided short seminars on living out God’s purposes with their unique ethnic identities. “The chance to address these specific struggles was important,” says Kawaye.
Another unique feature of the conference, absent from past Urbana events, was the integration of social media. Urbana’s hyper-active 14-person social media team garnered national attention when the conference hashtag, #u12, trended on Twitter, and constant tweets gave play-by-play details of conference happenings all over the dome. For prepared exhibitors, the activity helped. Our team heralded a call for communication students on Twitter and thirty minutes later, a young writer approached to see how her skills could be used. Off-site friends of OMF International used our Twitter and Facebook updates for prayer fuel. “Praying for you all … Amazing to see God at work,” commented Heather Self from our Littleton office on a picture of students packed into our exhibit space.
Feedback indicates that the Holy Spirit worked powerfully at Urbana. Jessica, a college senior with whom we talked and prayed told us: “What has shaken me the most … is that the man who talked with me prayed for me. He was one of the only [exhibitors] to pray for me and it just really touched me and inspired me and made me realize that I want to do something this summer with my life.” Jessica is now talking with our Serve Asia coordinators about summer opportunities in East Asia. She is not the only up-and-coming short term worker that came from Urbana.
A blog post from Alec Hill, President of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship USA, reported the commitments made at Urbana: 4,224 will serve at least two years in missions, 6,434 will lead an evangelistic Bible study, 96 started following Jesus for the first time and 3,740 made a recommitment to Christ. We praise God for moving hearts to advance his kingdom on earth.
Pray that students remain faithful to God’s call. Pray that parents support their students, as one father saved up to attend Urbana with his two daughters. The girls plan to go on short-term trips through OMF International and the father is applying for a position at our Singapore office.
“What happens when every single student in this room makes their primary ambition … the proclamation of the gospel to the nations?” asked David Platt, plenary speaker and author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. It is a good question. A similar challenge in 2009 led me deeper into God’s word, then to the slums of Indonesia, then from Pennsylvania to Colorado to mobilize American Christians.
Where we go matters less than who we follow. As Urbana 12 students go back to their schools and families, may they pick up their crosses and follow Christ. And may the result be a tidal wave of God’s glory enveloping all nations.