ST. LOUIS – Approximately 16,000 students are spending a big chunk of their Christmas break (five days, including New Year's Eve) attending a student missions conference. Most are Christian, some are not, but in either case why would they set aside typical vacation activities to attend Urbana 12 – a series of speaker sessions, Bible studies, times of worship, and more than 250 exhibitors?
"You say why come to Urbana on my winter break? I say why not come to Urbana on my Christmas break? I have the resources and God's put on my heart just adventure and a heart to get to know Him better in a different context," said Kathleen Ziegler, a student at the University of Alberta in Canada.
"Why not come and do that and see where He leads me and just have my eyes open to new opportunities," Ziegler told The Christian Post.
For students who make the decision to attend, perhaps an even bigger challenge lies in responding to God's call in their lives when it comes to missions work made available through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (Urbana's organizers) and its partnerships.
Urbana Director Tom Lin called on the overwhelmingly college student audience to "surrender your plans and let God surprise you. God's invitation extends further than we can ever imagine. Don't limit God."
"This is the first truly global generation," he said. "Study abroad is increasing. Two of every three students have passports. A lot of them have relationships across the globe already. They cross cultures quite easily."
Former Urbana director David Howard, who spoke at a press conference on Saturday, recalled how as a college sophomore in 1946 he attended the first Urbana conference in Toronto. He became emotional as he pulled from his wallet his commitment card he signed during that conference.
"This means a lot to me. I signed this card 66 years ago and God has allowed me to spend all my life in missions. First in Latin America, then as a director of this conference in the '70s," Howard said.
"I think there is a longing in young people to have their life be about more than just themselves," said Sandra Van Opstal, who is the worship music leader of the conference. "Part of the draw, particularly for this generation, is that if your friends are going then your community is going. Part of it is the communal nature of students. A couple want to go as leaders and then the rest of them jump on board."
Jacqueline Brower, who is an InterVarsity team leader with undergraduate ministries at University of British Columbia, said that her love for students is what brought her to Urbana during Christmas break.
"I brought 11 students to do a Canadian student missions track with me because I long to see UBC campus transformed for Jesus," Brower said. "I think people at Urbana have an opportunity to see a more robust experience with the Kingdom of God, especially for the expositors who are not as ashamed for their faith as I see others be ashamed in the Canadian context. So I really long for students to gain that perspective and to go back with a lot more boldness and I also hope that for myself too."
At the first Urbana conference, students from across Canada and the United States gathered at the University of Toronto to investigate God's call to world evangelization, according to Urbana officials. That gathering drew 575 students from 151 schools. InterVarsity in the United States was then only five years old. But as a movement, InterVarsity started more than a hundred years earlier in England. In 1929, the student movement began a mission work to the colleges and universities of Canada.
In less than 10 years, student groups began forming in several universities in the U.S., such as the University of Michigan, Drexel, Wayne State, Michigan State and the University of Washington, and InterVarsity-Canada had appointed staff to pioneer student work in the United States. The constitution of InterVarsity/USA was adopted Sept. 2, 1941.
Since 1946, God has used Urbana to challenge more than 250,000 participants with their responsibility and privilege in global missions, conference officials say.