Some 17,000 youth have convened for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's preeminent student missions convention, which kicked off in St. Louis Sunday with a strong emphasis on personal evangelism.
"Your neighborhood – God's mission," said Urbana Director Jim Tebbe on the first day of Urbana 09, as he exhorted the crowd of mostly U.S. and Canadian college students to reach out to those close to them.
The missions leader challenged students gathered for the five-day conference to write the name of someone they could help on the palm of their hand and hold it up in a pledge to reach out to their neighbors with the gospel.
During his address, Tebbe recalled a story from his days as a college Bible study leader when one of his dorm-mates – one who used to party, drink, and not study well – asked him a piercing question: "Why didn't you invite me to your Bible study?"
"I would have come," he had told Tebbe, before quitting school.
Tebbe, who never saw his dorm-mate again, urged students not to let his regretful story become theirs by simply laying down their expectations.
"God's mission is much smaller than you might think," Tebbe said as he talked about the young man who had lived right across the hall from him.
Until Dec. 31, the thousands attending Urbana 09 will be hearing from speakers such as Ramez Atallah, general secretary of the Bible Society of Egypt; Ruth Padilla Deborst, general secretary of the Latin American Theological Fellowship; and Patrick Fung, general director of Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF) International.
Organized by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Urbana 09 will focus on four pressing global issues currently faced by those active in missions around the world – the movement of peoples, money in terms of missions funding, environmental stewardship, and divisions between peoples.
Each day, the program will focus on a different issue and challenge and highlight speakers from a variety of cultural contexts who will discuss how God is at work and was needs still remain.
"They (attendees) will also experience worship with thousands of others in one of the most diverse worship gatherings in North America," added Tebbe prior to the conference kick off.
Urbana 09 will be much like its predecessor, Urbana 06, which also took place in St. Louis. More than 22,000 students had attended the 2006 event where they were called to change the world.
Participants at Urbana 06 were educated on issues such as AIDS, slum communities in the developing world, sex trafficking, and African missions.
Some key changes in the event from the last conference, however, include a stronger emphasis on social justice, an influx of Canadian participants, and increased focus on campus issues such as those surrounding LGBT individuals and communities.
This year, organizers of the triennial conference had expected more than 20,000 to attend from every state and many nations.