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Reflections on the 2022 Urbana Student Missions Conference – part 1

In between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2022, I was glad to participate in the Urbana Student Missions Conference for the first time. I had heard the legends about Urbana and had friends participate, and we have had many WMF staff connected through Urbana. My hope was that WMF would make many new contacts with prospective students, to network with other organizations and especially the New Friar organizations, and to learn how university students are thinking about mission.

The conference was a success in many ways. Intervarsity deserves kudos for cultivating diversity. The speakers and worship leaders were of different ethnicities and genders. The participants were also extremely diverse. This manifest diversity has the potential to create a positive ethos for the imagination of the global church and of global mission.

I confess that I personally have a hard time worshiping in spaces that have smoke machines and laser shows. But if it fits anywhere, it fits for young students at Urbana. I participated in the opening evening plenary, which was more emotive than substantive, which led me to skipe the other evening plenaries. I did attend the morning plenaries, which had more substance with speakers from World Vision (Alexia Salvatierra) and IJM, among others. They also began with teaching on prayer practices (silence, breath prayer, etc.), which I enjoyed while perhaps it may have been challenging for the students.

There were many other positives. We were able to discuss study abroad options with the folks from InterVarsity. We were able to spend time with staff from New Friar organizations who share much in common with WMF. We stayed in a community house, hosted by the Englewood church who do inner city work, intentional community, and publish book reviews. And we created connections with other organizations.

A declining interest in global mission?

A disappointment was what I perceived to be a lack of students’ interest in global mission. Previous Urbana conferences had 20,000 participants. This one had 5,500. They also reduced the conference time by a day. I have some theories about this decline. Was the conference so diverse because white students have dropped out? Is the decline representative of the exodus of this generation from evangelical churches? Are other institutions (i.e., Passion, Justice, Southern Baptists, New Room, etc.) organizing their own conferences and drawing students to those instead? Or is there less interest in global mission due to its perceived connection to colonization, to possibly missteps (i.e., When Helping Hurts), to the changing demographics of where the church is in the world (i.e., The Next Christendom), or to students having lower horizons (i.e., focusing on the missional needs of their local community, increased student loan debts, etc.). Most likely, all of these factors, along with wintery weather and a Covid spike, contribute to the diminished interest in mission at this Urbana Conference.

According to Urbana’s accounting, 684 students committed to go on short term mission (less than 1 year); 308 committed to go on midterm mission; and 329 committed to serving more than two years. Interestingly, I would consider anything less than 3 years as being short or perhaps midterm mission as it is only after 3-5 years that one learns language and culture, is established in the location, and begins to make a strong contribution. By calling long-term missions anything more than two years, I think Urbana does a disservice to long-term missions as well as to the students and the expectations they create.

I was curious to learn what the students were thinking. I was able to go to two seminars and tried to listen to the questions students are asking. In my discussion groups, the students were thinking about short-term mission trips or about missions to their university campus or church neighborhoods. The seminar content was on base communities and on wealth and mission. Perhaps those interested in global missions chose to participate in other seminars.

Still, I think a lack of interest in global mission was felt throughout the conference. A sign of the lack of interest was that it seemed to me that few participants spent time in the Connections Hall where we set up our exhibit and tables. I expected that students who self-select and pay for a missions conference would be leaning toward careers in missions. I did speak with students interested in serving in “unreached” locations, in church-planting, and in internships in inner city work. So, there was some interest. However, I spoke with other universities and organizations, and many said that they got few contacts and much fewer than previous Urbana conferences. It seemed to me that there was little foot traffic to the tables. While the position of our table in our shared space with the New Friars may also be a reason for fewer contacts, the overall numbers of contacts of the New Friars was low.

As I departed from the conference, I hypothesized that the students still are interested in engaging in global mission. However, this engagement looks very different. My observation may be specifically about students in the US, but they seem interested in doing mission from where they are at (i.e., being “globally minded”), rather than by going somewhere else. This certainly is a missional posture – albeit different than one that goes, is immersed in a different culture, builds relationships with those of other cultures, and becomes a bridge for the global church. What are the potential gains and possible losses from such a posture?


About Fragments & Reflections

David Chronic


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