by Paula Harris
Missions may not be in their vocabulary, but students are searching for their “mission in life.”
Has any such offering of living young men and women been presented in our age, in our country, in any age, or in any country, since the day of Pentecost?” (Wallstrom 1980, 9). The President of Princeton College asked this question in 1887, and of course he was talking about the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM). But he could have been talking about the dramatic development of student missions conferences around the world today. Thousands of students are gathering on every continent, coming together to hear about God’s heart for the world and to seek their own role in world missions. In promoting a recent Boston-area worship and missions conference, former mobilizer (current missionary) David Ro writes about “a movement of God arising out of a conference.” He was referring to the 1886 student missions conference at Mt. Hermon, which helped launch the SVM—“the greatest missions movement of modern mission history.” But Ro also sees that today a major movement of God is on the horizon. Young people are searching for significance in their lives. They are experiencing God in a real and powerful way and are asking where they fit in God’s plan. Missions may not be in their vocabulary, but they are searching for their “mission in life.” How can I be involved in building God’s kingdom?
Ro was writing about Asian Americans, including many Korean Americans, in Boston, but he could be describing the six thousand European students who will gather in Germany this December for TEMA’s Mission Congress, or the eight thousand Nigerian students who gather every five years to attend Go-Fest, or the 6,500 young Koreans who attend Mission Korea every other year, or the twenty thousand students from North America who will gather every third year for Urbana.
Worldwide missions conferences are not necessarily a phenomenon springing up in the last decade. John R. Mott, who won the Nobel peace prize for his life work in missions, had a vision of using student missions mobilizing conferences. He had been the chairperson of the SVM. During this period, he led the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. But between 1912 and 1913, as the organizer and general secretary (like an American president) of the World’s Student Christian Federation, he organized twenty-one regional missionary conferences in Asia (primarily India, China, Japan and Korea).
What is most exciting about the current movement of student missions conferences is how indigenous they are. The conferences may partner together, with Korean leaders offering challenges and mentoring to Indonesians planning the birth of a conference in their own country, or the group of current and potential mission conference directors who attend Urbana. But each conference is locally organized by either an indigenous mission sending network, a student organization or a network of churches. Ideally, all three enter into a fruitful relationship to reach students. Each conference reflects the culture of the place in which it is held. In Europe, the largest event is sponsored by TEMA, a mission association committed to the continuity and financial and organizational stability of the congress. For culturally appropriate programming to reach thirty-five countries, as well as for recruitment and finances from those countries, the congress relies on a well-organized system of local committees spread throughout Europe, each committee led by national coordinators.
The well-established Mission Korea conferences are sponsored by a coalition of thirty-one organizations, including the ten major campus ministries and twenty-one mission organizations. This biennial conference has never depended on the vision and charisma of one dynamic individual, but reflects the hard work of a whole community in partnership together. Although they had the vision of developing a conference much earlier, Korean leaders did not begin their conference until assured of the commitment of a broad spectrum of leaders and organizations. Now the leadership responsibility for the conference is passed around smoothly among the student organizations, all coming together under the Mission Korea coalition and small team of permanent staff.
It would be interesting to analyze whether Korea is the most significant missionary sending country in the world per capita. North America still has higher numbers of missionaries, but as a percentage of population, is the Korean church more active in missions? In the years since the establishment of Mission Korea’s conferences, over thirty thousand Korean young people have attended, and almost twenty thousand have made missionary commitments. This correlates exactly with the explosion of Korean missionary recruitment, which mobil-izer Min-Young Jung puts at about ten thousand foreign missionaries in 2000 (Jung 2002, 5). The Koreans themselves have sent more missionaries than the Student Volunteer Movement, which by 1892 had seen 7,500 young people go into missionary work (Wallstrom 1980, 63).
In other parts of Asia, the Taiwanese have organized the Youth Mission Convention, and even the tiny Japanese church will host its first student mission conference. The Indian Missions Association and a coalition of Indonesian student and mission organization leaders are actively working on developing student mission conferences in their contexts. Among Asian Americans of the Diaspora, Korean Americans regularly organize the KOSTA (Korean Students Abroad) conference and Chinese Americans have hosted Chinese Mission for over a decade. We ought to pray for the vision of the brothers and sisters organizing these mobilization conferences, as well as for the cross-cultural and spiritual development of the students who commit themselves to missions as a result. Korean leaders have an active strategy to come alongside twelve other Asian countries, as older brothers in Christ, helping them develop indigenous student mission conferences and mobilization strategies.
In Africa, which many Americans think of as a mission-receiving continent, there are four thriving student missions conferences. There are as many young Africans attending these conferences and making missionary commitments as there are young people in North America attending Urbana. The third Go-Fest in Nigeria (not affiliated with the similarly named Christian music festival in Hawaii) will be sponsored by the Nigerian Evangelical Missions Association, with significant contributions by the Nigerian International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (NIFES). They plan and pray for twelve thousand students to attend; a realistic goal after their attendance of eight thousand at the last Go-Fest. After all, NIFES, with its 35,000 student members is about the largest student movement in the world (www.ifes world.org). Go-Fest sponsors challenge young Africans:
Let the valiant young men and women arise with strength and vigour and give God his greatest hunger—high praise from all the nations of the earth. In a generation where self-indulgence has turned to an art of worship, let heaven cause a stir among its youths to give God his pleasure and delight.
In other parts of Africa, much of the initiative for student mission conferences comes out of the member organizations of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). The South African IFES movement, United Christian Student’s Association, is a partnership of two former movements of IFES, one black-led and one white-led. Together the new coalition sponsored a mission conference for all South African students. In Ghana, the Ghanian IFES sponsors the Student Mission Awareness conference, which attracts hundreds of students from Ghana and other parts of West Africa. The long-standing Kenyan conference, Commission, is scheduled to be held again in December 2004 and expected to attract 2,500 students from more than fifteen countries in East, Central and South Africa. Last Commission, out of the two thousand students who attended the conference, 527 made missions commitments. As a student, Francis Omondi committed himself to missionary service at a much earlier Commission conference. Subsequently, he went on to found Sheepfold, an indigenous Kenyan mission among Muslim peoples.
Today, Sheepfold takes on young people, including American students, to train them in missionary outreach among Muslims. God is truly working through Commission, and other events like it in Africa.
Among the African Diaspora, Caribbean students have been attending Urbana since the North American conference’s earliest days. More recently Caribbean missionary leaders have developed a vision for an indigenous Caribbean student missions conference. The sponsoring coalition is being developed, including the Evangelical Association of the Caribbean (who organize CONECAR, an evangelical conference not focused on students) and the Caribbean IFES. In the US, among the African Diaspora, African Americans put on the Destiny 1987 student mission conference, and developed the COMINAD mobilization network among African American churches. Many African Americans and Afro Caribbeans continue to attend Urbana, where there are culture-specific tracks, music groups, black-led mission organizations and other attempts to enculturate the missions message to the African Diaspora.
In Latin America, the COMIBAM missions conferences sponsored each decade have informally included numbers of students. Latina 2003 in Panama was intentionally targeting students, and included a missions track. Approximately a quarter of the young leaders gathered from nineteen countries indicated that their primary interest was world missions. There is active planning for the next Latina 2005 conference to be held in South America, to alternate with the Central American countries. The sponsoring coalition is an impressive collection of Latin Americans and the Hispanic Diaspora involved in missions and is organizationally supported by Latin America Mission. Pray for the planning going on even now for a student missions conference scheduled for 2006 in Brazil, at the thirty-year anniversary of the last student mission conference there (in Curitiba, 1976). The primary planners are affiliated with IFES, the Alinca Biblical Universidaria do Brazil, but they are developing partnerships with many other brother and sister IFES movements, as well as with other student organizations in Latin America.
In the Hispanic Diaspora, Coop-eracion Misionera de los Hispanos de Norte America (or COMHINA) is an active missionary mobilization movement of Hispanic churches in the US and Canada (www.comhina.org). They do not sponsor a national student conference per se, but partner with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in recruiting students to attend Urbana. One strategy that COMHINA uses is city-wide mission rallies among young people. They host rallies with worship music and missionary speakers to mobilize for missions and recruit for Urbana. COMHINA also trains young people in missions, and uses the mission training Perspectives courses.
The European Mission Alliance-sponsored Mission Congress in Europe attracts between six thousand and ten thousand young people from thirty-five countries. Moving from Holland to Germany this cycle, changing from a triennial to a biennial event, their program continues to focus on the message of Christian mission and speaking about Jesus and his life work. Each day will cover one aspect of Christ’s life (the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension, Pentecost and the return of Christ) around the theme “Become What You Believe.” Like the most effective of mission conferences, the Mission Congress program speaks into the intersection of the gospel message and student questions (www. mission.org/congress).
The much smaller Mission Live rally will be held in East Germany and admission will be free, because of their forty-five percent unemployment rate. Their vision is thrilling:
A spiritual awakening sweeping the world through this emerging generation, the millennial generation. The Gospel finally spread to every person in the world, with every nation and every people group discipled with the teachings of Jesus Christ… in the near future the red-hot core of the spiritual awakening will be those now entering university and younger, a generation connected worldwide… this emerging generation will be the one that simply asks, “What is it that God wants?” This new generation will not be bound by traditions, institutions or boundaries when it comes to obeying God’s call.
All the mission conferences collect scholarships and all are intentional about financially assisting young people who might not otherwise be able to hear the teaching about God’s mission to the world and their own role. The mission conferences are committed to teaching and modeling that mission is not something for affluent Christians, but for all Christians. Mission is not something for less affluent Christians to receive, but also they have a part to play in God’s work. Delegates from less affluent European countries write, “The European Mission Congress has challenged our idea of mission. We in Albania have a part to play. This discovery is only because we received some financial help to attend” (Zefjan Nikolla at ). As a result of missionary commitments made at mission conferences, over a hundred Ukrainians are now ministering in the former Soviet Union and a few have gone as far as China in missionary outreach. Isaac Dladla, a delegate to Commission Kenya, had this to say:
On behalf of the Inter Collegiate Student Christian Movement of Swaziland (INCOSCM), I am so much thankful to FOCUS for sponsoring us to the conference and showing such kindness to us. There are several things we are hoping to change here based on our experience in Kenya. We will depend on you for advice and other things. We are hoping to be in contact and we believe the friendship we have established will continue. We were amazed to see your high level of organization and your professional way of doing things within FOCUS.
In North America, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA, InterVarsity Canada, and the Groupes Biblique du Canada (North American members of IFES) come together to host the triennial Urbana Student Missions Convention, begun in Toronto in 1946 and continued in the US ever since. Although Urbana is the largest of the current student missions conferences, it carries the burden of logistical complexity and the need to constantly reinvent itself in its communication to reach ever changing generations of students with the unchanging message of God’s mission and world needs. Generations of students continue to make significant missions commitments at Urbana conventions. Over 212,000 students have attended an Urbana, and generally mission commitments are made by one-third to one-half of attendees. In Canada, a series of family-oriented Missions Fests are held each year, including tracks for students and youth. Missions Fest is scheduled for Montreal this year, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto next. This is a similar strategy to the Australian student mission conferences, held in different cities and drawing together thousands of students for a missionary challenge.
“See You at the Pole” is an American youth prayer movement, calling for students to pray for God’s consuming and purifying fire (www.syatp. com/02home.html). But Elijah’s prayer is a missionary prayer as well as a revival prayer: As he calls out for consuming fire, he asks God publicly “let it be known that you are God in Israel… answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18: 36-37). The Passion movement and their One Day conferences are truly about revival, worship and holiness, not necessarily about missions and missions mobilization. However, because God is a missionary God, revival and true worship bring a change of heart, a re-orientation towards the world and toward service.
In North America, churches, denominations and Christian colleges hold missions mobilization events. Trinity Western in Canada, Biola, Wheaton, Asbury, Azusa and many others in the US offer yearly missions conferences as a part of their chapel programs. Moody cancels classes so students can prioritize the missions conference events. Last year the Christian Medical and Dental Association (affiliated with InterVarsity and IFES) put on a student-led Midwest Medical Missions Conference, with the express purpose of developing a “passion for missions work. Our prayer is to mobilize a new generation of medical missionaries.” They challenge health care professionals to meet the physical and spiritual healing needs and give their student peers the following challenge:
As students it’s easy for us to doze at the helm of Kingdom work or to drift off in wrong directions. Yet it is also our advantage that as students, we can mold our hearts in the right way from the very beginning of our careers; and it is also our opportunity as students to most easily encourage others around us. Let’s not stop short of God’s best call for us for lack of commitment, courage, or understanding.
Their goal was not to make career missionaries out of medical professionals, but to draw them to life-long missions involvement.
OTHER MOBILIZING EFFORTS
Throughout the world, God is using a great variety of means aside from these conferences to call students into missions. I was asked recently by a Christian leader, do I hope Urbana is the highlight of a student’s years in university? I had to say no, of course not. Urbana is five days long. I hope the conference is a catalyzing event, where they meet God and consider their commitment to world missions. But these conferences can only come alongside the authentic discipleship that happens in local Christian communities throughout the world.
Pastors and lay leaders in churches challenge young people to consider God’s missionary calling and the model of Jesus’ life spent in service (Acts 13: 2-3). Like Paul and Barna-bas, contemporary teams of itinerant mobilizers, like The Traveling Team, Caleb Project and the Student Volunteer Movement Two in North America, or Korean World Mission Traveling team in Korea, travel from city to city, visiting congregations of Christians gathered in churches and on campuses to challenge young adults with a new view of the world, and the opportunities for them to join God in mission.
Student organizations, such as Campus Crusade for Christ, the Navigators, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/IFES, and their denominational counterparts, Chi Alpha, the Baptist Student Union and many others come alongside churches to train students in evangelism, missions and discipleship.
Prayer movements like Concerts of Prayer International, and prayer resources like Operation World, whether local or international, call out missionary hearts. From their work in intercessory prayer, God sends laborers into the harvest fields (Luke 10:2). Many mission organizations employ full-time recruiters who help recent graduates discern the connections between personal calling, giftedness and the needs of the world.
The Perspectives movement and mission agencies train students in missions theory and practice. God uses short-term mission experiences to help students catch a vision of what they might do long-term, as well as help them grow cross-cultural skills and mature spiritually (Luke 9 and 10).
Many retired missionaries, returned short-termers and missionaries on deputation spend significant amounts of time mentoring young adults who are wondering how to love and serve Jesus with their life work.
Christians contextualize missions mobilization into contemporary forms such as the Internet, where students search on-line databases for missions opportunities collected by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (www. global mission.org/tools/partner/efc/wmd search.htm); in the US by Urbana (www.urbana.org/ns.ms. main.cfm); and in Europe by The European Mission Association’s affiliate Stichting Mission (www.mission. org/mission _missionserve.asp).
It’s surprising and wonderful to see how often God uses a spiritual encounter at a missions conference to catalyze a missionary commitment. It is not necessarily because students receive new information. Over half the delegates who attend Urbana have gone on a short-term mission project of less than a month. Fifty-two percent come to Urbana to learn about missions. Seventy-five percent come to Urbana simply to seek God’s will for their lives. Somehow, in this context of listening to Bible teaching and missionary speakers, praying for the world, worshiping God and being open to the Holy Spirit’s leading, many students are directed by God to make significant missions commitments.
Jung, Min-Young. 2002. “A Call for a Worldwide Korean Diaspora Missions Network,” unpublished paper.
Wallstrom, Timothy C. 1980. The Creation of a Student Movement to Evangelize the World: A History and Analysis of the Early Stages of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey International University Press.
Paula Harris made a missionary commitment as a student at Urbana 81, served as a mission agency representative at Urbana 87 and has worked on programming and missiology for five Urbana conventions. She is currently the senior associate director of the convention.
EMQ, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 422-429. Copyright © 2003 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.