I'm here in a half-stadium at the America's Center in St. Louis for Urbana, the premier gathering of Christian students interested in the work of the church worldwide. Over the next five days, over 16,000 attendees will participate in over two hundred sessions on Christian missions, theology, social justice, international development, and the role of Christians across university and the professions.
After a brief welcome, Intervarsity Canada Geri Rodman reminds us about the Native American history of St Louis. She takes a moment to honor the region's first inhabitants, whose remarkable city is preserved at Cahokia Mounds.
Suddenly, the band opens up, the lights snap on, and the worship experience begins.
The set ends with Hillsong's "Worthy Is the Lamb," in a rotating cycle of languages, English, Spanish, French, Japanese, and Mandarin, a reference to the Book of Revelation's future vision of heaven.
Singing is replaced by a series of live drama and pre-recorded films like this one:
Tom Lin, director of this year's conference, tells us to allow God to surprise us. "I was taught that missions was only for the superhero Christians," he says. "I was an ordinary Christian from an ordinary immigrant family. God surprised me at Urbana." This meant walking away from a safe and comfortable life to choose a risky and uncomfortable lifestyle. "Surrender your plans and hear God's invitation," he asks the audience.
Our main religious speaker for the conference is Calisto Odede. He's been involved in Kenyan and global Christian missions since 1987, when he joined the staff of the Kenyan Fellowship of Christian Unions. Odede was also three-time director of Commission, the very first multinational African Christian student conference.
Like many of the other speakers this evening, Calisto speaks of Urbana as a life-changing experience. Will anything come of this event? Can students really create change, he asks us. "You will never be the same," he says.
Calisto starts out by reading Luke 4:14-30, in which Jesus goes to his hometown after a period of fasting. In the story, Jesus gives a talk on faith and social justice, snubs his home community, and is driven out of the town.
Callisto argues that it's the closest thing to a missions statement Jesus ever crafted. "What actually are we living for?" he asks the audience. Do we have a mission statement?
What's in Jesus's mission statement? The text opens by stating that "Jesus returned in the power of the holy spirit." Christians should lean on the power of God rather than rely solely on our ability to plan and achieve, he tells us. "You should return from Urbana full of the power of the Holy Spirit to make a difference in your campus, your church, and your city."
When Jesus made a proclamation of his mission in Nazareth, he was sharing it with people who knew him well. His message was good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, relief to the oppressed, and the "year of the Lord's favour." What did this mean? Jesus certainly cared for people in poverty and raised funds to support them. Others were "spiritually poor," Callisto says. Some blind people weren't able to see. Others were "spiritually blind." Many were oppressed politically, and others needed to be set free from what Callisto calls demonic forces.
Next, Jesus's set out to "focus on the underprivileged and marginalised." He contrasts Jesus with poverty tourists who visit to Kibera and other slums in Kenya. Tourists with cameras simply capture the suffering of others without taking action. Callisto argues that Jesus set out support the lives of the people he met.
Jesus also set out to create change beyond political change. When Jesus said, "Now is the year of the Lord's favour," it was the dawn of a new era, Callisto tells us. But it requires us to act. In the gospel of Luke, the people of Nazareth questioned the claims of Jesus. Wasn't he just another person from the town? Might he perform miracles to confirm his claims? Jesus refused. Calisto asks us if our view of Jesus is as small as his contemporaries.
In Luke 4, Jesus responds to the people of Nazareth by telling two stories. In his first story, the prophet Elijah demands the last meal of a widow in poverty. When she gives it to him, Elijah responds to her faith with a miracle that sustains her family. In the second story, the wealthy general Naaman seeks to be healed by the prophet Elisha. The prophet refuses money and instructs Naaman to perform a humiliating act and bathe in the river. In both cases, supplicants must carry out an absurd act in complete faith. That's the response, says Calisto, that Jesus expects from us.
Calisto ends by telling us the story of a Mohammed, a Sudanese a student from Khartoum. After he and a friend agreed to read the Bible and compare it to the Koran, Mohammed came to the conclusion that the Bible was true. His friend told his parents what he had said. Mohammed was reportedly handed over to the security police, who forced him to write a note rejecting Christianity, plucked out his nails with pliers, and made him swear that he would never again turn to Christianity. When they released him, Mohammed hid in the house of a student leader in Khartoum. As Calisto prayed with him some time later, Mohammed pledged to hold to his faith no matter the danger.
Calisto ends by asking us, "Will you make the same pledge? Will you be an ambassador of the faith that you know?"
After more songs, the Urbana opening ends with a plug for the conference Book of the Day, Western Christians in Global Missions by Paul Borthwick, which explores the role of the West in an increasingly globalised, non-Western Christianity.