Though I’m a conference speaker and have attended a wide-variety of large conferences, I’m a little skeptical about their long-term transformative value. Perhaps 10-20 years ago, large conferences were powerful arenas for God’s purposes. But now with so much available to people in the digital age and with younger people’s needs so different, are they worth the effort and cost?
At times these events today can feel pretty “staged.” And sometimes they nourish an unholy need for a busy, success-oriented, me-centered gospel. We go from talk to talk, and eat and eat and eat words. We can’t stop stuffing ourselves with ideas and good feelings, but then none of it nourishes us. We barf it up on the way home. We spent money and time, but we have little to show for it in transformed lives or ministries. For this reason many groups, including Missio Alliance, have tried to re-imagine how conferences might be transformative without this gorging on ideas and input.
So, what did I think of the most mega of mega Evangelical conferences of our day, Urbana? I was invited to be a platform speaker at Urbana in St. Louis, December 27-31, 2015. Urbana 15 had 16,000 persons in attendance with up to 8,000 streaming online. The primary events were held in the Edward Jones Dome where the Rams’ football team played. Urbana is geared towards college students, and first began in 1946 in Canada. It occurs once every three years with the express purpose of inviting students to be a part of God’s mission on campuses, in local communities, and around the world. So, what did I think about my experience of it? Can large conferences make a difference?
I would have to say, yes. Urbana 15 did for these reasons:
Prayer and Bible Study Always First – The scale of Urbana required an extraordinary amount of planning and managing of event details. The team planned for 3 years for this one event. But what moved me was how from the very beginning of the planning through to the very end, two things were constant: prayer and reflective Bible study. Individuals and teams of people set aside time to pray for the event, the participants, and those involved from the beginning of the planning through to the end. I had a prayer person assigned to me months before Urbana, who prayed for my preparation, and who checked in with me. During the event she was close by, so I could go to a prayer room and meet with her to pray. One entire evening was given to prayer for the Persecuted Church and for the Persecutors. The main floor was cleared so everyone could come to the field of the dome to pray around pillars representing persecutions world-wide. The students prayed for 30 minutes.
Another team of people studied Matthew, the Bible book chosen for Urbana 15 around the theme “What Story Will You Tell with Your Life?” The Bible team created study guides and experiences so that from the first days of planning to the end, Scripture was front and center. But what stirred me was that everyone on the Urbana planning team (stage people, prayer people, presenters, directors, assistants, artists, sound, video, music, and media people) studied Matthew for a year. They studied Matthew, and then they began thinking about how the event would be put together around particular story themes in the gospel.
Multi-cultural Kingdom Presence Everywhere – Urbana made every effort to be a multi-cultural kingdom presence from the stage to the seminars to the Bible study leaders. Of all the attendees 55% were persons of color. There were twelve people who spoke from the platform, and of those twelve, five were women, and only two were white males (one Canadian). Who does that today at such a huge Evangelical conference? Each night “The Story of God in Culture and Song” was featured including Arabic, Pacific Islands, and Mexican music. We learned worship songs from other cultures. We sang them in the language of that culture, and we sang them over and over again throughout the week – not a token song, but a worship song.
For me this was the first time in a large North American Evangelical context when the ‘sound’ of influencing voices were predominately non-white and non-privileged. The conversation was different. The experience was different. It felt more home-like and more Christ-like to me. And this was illustrated particularly the evening when Black Lives Matter was featured. That evening inspired me the most, and that evening also created the most dissonance for people of privilege. Because of that evening – despite all the fruit of Urbana – some donors removed their support, and InterVarsity found they had to defend their choice to feature Black Lives Matter even on national television.
Prophetic, Courageous Engagement with Real Life – During the Black Lives Matter evening, Michelle Higgins, an activist and pastor from Ferguson, Missouri, spoke. That evening the worship team featured Black spirituals and wore t-shirts with “Black Lives Matter” written on them. The Black students and staff, and the vast majority of all those in attendance were ecstatic. It was a wonderful evening. It felt holy and honest. Finally, the real lived experience of black men and women was acknowledged, and a prophet at the front was challenging us to hold the black life with as much honor and dignity as the white life. From the front Urbana confessed that the black experience is not the same as the white experience. We were called to repentance in Christ.
Featuring Black Lives Matter at a major public Evangelical event such as Urbana was incredibly risky. To have the privilege of white ‘majority’ be a voice, and not the voice, I think aligned Urbana with the mission and spirit of Jesus Christ. I realize that Black Lives Matter is a messy movement for Evangelicals. All movements are messy. Jesus’ movement was messy with people who used his words and momentum for their own agendas. But as long as committed and submitted spiritual leaders like Michelle Higgins are engaged, then there is something I need to pay attention to as a person of privilege.
Lives Were Changed – I also did not expect this. One evening David Platt gave a call to fully commit our lives to Jesus Christ. He was funny, personable, and his message touched people. So it’s strange that on two separate nights with individuals who could hardly be any more different from each other – Michelle Higgins and David Platt – the Spirit of God moved again. Tom Lin, the Director of Urbana 15, gave a quiet invitation to accept Christ as your Savior or to commit to prayer and missions. That evening 681 college students made first time professions of faith. That evening almost 9000 students made a commitment to be engaged in mission either locally or internationally. The purpose of the conference was to challenge college students to give their lives to a story bigger and more eternal then one they might do on their own, and they responded.
So, do large conferences work for God’s kingdom? Can lives be transformed deeply? Yes, I believe that large conferences can be catalytic and Spirit-led, like Urbana. This is especially true when they are bathed in prayer and scripture from beginning to end, have a true multi-cultural platform of presenters and topics, not just token ones, and are willing to be prophetic and honest about the real lived spiritual and physical experience of all people despite the cost, and then lives are changed.
PS Those who responded to my blog on “Olaf, Culture, and Holiness,” thank you so much, and I will come back to the questions I asked and the ones you answered.