InterVarsity’s Urbana Conference Faces New Challenges When Calling Generation Z to the Mission Field

Image: 2018 Paul Lee: Urbana 18, InterVarsity’s 25th Student Missions Conference

Plenty of today’s evangelical leaders look back to Urbana conferences over the years as the catalyst that drove them to ministry.

But for the shrinking crowd at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s (IVCF) triennial conference—held over the past few days in St. Louis—the path to the mission field appears more complicated.

The college students who attended Urbana ‘18, though passionate about Christ, hold different expectations for life after graduation, often taking longer to settle into a vocation, and carry stress over growing student debt.

“This is changing the way that InterVarsity and mission agencies are engaging with participants,” said Greg Jao, senior assistant to IVCF president Tom Lin.

“We need a longer-term strategy to help people who may make decisions about the missions field while they’re at Urbana as college students sustain their interest and commitment over the longer period of time that it takes to figure it out.”

Determining how to navigate these challenges as Generation Z enters college is crucial for ministries like Urbana. Attendance at the historic conference is down to its lowest in at least 20 years, with around 10,000 attendees in 2018, compared to 16,000 in 2015.

But the crowd and speakers were more diverse than ever, already resembling the majority-minority demographics of the next generation: 64 percent of attendees were non-white.

“At the conferences that I’ve been to that have been less diverse, I felt I was unrepresented and it was hard for me to worship well,” Daniela Bushiri, an engineering major at New Jersey Institute of Technology, told CT. “Seeing minorities on the stage means a lot because it shows us that we have a role to play in this community.”

Today’s youngest believers are more likely to find themselves as outliers for their faith. Barna Research found that while roughly 6 in 10 of Gen Z (the 70 million people born between 1999 and 2015) identify as Christian, only 1 in 11 can be characterized as an “engaged Christian,” whose beliefs and practices are shaped by their faith.

Religious and non-religious young adults alike are struggling to find hope, so leaders at Urbana are praying this generation embrace a view of the kingdom that combats their current cynicism.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Morgan Lee