The Heart of Urbana’15

January 9, 2016 by

Despite having visited and revisited the Urbana website in the days leading up to our departure, despite having read Urbana prep materials, watched videos, and listened to testimonies, and despite having heard first-hand from friends who highly recommended the Urbana experience, I don’t think – flying into the St. Louis International Airport in Missouri last Sunday afternoon – that I really knew what it was I would take away from Urbana’15.

“Urbana is one of the largest student missions conferences in the world and is held every three years. Since 1946, Urbana has been a catalytic event that brings together a diverse mix of college and graduate students, faculty, recent graduates, pastors, church and ministry leaders, and exhibitors.”

That’s what the Urbana website says. And it was all that: it was crazy, it was huge, it was awesome. But it was more; it had heart – five full days of heart.

But I’ll get to that in a minute. First of all, I want to say that Urbana’15 was special. Why? Because the Bruderhof attended for the first time ever; at least, a representative group of six of us. And not only that, but we exhibited, and offered a service opportunity at our Foxhill location. The interest level was high, and I met tons of you at our booth. Hundreds of participants came by, hidden as we were in the web of other exhibitor’s booths towards the far wall of the exhibit hall. So if you attended Urbana’15 and didn’t make it by the Bruderhof booth, shame on you! (Just kidding; there were a couple of times when I thought I wouldn’t find our booth either, in the maze. But if we missed each other there, it’s not as if there aren’t Bruderhof locations around the world, so start looking!)

The Bruderhof's exhibit booth at Urbana'15

Anyway. I wanted to give you an insight into some of what I found to be at the heart of Urbana’15. Of course there was the whirlwind daily schedule of group Bible studies followed by the worship session and speakers in the St. Louis Rams’ stadium; the hours in the exhibit hall, the many seminars held in the America’s Center and Hotels nearby; the logistical feat of feeding dinner – in just two hours – to what must have been a great majority of the sixteen thousand attendees before each evening service… but I’ll stick to just a few of the many moments that stayed with me. Naturally, these insights are skewed to my own personal “Urbana experience.” (Of the approximately two hundred seminars offered, I think I only made it to three, but I did have divided loyalties as I also had to help keep the Bruderhof booth staffed.) So I want to dwell on just a few of my scattered reflections.

In talking about the story of the ten virgins as recounted in Matthew 25, Patrick Fung, the director of OMF International, spoke of “a defining moment” in the parable: the “no” told to the foolish virgins when they requested oil from the wise. What Mr. Fung wanted us to hear in that decisive “no” was that “no one can rely on another person’s spirituality… Spirituality cannot be borrowed.” In this realization, the emphasis is shifted from a group or collective exterior appearance of spirituality to a personal, intimate connection with Christ. It’s so easy to adopt an external semblance of spirituality, while missing the fact that spirituality is an entirely internal value. I think this is a crucial point of recognition for anyone looking either at missions or a life of daily discipleship.

Crowded hallways at Urbana'15

Closely tied to that theme was the central message of IMB President, David Platt’s, talk in the morning session of day four. “Adoration, affection, longing, ultimately love… Do these words describe your relationship, right now, to Jesus? ... Does your heart belong to Jesus? ... Or are you trying to manufacture a heart for missions while missing a heart for Christ?” These words struck deep, as they should, and made me realize again the depth that my personal relationship to Christ must always have, and what every person’s foremost priority remains.

The evening of day three, the session in the stadium was focused on the persecuted church in countries around the world. Hearing the testimonies of brothers and sisters who withstood torture and terror in order to hold firm to their faith was inspiring, humbling, and, in light of 2 Timothy 3: 12-15, challenging. Theirs was no abstract, borrowed spirituality; it was a firm relationship to Christ which could hold an Iranian man – formerly afraid of a cricket – strong under torture and interrogation. And the danger continues to be real for Christians in many places; two of the speakers that evening spoke from behind a scrim, so that all we could see was their shadows, and the whole evening was kept off-record in order to protect the identity of these persecuted brothers and sisters. Again, their witness points to the importance of maintaining an unshakable, singular faith and conviction, but it also recalls the other strong theme of that evening: the obligation each of us has to stand alongside those who suffer for Christ’s sake, to uphold each other in prayer and practice.

a worship session in the Rams' stadium

And finally the music. OK, so everyone who knows me at all knows I would come around to this eventually. But there is a unifying power in song that I find completely irresistible. I’m not talking only about the singing led by the worship team from the stage. You may get a taste of what that was like from the video clips, and it was awesome (picture a packed football stadium of college students standing together and singing “Breaking down the strongholds of the enemy!”), but specifically, I am thinking about the extemporaneous, acapella, straight-from-the-heart singing I witnessed and was a part of at several different points during the conference. In the crowd that formed in an open hallway one afternoon, which picked up momentum and members as people flowed past; in the songs we sang to begin and end various seminar or Bible study sessions; in the beautifully natural songs that rose spontaneously from the stadium floor as prayers for persecuted brothers and sisters around the world, there was a wholesome, well-centered feeling that united and galvanized us, and charged us to take from Urbana’15 a renewed love; love to Jesus foremost, and also love to the whole world. That was the heart of Urbana’15, which I will always remember and keep.

Here’s some video I shot during Urbana. It’s not terribly polished, but it gives a good sense of what the experience was like.

Watch on YouTube.

Ever been to an Urbana conference? If yes, leave a comment and let me know what you found most inspiring. If no, you need to go!


About the author

Melinda Goodwin

Melinda Goodwin

Melinda is the current webmaster of, social media manager, and a weekly vlogger.

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  • Melinda, I love your video. It reminds me of the two times I attended Urbana (when it was still in Urbana, IL). In '87 it inspired me to go overseas. In 2000 I went to help the org I'd gone overseas with at their booth, but also attended the inspirational sessions. I'm so glad you were so blessed to worship with so many. I've always felt that such gatherings are just a glimpse of what we have to look forward to in Heaven, when we'll be worshiping with people from every tongue, and tribe, and nation for eternity! It gives me goosebumps! I love how they particularly focused this time on the suffering church. When I went in '87, the man who gave the "missions challenge" was Tony Campolo. He referenced a favorite line from a popular TV show of the day (Star Trek) by saying, "I want you to have the vision of the Star Trek generation: to 'boldly go [and everyone, it seemed, except for me, who didn't know that show at that time chanted] where no one's ever gone before!'" Eight years later, I arrived in Yakutsk, Siberia, a few years after the Iron Curtain had fallen. That was a city in Russia (former Soviet Union in 1987, when I was in Urbana) that had been completely closed to the Western world. Now, in 1995, it was filling up with missionaries, mostly from the US. At some point during my stay there, several of us, about 5 out of maybe 20 western missionaries there, realized that we'd all been at Urbana '87. Now we'd boldly gone, where no one at that Urbana conference had ever gone before: to the coldest capital city in the world. I was only there 2 years, but the Gospel has spread throughout the region thanks to the efforts of many missionaries, mostly from Ukraine and other warmer parts of the former Soviet Union. They just celebrated 25 years of missionaries there, and it was a wonderful very international team of people [ from South Africa, Argentina, the US, Korea, and much more] God has used to bring the Gospel to that region. I'm also excited to see friends I made in Kyrgyzstan, who were brand new believers at that time, going all over the world now to share the Gospel with others. "The Lord gave the Word. Great was the company of the preachers. Their sound is gone out into all lands; and their words unto the ends of the world!"

    Gillian Burleson
  • I loved your video; I don't think it needs any further polishing - it's perfect. I have been a fan of David Platt for many years. I'm so happy you were able to go to Urbana 15 and share the Bruderhof experience with everyone there. God Bless all of you.

    Carol Schuster