InterVarsity's 18th Student Mission Conference
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Theme: "You Are My Witnesses"
December 27-31, 1996
Reported by: Dr. Ralph G. Colas, Editor (Adapted by BDM)
Fundamental News Service
American Council of Christian Churches
P.O. Box 5455, Bethlehem, PA 18015
(610) 865-3009 (voice)/(610) 865-3033 (fax)/firstname.lastname@example.org
Urbana '96 was described as awesome, intense, exhausting, and the most exciting experience of a lifetime. This event, which brought 19,360 young people and adults to the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was the 18th of these student missionary conferences -- the first one having been held in Toronto, Canada, back in 1946, 50 years before. (The conference exceeded the 1993 attendance of 17,051, but was 200 delegates shy of 1990's record.) Dr. Harold J. Ockenga, who coined the term "new evangelical," was the main speaker at the first InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) Missions Conference with its 575 delegates. It has now grown to become the largest Christian student missions gathering in the world and is held every three years.
While the exact cost of this large undertaking was never revealed, the local hotel and food industry appreciated the $4.4 million pumped into their economy. Student packages, which included housing, meals, and bus service around the campus cost about $400. Non-students paid an additional $100. A press officer related that more than $400,000 had been donated for scholarships. Some of these funds were used to assist delegates coming from 116 nations to Urbana.
Five press conferences were held during the four days. Each dealt with some phase of the conference theme, "You Are My Witnesses." Additional subjects discussed were racial reconciliation, the role of prayer, musical worship, and Scripture study as it related to the Generation X-ers.
The press was also informed that 36% of those attending were persons of color and 60% were female. When asked how inclusive Urbana was, the reply given was that Urbana serves the whole church, and both Roman Catholics and Seventh-Day Adventists were registered for this convention.
Urbana's leadership was asked as to their response in regard to both the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) issuing declarations condemning proselytizing, since the Great Commission demands that believers reach all nations with the gospel of Christ. With great care, Dan Harrison, Urbana director, responded that Urbana takes issue with the WCC because persons need Christ. He totally ignored that part of the question that referred to the ECT declaration signed by leading Evangelicals, such as Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, and J.I. Packer.
There were two general sessions each day, one in the morning and another in the evening. Seminars were scheduled for the afternoons, and delegates also used that time to visit the three large exhibit areas. More than 250 mission agencies, graduate schools, and seminaries as well as other para-church organizations, had each paid up to several thousand dollars for the space to advertise and promote their organizations.
The first plenary session was held on Friday night, December 27. The worship team was introduced at the first session. The Convention Handbook said "Every delegate will feel stretched -- learning a new song, a new style of music, a new way of expressing praise to God." The worship team was composed of InterVarsity staff and alumni. The seven members of the band were led by Alison Siewart, who is the Director of Contemporary Worship at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a leading denomination in the NCC and WCC. At a press conference, Siewart related that young people are "overloaded with information and therefore have moved to experience." When asked if reverence was relative, the reply was "Yes, but reverence to God for some is jumping around, so there is a debate in the church."
The music presented to the delegates was, for the most part, repetitive, big beat, very loud (some members of the press were seen holding their ears to drown out the sound). When the song "For All the Saints" was sung, the video showed pictures of great religious leaders. Along with the apostles and early church leaders, Mother Teresa and Billy Graham were included. Another video shown was Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his "I Have a Dream" address and this one brought forth a great roar of applause.
The keynote speaker at the first session was George Verwer, president of Operation Mobilization. The press promotional release said "George Verwer is the sort of guy who is apt to pull his pants down in front of thousands of Christians. He's done it before. Down went his pants before a conference audience to reveal a pair of colorful world-map boxer shorts! He's so passionate about world missions, he'll do just about anything to get you to listen."
Verwer started by declaring he was going to give them seven life-changing words (he only had time to give four). He said a witness is: (1) a Jesus-focused person, (2) a grace- awakened person [He promoted Charles Swindoll's Grace Awakening and said it was a most prophetic revelation. He said "Legalism still reigns in the church."], (3) a visionary person, (4) a Spirit-filled person.
Elisabeth Elliot spoke the next day. Bruce Kuhn, a professional actor, each morning acted out a particular Scripture text. The passages were Acts 2, 4, 8, and 11. He was followed by Jorge Atiencia, a native Latin American, who was the main Bible expositor. Robbie Castleman, senior InterVarsity staff member, would follow Atiencia's message each day to encourage the delegation to make a personal application.
After Nathaniel Fawcett gave a personal report on the "revival" that took place at Wheaton College in March 1995, Rick Richardson invited delegates to stay and confess sin in their lives. Those who stayed listened to a long list of sins, wrong attitudes, and actions enumerated by Richardson. He asked them to lift their hands upward and visualize a person who hurt them and then to say to that one, "I forgive you." He urged them to state aloud their sins in confession. Richardson had 150 ministers who moved around those assembled young people. The ministers were to put their hands on them, praying for them, and then to announce "I pronounce that you now have peace."
Some of these same techniques were used at the Fasting and Prayer '96 Conference and at the Promise Keepers Clergy Conference. It involves listing various sins, pausing while confession is made, listing other sins and pausing again. At Urbana this continued for an hour before disbanding, but the confessors were also offered an opportunity during the afternoon to meet with Richardson and his team.
Decision cards were distributed to everyone, and Robbie Castleman led them in filling out the cards. A report of the decisions, shared with the press after collections, revealed that 157 had professed faith in Christ, 9,401 committed to Jesus' Lordship, and 7,861 made a decision for missions involvement sometime in 1997-2000 plus. Some decisions that were made were to get to know a missionary, to read two mission books, to pray for global evangelization, etc. The announced grand total was 15,857 decisions.
Some observations by Dr. Colas:
1. While InterVarsity leaders often declared that they were not a church, only a para-church organization, it was announced publicly from the platform that baptisms had been performed at the motels. Also, the Lord's Supper (communion service) was given to everyone in attendance -- no matter what church membership one held.
2. A liturgy was used that is often a part of NCC and WCC meetings; the leader lists the various problems, and then everyone in unison responds "We confess our sins." The "Give Jesus a hand" practice of the Charismatics was often seen. The many Charismatics in attendance frequently stood and raised their arms/hands toward Heaven. This was heartily encouraged by platform leaders.
3. At times the gospel was defined clearly, but at some points it was tied to social action projects that would help to change society.
4. When a leader declared "Prayer has broken down the walls of denominations," a great cheer followed. This same idea is suggested at Promise Keepers rallies as well as at Bill Bright's Fasting and Prayer Conference. At no time was there any exposure of the apostasy of the liberal denominations, seminaries, churches, or the NCC/WCC.
5. Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, an approved agency of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), had a booth along with Fuller Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, Denver Theological Seminary, Oral Roberts University, Biblical Theological Seminary, Presbyterian (PCUSA) Theological Education, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
6. Denominational groups that were busy advertising their organizations included the Episcopal Church, United Methodist, Conservative Baptist, Assembly of God, Presbyterian Church (USA), Orthodox Church, Evangelical Free Church, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Association of Vineyard Churches, American Baptist Churches, and Free Methodist Church. It should be noted that nearly 100% of the above listed denominations are a part of the National and World Councils of Churches or the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).
7. Some 900 pastors in attendance gathered separately each day to hear Dr. Gordon MacDonald [an admitted adulterer] speak on "The Spiritual Leader." Another session saw Gail MacDonald speaking on "Forgiveness." Other interesting seminar subjects were "What The Bible Says About The Environment," Nicole Holt leading "Two Views Of Women's Roles In Missions" -- a debate between Elisabeth Elliot and Kari Malcolm, and "What The Bible Says About The Poor" with Marty Frisk in charge. More than 90 seminars were offered.
8. With an attractive ad that began with the lead "God Rocks" and "Let's go rock our world," the Association of Vineyard Churches offered two workshops led by Steve Nicholson, national coordinator of church planting for Vineyard Churches. At the first workshop, Steve Nicholson said, "Culture changes, so the church must change. God has no grandchildren." He told the group gathered to hear him that the Vineyard denomination was begun 14 years ago by John Wimber. They now have 500 churches in the USA and 181 churches in 27 other countries. Their goal is to plant 1,500 churches in the next four years, and 200 are in the process right now. Nicholson listed Vineyard's distinctives as four in number: (1) they are empowered evangelicals; (2) contemporary worship is used; (3) emphasis is on informality (he never dresses up with a coat and tie); (4) they are very relational in reaching people, with an emphatic ministry to the poor and sick. At the session on Power Encounter, Nicholson defined it thus: "Power encounter is when the power of Jesus comes into direct and open confrontation with the power of the devil through some work of power, whether it be deliverance from evil spirits, or some other kind of healing or miracle, with the result that some people are thereby made more open to hearing and receiving the gospel." He declared that Jesus Christ was able to give credence to His words because of power encounters. He added, "If we do not make this a part of our ministry we do not let people know the power of Christ." When asked if a person truly saved can be demonized, Nicholson answered, "You can have at least one demon left over after you are saved." Nicholson was questioned as to the reason the Vineyard denomination expelled the Toronto Vineyard Church led by co-pastors John and Carol Arnott. His response was that the Toronto church had broken its agreement with the Vineyard leaders and also had attributed much theological significance to the animal sounds coming forth from the worshipers there in Toronto.
9. John Wimber's materials were handed out to the delegates at Urbana. An interesting sidelight is the fact that when Dr. Jim Grier, dean of Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, was speaking elsewhere about the doctrines of the Vineyard movement, he told his audience that the five pastors of the GARB church in Michigan to which he belongs went to Anaheim, California to visit Dr. John Wimber. When Dr. Wimber prayed for the Holy Spirit to come, three of the five pastors fell to the floor! While Dr. Grier professes to eject the teachings of the Vineyard denomination, the seminary where he serves as dean was deeply involved at Urbana with not only the Vineyard churches but with apostate, Charismatic, compromising denominations and their education and missionary agencies.
10. A major problem associated with Urbana '96 was the mixture of truth and error. It is certainly a commendable goal to want to reach the people of the world with the gospel and to challenge young people to be involved. But can we ever forget that we always must do God's work in God's way if we want God's blessings upon our labors? "And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned except he strive lawfully" (II Timothy 2:5). "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (I Samuel 15:22).