what urbana reveals about intervarsity

If an outsider – someone from outside the InterVarsity world, I mean – shows up at their triennial Urbana conference, what might that experience “shout” about IV? Would it be accurate?

Of course, like any conference, not all aspects pertain to the ministry “in general”; for instance, it’s rare for a local InterVarsity chapter to draw 16,000+ individuals… But from what I can tell, seeing Urbana provides an immediate and largely accurate window into the world that is InterVarsity. (Not all college ministry conferences are like that.)

So having seen InterVarsity around the country (but still being an outsider, of course), I thought I might reflect on what Urbana reveals about the broader work of InterVarsity.

ethnic diversity

In the session I attended yesterday, the speaker joked at one point about 2/3 of the room being Asian. Students laughed a little bit (since there were plenty more non-Asians in the room), but the fact that such a joke “landed” says a few things:

  • The room really was quite ethnically diverse
  • Much of that diversity was of Asian persuasion
  • Students and leaders all recognize that IV has a large percentage of Asians

As far as I can tell, InterVarsity may be the only national college ministry that can be described as thoroughly multicultural. (And yes, much of that – but certainly not all – comes from Asian students.) IV is also quite clearly intentionally multicultural. Both of those aspects quickly become clear in a trip to Urbana – for example, the high ratio of non-Caucasian faces reveals the former, and the program lineup (in speakers and worship) reveals the latter.

a major campus ministry

Regardless of the state of InterVarsity on your campus or in your region, this ministry is probably the second-most-prestigious college ministry in the U.S. Attending Urbana provides a glimpse of that – there are, after all, over 16,000 people here from an enormous number of different ministries.

As I just described to someone at lunch, it saddens me that our field is so underdeveloped that many of us aren’t familiar with the national scene of College Ministry. Hopefully that will change, and we’ll learn about groups that are prominent – even if they’re not prominent where we happen to serve. But I think coming to Urbana (or even learning its history) might provide a clue that InterVarsity is a major force in our world.

theological diversity

Attending Urbana has also reminded me of how wide the Evangelical spectrum is under the Urbana umbrella. Case in point, the exhibit hall includes booths from Crossway and Christians for Biblical Equality, Duke Divinity and Moody Bible, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Campus Crusade and Navigators and FCA! Of course, this is the missions conference to end all missions conferences, as well as drawing thousands of college students hungry to serve. So it might be a little ridiculous not to show up.

But I feel like each of those booths and the wide-ranging dozens of others fit here, better than they might at a lot of places. I get the feeling – again, Urbana’s crowd simply reflecting what I’ve seen elsewhere – that IV has a wide theological diversity. (Among students who attend IV and Urbana, the diversity is of course all the wider – including, I believe, a number of non-Christians and non-Evangelicals.)

Their teaching-offerings reflect the same thing. This is a missions conference, but scanning the list of seminars provides opportunities to learn about everything under the sun. (You can see the topic categories here.) Think about the spectrum from which InterVarsity Press publishes; that might be a helpful way to think about its sister organization’s diversity of emphasis.

See Part II here, with 3 additional thoughts on how Urbana reflects IV as a whole.

Written from the Starbucks across from Urbana 2009, St. Louis


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