It’s so easy in our globalized world to buy airline tickets and take teens straight to the mission field, allowing them to experience missions firsthand for a week. Is that the best way to introduce them to missions?

For many teens, short-term mission trips may not be much more than exotic vacations. Even worse, without proper preparation and debriefing, the trips risk giving teens a “been-there, done-that” inoculation against truly understanding God’s global mission.

Without proper preparation, a trip also may do more harm than good on the receiving end. A team of college students spent part of one recent summer tearing down a church built by another short-term mission. The Christian tribe that had “received” the church did not know how to tell the first team that it neither needed nor wanted the building.

Urbana Offers the Big Picture
For more than 60 years, one of the best places to grasp the vision of the Great Commission and learn what missions is about has been Urbana, InterVarsity’s triennial student missions conference. It is unlike any other conference and light-years beyond the typical church missions conference.

Urbana is for anyone who is interested in finding out more about global missions and discovering their place in missions. Urbana participants are typically 18-30 years old, but anyone who is a high-school senior or older is welcome, particularly pastors.

This December, approximately 20,000 students and adults will gather in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis for Urbana ’09 to focus for five days on what God is doing around the world and on the challenge of what remains undone.

Since InterVarsity’s first student missions conference in 1946, more than 240,000 people have been challenged to participate in God’s global mission. Many who are on the mission field today are there because God’s call to them became clear at Urbana. Many more who were not called to the mission field still remember Urbana as an important step in their spiritual formation.

Urbana Challenges Students, Changes Lives
Lee Heyward, a Wisconsin pastor who made a commitment to missions at Urbana ’76, says it’s the magnitude of Urbana that makes it so compelling, even more so today than when he was a student.

“Young people today are far more globally savvy and aware than I even thought of when I was in college,” he says. “There’s a whole cadre of students out there who I think really wants to do something meaningful with their lives. The kind of buttons Urbana pushes and the kinds of themes they cover have extraordinary appeal to today’s students.”

Julie Hettinger attended Urbana ’90 as a student at Cal Poly State University. She hoped to find an organization at work in Latin America. Two and a half years later she was working with street children in Bogota, Colombia.

“That summer changed the direction of my life,” she says. “I saw up close the effects of malnutrition in street kids. I knew I wanted to return to Latin America someday with a profession that could help these children physically, so they could respond spiritually to God’s purpose for their lives.”

After graduate study and internships, Julie became a national nutritionist with Food for the Hungry-Bolivia, shaping programs that addressed the needs of malnourished children. She returned to Urbana ’06 as a representative of Food for the Hungry. “Serving at Urbana was like coming full circle, coming home to the place where God first called me to missions,” she says.

Anna Lyman graduated from YWAM’s discipleship training program before going to college. She learned that graphic design (her passion) is very much needed on the mission field, so she got a graphic design degree. She came to Urbana ’03 looking for God to show her a missions agency that could use her talents.

“When I talked with the people at the Operation Mobilization booth, I felt a huge click and a flood of peace,” she says. “I knew this was where God wanted me.”

Anna joined OM after graduation and designed the booth that OM used at Urbana ’06. “It was such a fun flip of the coin to go from one Urbana to the next—first as a student, then as a missions rep for the agency that I’d discovered three years earlier,” she says.

Scott Johnson also attended Urbana ’03 and Urbana ’06. Something about the Servant Partners booth at Urbana ’06 intrigued him. It was a hut constructed of cardboard and tin amid all the other organizations’ fancy displays. Today, Scott Johnson works with Servant Partners in gritty south Los Angeles.

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