"A year ago, missionary work was the farthest thing from my mind" David Walker,
Member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship
When Ada Lum addressed the 250 participants in a Christian conference at the University Lutheran Church last Friday night, she did not tell them how to relate to God or to find themselves through religion. These listeners, college students and recent graduates from the Boston area, had long accepted the church as a major focus of their lives. They came to the two-day gathering with a far more specific goal: to find out what they can do to help the church's world-wide missionary endeavors. Lum, a slight, soft-spoken Hawaiian who is known throughout the American Christian community for her work in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, quickly established the purpose of the conference; describing a "great Christian army" of young people which is now mobilizing in the United States, she detailed its responsibility to confront the world with the gospel, God's "good news."
Conferences such as Urbana Onward, one of over 100 follow-up meetings to Urbana, a convention held in December and attended by 16,500 students, are the best publicized, but not the only evidence of a snowballing movement that is drawing young Christians to missionary work. Successful campus student groups, such as the predominantly Protestant Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship (HRCF), also fuel this revived enthusiasm. The resurgence of the missionary committment is best supported by and most fervently related by students themselves.
HRCF members who have actively contributed to the revival are self assured, but they avoid the hard-sell, preferring instead to discuss their faith as a simple "absolute truth" based on strict scriptural interpretation and intimate divine guidance.
Lianne Rozzell '82 immediately grabbed her Bible before explaining her evangelical duty, leafing through it before she found Jesus' "Great Commission" in the Book of Matthew. He's telling us that we're not just supposed to sit around and talk about our problems. We have to go out and tell people the truth about Him," Rozzell explained as she gazed at the text. "You can be a true missionary wherever you are by living your life for Christ." Rozzell has done extensive religious work with inmates at Framingham Prison.
Bill Rose '81, who leads a Bible study group in Mather House, said he feels a "moral obligation to spread the word." If you knew the cure for cancer, you would be obligated to tell people about that, right?" Rose added that 'the word' is simple: "We want to show people all over the world that Christ isn't off the wall, that it's all for real."
Hundreds of American missions boards--organizations that finance and supervise missionary work in this country and abroad--vie for the services of young people like Rozzell and Rose. Part of the function of conferences like the Urbanas is to link students with these boards, which then help the students choose the program best suited to their interests and talents. Before students are sent to Nigeria or Borneo, they often participate in one of the many missionary training programs sponsered by the International Fellowship. Schloss Mittersill, a castle in Austria, is the Fellowship's training headquarters, where students from six continents take courses in "Christian living" and the Bible.
However, debate exists over whether full time missionary work is required of every dedicated Christian. Rozzell pointed out that "it is not necessarrily plausible or desirable for everyone to pack up and go to Africa." But Dinah Danby '83 said participants who went to Urbana and did not emerge with a full-time committment "might have missed the point." Danby, who is studying Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Arabic, and plans to represent the church in India, added that, "As Christians, we have a responsibility to evangalize...Taking a conventional job is not going to go much towards that." Of the thirteen HRCF members who attended Urbana, many returned with new perspectives on missionary work, but none compared with Danby's uncompromising interpretation of the conference's message.
Jaymie Potts '83, Danby's roommate, said, "armchair missionary work" is effective and sufficient for many people, adding that she "gained insight at Urbana. I can do something at home with prayer and money." Potts works for "Evangalism in Communist Lands," an organization that sends sections of the Bible that are hidden between the pages of personal letters to Christians in the Soviet Union. Agreeing with Potts, Chris Smith '80, president of the HRCF, explained that God instructs every Christian to perform a specific role, although not necessarrily that of a missionary--an idea that several others also mentioned. "God does have a plan for me," Smith said, adding, "I would know if He disapproved of what I am doing with my life...its an unexplainable uneasiness, a spiritual thing, but not lights in the sky or audible voices or anything like that." Potts said she feels drawn to politics, adding, "God can use me as much there as he can overseas, and He will. That's a promise he makes to me."
Smith believes that many young Christians have significantly adjusted their beliefs over the past few years, adopting an unquestioning faith in God. Smith said he thinks this shift has inspired many to consider the missionary responsibility more seriously. "In the late' 60s and early '70s, you had to say that anything could be true, that whatever works for you is best. But some of those things didn't work...It's more acceptable now to speak of truth in an absolute sense. Jesus Christ said 'I am the truth,' and that's it."
Drawing on her 18 years of experience as a missionary recruiter, Lum said that she believed that youth movements of ten years ago played a positive role in incubating the present trend towards involvement with missions: "The '60s forced young people to be more aware of themselves and the world around them." But she added that "these radicals didn't have the answer, only the questions. Young Christians today finally have realized that we have got the answer."
The answer is transmitted and strengthened by a network of Christian organizations that operate both in this country and internationally, coordinating the efforts of campus groups and mission boards. The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, a worldwide operation, oversees such groups as the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), which in turn is an umbrella organization for student-run college groups such as the 160-member HRCF. Urbana is Inter-Varsity's showpiece, an event that has become so popular that it will be held every two years beginning in December 1981, instead of every three, as it has been since the first small-scale gatherings in the early '40s. David Walker '83, another HRCF member who trekked to Illinois for the most recent convention, applied almost a year in advance to make sure he would get a seat. "Thousands of students were turned away," he said, "the thing has gotten really big."
While they are certainly big, and at times, loud and frantic, student missionary conferences are not for dilletantes. Beginning at 6:15 a.m., with half an hour of individual meditation--"quiet time" in Urbana lingo the participant hustles through several days of intensive bible study, speeches, workshops, slide shows and prayer groups, all centered on the basics of missionary work. Billy Graham, the well-known television evangelist, headlined the speakers line-up at Urbana. Famous missionaries from Argentina to Kenya joined Graham on the pulpit, exhorting the participants to consider church work as a career. "The whole thing can really blow you mind," Rozzell said solemly.
The organizers of Urbana under the direction of John W. Alexander, Ph.D. president of IVCF, do not disguise the rigors of the conference or the life of the missionary in their glossy publications and audio-visual presentations. They do, however, add a political bite to many of their messages. A slide show that followed Lum's speech at the Lutheran church last Friday included the ususal scenes of sweaty but cheerful youths working with the underpriviledged. The show then identified "revolutionary Marxism," Islam and Eastern "cults" as the enemies of the church's evangelistic efforts. Pamphlets and paperback books which further examine the philosophy and logistics of missionary work, many of them printed by the Inter-Varsity Press, are always available to students who attend such conferences. While some merely provide information or theological disscussion, others blatantly mix religion with politics.
Operation World, by P.J. Johnstone, is a grossly oversimplified view of the religious and political situation of every established country in the world. In a section titled, "Points for Prayer", Johnstone says of Saudi Arabia, "The vast oil wealth is now being used to propogate Islam all over the world." A pamphlet available at Urbana Onward also rails against Islam, calling the Muslim world "perhaps the largest stronghold of Satan to refuse the Savior."
However none of the HRCF devotees gave unqualified praise to this type of old-style, high pressure approach. Rose, who expressed personal distaste for the hard sell, did admit, though, "Some people are converted by methods I never would have thought of." Rose and several others emphasized that the portrait of the modern missionary should not include a pith helmet and elephant gun. "We don't want the image of the uptight guy padding down the river converting natives," Danby said. "Converting's a word I'd like to throw out," Rozzell added.
The one belief that binds all these students and in fact characterizes the youth movement as a whole, is an unshakeable trust in God. "The real radical change is that people are now waiting for God to lead them," Walker said, adding that he has not yet decided whether he will dedicate his life to the church. He nonetheless credits only God with the recent surge in missionary zeal. "In these matters, I don't think you can attribute anything to human factors," he said. "God is the main cause. It's because of Him."
With renewed faith in biblical fundamentalism, young Christians, including members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Fellowship, are fueling a revived missionary cause.
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