As a child of an InterVarsity staff worker and an involved member of my campus’ InterVarsity chapter, I was very familiar with the Urbana Student Missions Conference. I’d even gone to Urbana 2009. But when I attended Urbana for the second time in 2012, it was a brand new experience. I was seeing the conference with new eyes: the eyes of a Catholic. After I became Catholic, this familiar conference took on a whole new appearance.
If you’re a Catholic who’s considering or planning on going to Urbana, you might be wondering what Urbana will be like, or whether it’s worth going as a Catholic student. Here’s what you should know:
1. It’ll Probably Get Weird
Urbana welcomes Christians from all backgrounds and denominations. That said, the vast majority of people at Urbana are Protestant, which means that some aspects of Urbana will feel unfamiliar and even weird to a Catholic.
The musical worship at Urbana uses a large range of instruments and often gets loud. Many people feel moved to worship emotionally, jumping up and down, raising their arms, and singing loudly. It might remind you of a rock concert more than it reminds you of church.
The teaching and preaching is done by a wide variety of people, most of whom are not pastors. There will be a moment when a leader calls for anyone who wants to accept Jesus as their savior to respond by standing up. One of the sessions will include a Protestant communion service, which you can abstain from, but which will probably feel awkward anyway. If you’re a Catholic student involved in an InterVarsity chapter, you’re used to some of this already, but either way, many things about Urbana are outside the typical Catholic’s comfort zone. However…
2. Everyone at Urbana is Out of Their Comfort Zone
God brings people from all around the world to St. Louis to hear from him. Thousands of us are learning from convicting teachers, exploring possibilities for our future, worshiping in ways that may or may not be familiar, and meeting lots of new people. That’s not exactly a recipe for comfort. And that’s exactly how God intends it to be.
Sometimes it takes a little discomfort to grow. When we’re taken out of our comfort zones, it becomes easier to hear what God is saying precisely because it’s harder to hide behind the familiar. Embrace the discomfort, and know that you’re not the only one feeling it. Talk to God about what you’re feeling, and ask him what he’s trying to show you in the situation.
3. Embrace the Familiar
Urbana has times of loud, enthusiastic worship, but it also has times and places for quiet meditation, reflection, and prayer. Some speakers will talk about things that sound completely unfamiliar, but others will speak in a way that deeply touches your heart.
And Urbana has created a dedicated space for Catholics to meet other Catholics, pray, reflect, ask questions, and even spend some time in Adoration. God will meet you in the familiar as well as in the unfamiliar. Embrace both.
4. Urbana is a Glimpse of the Global Church
Every Sunday, we recite, among other things, that we believe in the communion of saints. That communion can feel like a very abstract concept—what does it actually mean to be part of a body of believers that extends throughout time and space?
At Urbana, you worship alongside people from across the North America and the world, representing a wealth of cultures and experiences. You hear stories of God’s work in many different places. You learn how God’s power and beauty is expressed through human diversity, and how every culture has a unique and valuable way to honor God.
My time at Urbana enhanced my understanding of what it means to be part of the global Church. Now, when I think about the communion of saints, one of the things I picture is the auditorium in St. Louis, filled with fellow believers. Urbana doesn’t just expand your understanding of God—it also expands your understanding of the Church.
5. Urbana is A Space to Discern
What if there was a space and time away from your ordinary life that was designed to help you hear from God, ask him questions, and think about what he might want you to do next? Urbana has been designed as that space. In addition to the general sessions, there are also times of Bible study, spaces for prayer, seminars on a wide range of topics, and the Exhibit Hall full of organizations offering opportunities to find your life in service to God.
Urbana gives you a chance to do the kind of listening to God that you don’t always get to do in your ordinary routine. People have heard all kinds of big and small words from God at Urbana. If you feel like you’ve been stumbling in the dark, Urbana can give you the space to let God turn on the light.
Urbana gives you a chance to do the kind of listening to God that you don’t always get to do in your ordinary routine. …If you feel like you’ve been stumbling in the dark, Urbana can give you the space to let God turn on the light.
6. Urbana is for You
Yes, there will be parts of Urbana that are weird and things that you’re unsure about. And there will be things that are familiar, personal, meaningful, and profound. God has spoken at Urbana and through Urbana and he may be calling you to hear from him at Urbana. If he’s calling you, he will give you the grace to embrace the challenges and even grow through them.
Know, also, that the Archbishop of St. Louis, the Most Reverend Robert J. Carlson, will be praying for you and all Urbana participants: “I will pray that, in these upcoming days, this event—through the morning Bible studies, through the seminars, and exhibits, through the prayer and the general session talks, and through fellowship with others—will allow people to experience that authentic and life-changing encounter with the Person and Mission of Jesus so that ‘our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, a sense of fraternity [which] excludes nothing and no one,’ (Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 92). . . . I will pray that each person hears the call of Jesus within their hearts, and responds, ‘Here I am, Lord. What would you ask of me?’”
More about Catholics at Urbana