He was really something special. Tom Lin excelled as a leader in everything from the get-go, as primary school president and staying up late to get “A super plus” grades on reports. He started a soccer league with matches during recess and after school, complete with ribbons and certificates for the winners of the championship game. Half of his 60 classmates were involved.
In high school, he became the student government chairman and youth group president. He was on the front page of the Chicago Tribune and USA Today. He was on the cover of Seventeen, and had a 30-minute TV appearance on ESPN for an All-American Award.
When Tom entered Harvard University in 1991, his plans for a lucrative career in corporate law were as stable and secure as his parents had always dreamed. “I was looking forward to college as the next step in my quest to turn my future hopes into reality,” he recalls. “My plans were to study hard like I did in high school, then attend a top-notch law school and become a corporate attorney, enjoying the prestige, salary and benefits that accompany such a career. It was my personal version of the American Dream.” Not surprisingly, he excelled.
Then, slowly, Tom started to realize what he wanted.
The Birthday that Changed Everything
Having grown up in the church, he thought he should go to church and connect with other Christians while at Harvard. This sense of duty took Tom into a meeting of an InterVarsity chapter.
From the beginning, though, he didn’t go very often. Large Group was the obligatory commitment and Small Group felt like “extra credit.” He spent the first six months focused on anything but God, getting busier with student government, a community service organization, intramural soccer, parties, and friends.
A few weeks into the spring semester of his freshman year, his friends from a Bible study group surprised him for his birthday—and how. They blindfolded him and led him across campus for all manner of hijinks, including walking around the streets of Harvard Square, singing in the middle of campus, and greeting strangers along the way. He thought they were crazy.
But he also felt honored. That birthday surprise helped Tom realize what he valued—these friends and what they were trying to do for him and for others on campus.
He jumped in with both feet. That semester, while studying Mark 10:17-31 as part of an intensive study of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus challenged him with a new mission: “Leave everything, Tom—the parties, your riches, and your worldly treasures—and come follow me.”
Jesus challenged him with a new mission: “Leave everything, Tom—the parties, your riches, and your worldly treasures—and come follow me.”
By the end of his freshmen year, he started reaching out. “I tried to bring others into our Bible study group, and I wanted to take opportunities to serve,” he says.
During Tom’s second year, he helped to lead the Bible study group. The group grew so fast that by the end of the year the first group had split into three and Tom was leading the leaders of those groups. “I was loving it!” Tom recalls. Loving it so much, in fact, that as he began to think about what he wanted to do with his life, he thought, “If I could do what I’m doing now—but not take classes—that’s what I’d want to do.”
Tom decided to go to Urbana 93 during his senior year to discern his next steps, particularly if he should continue ministering on campus after graduating. The Student Leadership Track for InterVarsity chapter leaders, in particular, was helpful. “I heard Jesus’ heartbeat for the world. I heard his call to be a campus missionary with InterVarsity.”
When he came home, Tom realized no one else had heard what he had heard. He had just spent five days immersed in a ‘missions’ environment, but his parents occupied different head space. They sat him down to talk about his future and he feebly confessed his sense that God was calling him to become a campus missionary.
His parents stared at him in angry, frightened silence. This was so not what they had hoped. This was not the future for which they had sacrificed and toiled. Finally, his mom said, “Tom, if you do this, I will kill myself.”
While his mom didn’t end up taking her own life, his parents did begin to die spiritually and emotionally that day. They left the church, renounced their faith, withdrew from their community, and stopped talking to him for years.
While at Urbana, Tom briefly met someone named Nancy. In fact, their meeting was so brief that he doesn’t remember it. But she did. And later, she joined Tom’s InterVarsity staff team in the Boston area. Eventually, they started dating.
As they were getting to know each other, Nancy went on an InterVarsity Global Project to China. God transformed Nancy through that experience, and she knew that she needed to invest her life in God’s mission. Nancy wondered whether Tom could be a part of the life God was calling her to. She asked Tom if he would ever go overseas to serve.
His response: “No, I want to be with Americans. I love America!”
Nancy understood then what Tom would only come to understand later through Nancy’s example: that God’s love was for the nations.
As Tom grew in his understanding of God’s heart for the nations, he took a Perspectives course on God’s global mission. “I discovered that God's call to global missions appears throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.”
In 1998, Tom and Nancy co-directed a Global Project in Vietnam, sharing friendship, cultures, and conversation with Vietnamese students. It was 100 degrees, with no air conditioning. Communist officials were spying on them. And few people spoke English. But Tom loved the experience and craved more.
After they were married in 1999, Tom and Nancy led a similar trip to Southeast Asia to investigate where else InterVarsity students and staff members might serve. They sensed God leading them to move to Cambodia and pioneer ministry there with a Japanese couple affiliated with OMF and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES).
But six months before Tom and Nancy were to move to Cambodia, they got a call. Cambodia was unstable and their hosts had been called back to Japan. It was no longer possible for them to go.
As the door to Cambodia closed, IFES regional leadership asked Tom and Nancy if they would pioneer a national evangelical student movement in Mongolia. They prayed about it. With no doubt that the Lord was calling them to take next steps in his global mission, and with no guarantee Cambodia would open up, they said yes, without ever having been to Mongolia. They realized, “We just couldn’t wait.”
With no doubt that the Lord was calling them to take next steps in his global mission, and with no guarantee Cambodia would open up, they said yes, without ever having been to Mongolia. They realized, “We just couldn’t wait.”
God had catalyzed an amazing change within Tom.
But, the Parents
As Tom and Nancy were preparing to move to Mongolia, Tom’s mom was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer and given just months to live. They still hadn’t reconciled. Tom wanted to be faithful to God’s call, but the weight of the reality of obeying God’s call was crushing. How could he go halfway around the world and leave his own parents estranged from God and estranged from himself?
But instead of laying a burden on Tom, God was using his mom’s cancer to transform his parents’ hearts. Over the following months, Tom’s mom and dad began to focus on God again. They asked for God’s forgiveness and for a restored relationship with him. They recommitted themselves to praying and reading the Bible daily, and attending church whenever his mom felt well enough. After years of isolation, they finally began reconciling with their friends, sharing the news about his mom’s cancer.
December 31, 2001 is a day Tom will never forget. With tears running down her cheeks, Tom’s mom sat down next to him and held his hand. “Tom, there’s something I’ve been wanting to say for a long time now. I’m so sorry. I know I caused you so much pain. Will you forgive me?”
His dad added, “Tommy, all I’ve ever wanted was for your dreams to come true. If God is calling you to Mongolia, then go. We support you.”
Tom had waited seven years to hear these words.
His mother passed away a month later.
And to today
Tom and Nancy did go to Mongolia. Because of God’s power and strength working in and through the Lins and others, the Mongolian Fellowship of Christian Students has now been established as an official non-profit organization, reaching out at universities throughout Mongolia. There are currently fellowship groups throughout the capital city, with five indigenous Mongolian staff. In the past five years, more than 500 students have become believers.
After four years in Mongolia, Tom began to think again about the unchurched people in the United States, and the lack of a vibrant witness for Jesus on many university campuses. The work in Mongolia was progressing to a point where the Lins needed to leave in order to empower emerging Mongolian leadership.
After some months in transition, Tom and Nancy landed in Missouri with their two daughters to lead InterVarsity’s Central Region. Over four years, they re-planted InterVarsity ministry in four states, and planted 16 new chapters.
During those years, Tom joined the Board of Wycliffe Bible Translators, taking on the role of Vice-Chair in 2010. Also that year, Tom became InterVarsity’s vice president for missions and the director of Urbana, a role which would bring together his love for global missions and North American students. As director of Urbana, Tom has the great privilege of helping students learn from global voices as they make life-changing decisions about their faith, vocation, and the trajectory of their lives in light of the global church.
As Tom leads his second Urbana Student Missions Conference (occurring December 2015), the Church is facing increasing challenges in many contexts around the world. There is, perhaps, greater urgency for Urbana now than we’ve seen in recent years. The world is seeing terrible injustice and persecution: Christian students killed for their faith in Kenya, kidnappings, a huge refugee crisis in multiple fragile states, and the need for reconciliation in the midst of ethnic and religious strife.
“Urbana has the opportunity,” Tom says, “to catalyze this generation to bring about the change we’re yearning for. I’m excited to mobilize students to reach the world with the gospel!”