Quite the Ride—The Story of a Real-Life Prodigal

April 23, 2019By Nathan Peterson, Urbana Missions

Fake it till you make it. Put your head down and don’t meet God. Those thoughts ran through Tom’s mind over and over on the way to Urbana 15.

Starting a New Life

With parents on staff with The Navigators, Tom grew up around the Bible, church, and ministry. But as he got into high school, his doubts began to multiply. “I wasn’t convinced being a Christian was the best way to live,” he said. “I never thought that being a Christian was very fun. It always seemed like I was missing out.”

In 2015, Tom started attending the University of Missouri (Mizzou) and began exploring all that college life had to offer. “My freshman year was almost like starting a new life,” he said. “Literally the second night on campus, I was already getting drunk. What followed was a semester of hitting the bars, drinking, and getting high several times a week. I had every intention to abandon God while I had fun my own way.”

As the fall semester continued, Tom’s cousin told him that they both needed to go to Urbana 15. Tom wasn’t really interested, but his cousin persisted until he finally agreed. Registering for a Christian conference would keep his parents convinced that he was living for God, Tom reasoned.

Finding Freedom & Joy

At Urbana 15, something unexpected started happening to Tom. The worship was nothing like he’d ever experienced. He caught himself singing along, and during general sessions and seminars, he took detailed notes. This is weird, Tom thought. I’m actually enjoying this.

He began reflecting on the theme for Urbana 15, “What Story Will You Tell?” “Up to that point, I was telling a very worldly story that got me nowhere,” Tom said. “I was trying to fill a void in my life. It would feel good for a little bit, but the void would still be there the next day when I woke up.”

At Urbana, Tom began to see another way to live out his story. “Previously, being a Christian had been kind of a bore with all these rules,” Tom said. “But at Urbana 15, I realized that following Jesus is a blast. I never felt more freedom, more joyful, more excited. There is so much more to life than just partying on the weekends and being crazy at school.”

Tom returned to Mizzou for his second semester excited to share about Urbana but also nervous, knowing how many temptations there’d be. No sooner had he unloaded his things into his dorm room than a friend came by asking him to catch up over a drink. This was the first of many opportunities that Tom had to show how God had changed him at Urbana.

Not long into the new semester, Tom’s mother, who had been battling cancer for six years, passed away. “I pretty much spent the rest of my freshman year hanging on for dear life, trying not to go back into the party scene,” Tom said. “I’m forever grateful for how God saved me when he did. If he hadn’t, I don’t think I would ever have come back to him, especially [because I would have been] trying to drown the pain of losing my mom in drugs and alcohol.”

“Quite the Ride”

Three years later, Tom and his cousin returned to St. Louis for Urbana 18. This time, Tom was the one doing the inviting, bringing along his sister, her friend from high school, and his girlfriend. He came hoping to receive a clear calling to a ministry right after graduation. Instead, he sensed God’s peace about the immediate future, as well as confirmation regarding his plan to eventually serve the Lord through missions or a nonprofit after gaining more work experience. Tom also witnessed his girlfriend decide to join Marine Reach’s Cover to Cover Bible Discipleship Training in New Zealand.

Finishing up his final semester at Mizzou, Tom is in a very different place compared to three years earlier. He’s become deeply involved with the Baptist Student Union campus ministry as a mentor to freshmen and had the chance to lead a missions team to Africa, where they shared the gospel with nearly 5,000 people.

Reflecting on his time since his first Urbana, Tom said, “Sometimes God calls you to big things, but a lot of times, it’s the little things. I want to encourage everybody: Even if you’re just meeting, mentoring, and discipling one person, that’s awesome. God used Urbana and you to do that. Continue on.

“It’s been a huge blessing and very humbling to live as a witness for the Lord at Mizzou,” he said. “I’ve also been trying to encourage others to share Jesus with their unbelieving friends. It’s been quite the ride since Urbana 15, and I’m looking forward to continuing to serve the Lord, graduating, and moving on to the work force.”

Urbana Year