Sep 28, 2015
Lindsay Olesberg, Scripture Engagement Director for Urbana 15, writes about the power of Scripture-centered conferences in the lives of college students.
Do you remember your first conference as a college student? In October of my freshman year, I traveled with my InterVarsity group to a camp in the mountains (a favorite site for Christian retreats since 30 A.D.). That weekend I made two decisions that changed my life.
- I decided to learn how to study the Bible. As we were invited to notice repeated words, ask questions, and look for answers from the text itself, it occurred to me that up until that point I had only read the Bible casually. The possibility that there was much more available in Scripture intrigued me. A few weeks later when my InterVarsity staff worker invited me to a Bible study training event, I said “yes!” without blinking. Deep study of Scripture—alone and in community—has been a hallmark of my life and ministry ever since.
- I decided to speak up about issues of faith and worldview in class. After listening to a talk on Daniel and his friends at “Babylon University,” I prayed, “Lord, give me opportunities and give me courage.” Monday morning in my anthropology class, the lecture was riddled with anti-Christian comments. God gave me the courage to invite the professor to lunch. As we sat down at the table I said, “Professor Bolton, I’m a Christian. From your comments in class, it sounds like you don’t like Christianity. Can you tell me why?” With surprising candidness, the professor shared about his struggles as a gay man and the ways he had been hurt by the Church. He also told me about an aunt who had genuine faith and had loved him well through a dark time in his life. In the weeks to come, his rhetoric about Christianity was noticeably softened. That experience galvanized my resolve to live as a Daniel.
Life-transforming decisions like these are the reason campus ministers go through all the work of planning programs, schlepping sound equipment, and arranging transportation to get students to retreats and conferences. The opportunity for growth in discipleship is huge.
I am convinced that a conference’s lasting impact is deeply tied to the quality of the participants’ encounter with God through his Word. When the conference high subsides and the stresses of school and work rear their heads, Scripture has staying power in a student’s life. When I was shaking in my boots before the lunch date with Professor Bolton, I didn’t go back to the talk I heard at the retreat; I turned to Daniel 1-3. Scripture assured me of God’s presence with those who withstand the pressure to bow. A great speaker can point us in the right direction; the Spirit working through the Word enables someone to walk the path of discipleship.
5 Ways to Build Scripture-Centered Conferences
The Urbana Student Missions Conference team is committed to making the Bible central before, during, and after the conference. The path from hearing a call to missions to living faithfully as a missionary can be long. We want Urbana to be a catalytic experience in a student’s lifelong discipleship. As a planning team, here are some of the things we’ve found most helpful for shaping a conference around God’s Word.
- Discern grounding text first. We begin by discerning God’s choice of Scripture for this particular conference. Rather than starting with desired themes and topics and then finding Scripture to support those, we start by selecting a section of the Bible. Urbana 15 is built on passages from Matthew.
- Be shaped by the grounding text before selecting a theme. All of the staff teams working on Urbana spend months studying the text. We seek to apply it personally and corporately. After our own encounter with God through his Word, we let the grounding text inform our creativity and guide our decisions about themes and topics. The theme for Urbana 15 is “What story will you tell?”
- Invite participants to engage with Scripture before the conference. We are challenging participants to read the entire book of Matthew before they arrive in St. Louis. We’ve set up a YouVersion reading plan and provided resources for small groups.
- Focus the program around Scripture. At Urbana 15, daily inductive Bible studies will help participants dig into passages from Matthew for themselves. Each general session focuses on a passage or a topic from Matthew. When we extend the call to commitment, we ask students: “How has God been speaking to you through his Word? What will it look like for you to live that out?”
- Challenge participants to lead Bible studies after the conference. Urbana participants are challenged to pass on what they have learned by leading the same Bible studies with friends who didn’t attend. We provide resources and post-conference support. At Urbana 12, over 6,400 people committed to inviting a friend who does not follow Jesus to study parts of Luke.
We can’t predict how others will respond to the Word (Mark 4:15-20), but in our conferences, let’s do all we can to keep Scripture central and trust the Holy Spirit to speak in ways that will last a lifetime.