History is about to repeat itself. Once again 17,000 collegians and their missionary counselors will gather at the University of Illinois at Urbana to spend Christmas week facing the challenge of the world’s three billion who do not acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord. They will come from all over North America for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship’s triennial missionary convention. If history further repeats itself, probably some 10,000 of these college-age men and women will respond to the challenge to commit themselves to the magnificent task of proclaiming the gospel worldwide.

But there is one more if. If history repeats itself, many of those 10,000 will find it difficult actually to get into full-time missionary service overseas. If history repeats itself, sophomores and juniors and seniors may never find the path that leads from the soul-stirring experience in the halls of the University of Illinois to one of the world’s thousands of unreached peoples.

Whether history repeats itself depends in a large part on you and your church. Are you ready for Urbana?

IVCF does a magnificent job of challenging men and women to Christian service. But their work on campuses is only one leg of a three-legged stool. The other two legs are the mission agencies and local churches. Very few pastors understand this. Very few young people understand this. They respond to the challenge before them and the moving of the Spirit within them and assume that since God has called them, the way has been prepared. Doors will open. Funds will be provided. Their training and culture lead them to believe that a well-defined career path is at their feet, one well understood by both their home church and their pastor. Would that it were so! Future training is more extensive than they thought. The career path is fuzzy at best.

The college senior should have somewhere between six and ten years of additional training and experience before he or she can become an effective missionary. When a person is 21, six to ten years seems like an eternity. Who is going to hang in there with students if their pastors don’t? Who is going to help them hold to their commitment? When they graduate, for the most part they will leave the care of organizations like Inter-Varsity and Campus Crusade.

First, be convinced yourself of the need. There are all too many pastors who believe the day of missions is over. However, there are more Buddhists today than there were people alive at the time of Christ! Get a copy of Unreached Peoples ‘79 (David C. Cook) and look at the evidence. Of the estimated 55,000 Protestant missionaries in the world, almost 40,000 come from North America. Only 25 percent of them are involved in evangelism and church planting.

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Second, understand the kind of preparation needed. It’s all too easy to send young people off to cross-cultural missionary service right out of Bible school (and far too many missions are willing to take them with little further training). Rather, preparation should call for an investment of four years of college, summers in cross-cultural exposure and training, two to three years of additional graduate training, two years of home service, and “junior missionary” status until language is mastered on the field.

Third, understand the cost. It’s higher than that of preparing for the pastorate. And it’s more difficult for students to earn money over the summer when their summers need to be spent in service elsewhere. Many churches are willing to take young people under the care of the church and to share in the cost of their education while they are preparing for the pastorate. Many more churches need to consider supporting future missionaries in those same terms.

Fourth, welcome them back from Urbana. Whether one or one hundred went from your church, they are going to come back excited about what they saw God do. They will have been exposed to some of the greatest missionary speakers of our day. They will have a backpack full of information from hundreds of agencies, and they will have a lot to share. Let them share it, not just at a morning or evening service, but in small groups, at special home meetings, in Sunday school. Let them challenge other young people who didn’t go.

Fifth, be prepared to give counsel. An unknown road lies ahead. Few of us really understood very well what was involved in pursuing our chosen profession. And there are few professions less understandable than missionary service. There are people in your church who are equipped to help young people get a better hold on their future, to hold them up in prayer, to be there when the first flush of a new commitment has disappeared. Match up your students with mature Christians.

Give them practical help. For example, provide a copy of the Mission Handbook (MARC) that lists all of the North American agencies—where they serve, what they do. Write the Association of Church Missions Committees (ACMC, 1021 W. Walnut St., Suite 202, Pasadena, CA 91106) for free information about local church missions programs. Get your Urbana “graduates” involved in Inter-Varsity’s “Urbana Onward” program, special follow-up conferences on all the major campuses. (Write to John Kyle, IVCF, 233 Langdon St., Madison, WI 53703. For a copy of the career planning book that will be used, You Can So Get There from Here, write to MARC, 919 W. Huntington Dr., Monrovia, CA 91016.)

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Sixth, build your missions program around them. If you already have a strong and up front concern for missions, this will probably take care of itself. But if you are wondering how to get your church turned on and knowledgeable about what God is doing all around his world, what better way is there than to involve your own young people?

Seventh, become a part of the new thing that God is doing in the world. Christ’s church has been commissioned to carry his gospel to all peoples everywhere. When a local church looks out beyond itself, when it looks past the thousands of steeples that pinpoint the American landscape to the thousands of unreached peoples who fill the world, it finds new meaning, new reality. In a day when we struggle against a culture that beckons us to grab all the gusto we can get, and pays off in lives emptied of meaning or value, life that is worth living must be centered in commitment to something greater than ourselves. In their hearts young people know this is true and older people long to believe it again. Thousands of those young people will be changed at Urbana and will want to become part of Christ’s global cause.

Will history repeat itself? Pastors and churches can play a significant role in the answer.

Edward R. Dayton is director of the Missions Advanced Research & Communication Center (MARC) of World Vision International, Monrovia, California.

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