Tuesday, December 25, 2018

My Urbana 12 Commitment Card

Logo from Urbana 2012. Image source.
Urbana 18 is going to be held December 27-31, so I'd like to talk about my experience with Urbana. Urbana is the huge student missions conference that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship holds every 3 years. It's about missions- about the world, about God calling you to go be a missionary, about embracing different languages and cultures, about the needs of humanity on a global scale, about our radical obedience to a God who wants us to sacrifice everything for the gospel.

ANYWAY here is a rough timeline of what happened to me:

2009: Went to Urbana
2010: Went on a short-term missions trip to China
2012: Went to Urbana
2013: Moved to China, and I've been living here ever since.

Umm. Did I come to China because of Urbana? No? Kind of? Maybe? It's more complicated than that. It wasn't like "while we were in that giant auditorium singing 'I Will Go' I just got this sense like God was telling me, 'Perfect Number, go to China.'" It wasn't like how the Christian leaders at my college encouraged us to sign up for Urbana by name-dropping famous missionaries who apparently "heard the call" at Urbana. It wasn't like that.

(And because it wasn't like that, I spent 2010-2013 living in the US, wanting SO MUCH to be in China, but not even sure if I was "allowed to", because "God didn't 'call' me." But that's a story for another time. Seriously, ask me about that sometime and I will TELL YOU. Or look through my blog posts from 2012.)

I already believed- because I had been taught this in church for my entire life- that God loved the whole world, and that all around the world there are people who desperately need our help, either because they're living in poverty, or because they haven't "heard the gospel." And I believed I should obey God no matter the cost. Urbana just helped me see, in real-life practical terms, what it would mean to live like I really believed those things. (I no longer necessarily think those are good things to believe...)

It wasn't like "I moved to China because at Urbana God told me to move to China." Nope. Not one bit like that. Maybe it was more like "I moved to China because of these things I believed about God and the world, which I had believed my whole life, but Urbana reminded me of them in a way I couldn't shake."

(I've actually been working on a post about "the real reason I came to China" for a while, so stay tuned for that. Maybe in the next few months.)

Anyway. What I really want to talk about in this post is my Urbana 2012 commitment card.

What is a "commitment card", you ask? Well on the last day of a Christian conference, they have all the attendees fill out a "commitment card" where you write down what actions "God is calling you" to take as a result of your experiences at the conference. As it happens, a while ago I found an image online of an Urbana 2012 commitment card, and I posted it on the blog post I wrote about radical Christian missions. Here is the image:

Urbana 2012 commitment card. Image source.
Here is the text, the different "commitments" you can choose from:
I say "yes" to Jesus, who extends God's lavish welcome
1. I am deciding to become a follower of Jesus for the first time.
2. I am deciding to recommit myself to following Jesus.

I commit to extending Jesus' invitation
3. I will invite someone who is not a follower of Jesus to study Luke with me

I commit to join Jesus in his global mission
4. I commit to serve and learn in a global or cross-cultural setting
5. Short-term: less than one year
6. Mid-term: one to two years
7. Long-term: more than two years
So for each of the numbered items, there's a box you can check if you're "committing" to that one. Yep, this is exactly what the commitment card I filled out looked like. I remember I checked off the last one- commit to doing cross-cultural missions long-term, ie more than two years.

All right, that was 2012, that was 6 years ago, how about we revisit that "commitment" and see if I did it or not?

Well to start out with, let's talk about what the word "commitment" means. This is a two-year commitment. Wow. That is a really big deal. I wonder about the other students who checked off that box. I wonder if it was a decision they made at Urbana, or if they had already been planning to move to another country.

In my case, I was already planning to go to China, before I went to Urbana 2012. The commitment card didn't represent me making a decision; it was just me writing down the decision I had already made, the decision that had been on my mind constantly since that short-term mission trip in 2010.

But the way Christians always talked about Urbana and God's "calling", I imagined that typically, these "commitments" were something new, something that had just come up within the few days that people were attending the conference. As if someone showed up at Urbana with no plans at all to do long-term missions, but with their "heart open to God", and during the conference they felt like God was "calling" them to go to such-and-such country that they had never been to before and knew nothing about.

(I even knew Christians who chose not to go to Urbana specifically because they were worried that God was going to "call" them to go be a missionary in some foreign country. Ha, I could write a whole post analyzing what this says about obeying God and not being allowed to make our own choices.)

I have no idea, in reality, how long people thought about it before making "commitments" at Urbana. I don't know what percentage of them counted the cost. But I do know that we were encouraged to "step out in faith" and "trust God" and go ahead and make that commitment even though we didn't yet understand how it would work out in practical terms. After all, if God is telling you to do it, then God will make sure those minor details work out. (Minor details like "I don't speak the language"...) No worries.

It seems to me that an idea which comes to you in an emotionally-charged Christian environment like the Urbana conference can disappear just as fast when you go back to your normal life. If, out of nowhere, "God calls you" and you "commit" to moving overseas for 2 years, but that's something you had never actually thought about before, then how on earth is that actually going to happen? Raw emotion isn't going to get you there. You have to find a job or find a missions organization. You have to fill out visa applications. You have to buy a plane ticket. You have to pack medications and maybe get vaccines, depending on which country you're going to. You have to at least learn how to say numbers, so you can buy stuff, and "where's the bathroom?" But before you do any of that, you have to do A LOT OF RESEARCH to figure out where to even start.

So I wonder, how many students made "commitments" at Urbana to do missions, and then nothing ever came of it.

What about me though? I committed to 2 or more years of cross-cultural missions. And I've been living in China for 5 years now. So, uh, does that "count"?

I mean... Back when I was an evangelical, I believed in the concept of "we are all missionaries, no matter where we are." Basically, even if you're not living in a foreign country, even if you're not in a Christian job like being a pastor, even if you just have a "normal" life (whatever that means...), you should still think of yourself as a missionary. That means that you should work hard to "show God's love" to people and to "share the gospel" with them- that should be a high priority for Christians no matter where we are or what job we have.

And I still believe that. Well, in an ex-evangelical way. I no longer do evangelism- because it's BAD and UNLOVING to assume that I know what complete strangers need (ie, they need to become Christians). But I believe in doing good and loving people even if that's not part of my actual professional job description. Do the right thing, spend time and effort caring about people, etc.

Umm. So. ... Am I a missionary?

LOLOLOLOLOL no. No, I very much DO NOT identify as a missionary.

Do I "serve and learn in a global or cross-cultural setting"? (The actual text of the commitment card.)

I mean, yes... except that I think the "serve" here is actually Christianese for "doing the things that good evangelicals are supposed to do, like evangelism." So if we're using that definition, then no. If any of this is dependent on being a good evangelical, then no, no I have NOT spent 2 years doing that.

Overall, I have no regrets about this. I did good enough. I moved to China. As for that stuff about continuing to buy into that whole ideology about evangelism and missions, nah I don't feel bad about leaving all that behind.

One more thing I want to say about the concept of committing to move to a different country for 2+ years: Actually, that's not really something you can commit to, because there could be unexpected problems that come up and force you to move back to your home country.

When I first came to China and I was teaching English, I had a coworker who was also from the US, let's call her Anna. She had been working in Shanghai as an English teacher for less than 1 year, and then she started having health problems, and she had to move back to the US to get treatment.

I met another American here in Shanghai, let's call her Cathy. She came to China because she got a job as a music teacher here, but then when she got here the school was like "actually you won't be a music teacher, you're going to teach English." Yeah, that happens sometimes- the job they actually want you to do is completely different from the job they said you were going to do.

Cathy, as you might imagine, was NOT HAPPY about this. She spent a few days scrambling around to find a new job- at one point saying to herself, "If I don't find a new job today, I will have to go back to the US." She did find a different teaching job, and she worked there for a few months. But then she had problems with her visa, and China is a giant bureaucracy, and she couldn't get those problems solved so she did end up moving back to the US.

I have another American friend, let's call him Tim, who was studying in Japan in 2011 when there was a huge earthquake that caused a huge tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdowns. It was bad. Wikipedia says 15000 people died. Because of that disaster, Tim ended up leaving Japan and coming back to the US. From what he told me, it sounded like most of the international students he knew in Japan were leaving.

In her book When We Were On Fire (which I blogged about here), Addie Zierman talked about the period of time she and her husband spent in China. For her, it was a very low point in her life. She developed depression because of the culture shock and because of how isolated she felt. For her own mental health, she needed to leave.

And the book Runaway Radical (which I blogged about here) tells about how Jonathan Hollingsworth went to Cameroon as a missionary, because he was so "on fire for God" and bought into all that ideology about sacrificing everything for the sake of the gospel. When he was there, he suffered spiritual abuse from the leaders of the missions organization. The situation got worse and worse, and finally he decided to leave, and they wouldn't even give him his plane ticket or refund any of the money his donors had raised. He was able to get back to the US, eventually.

My point is, sometimes you plan to move to a foreign country and live there for a certain period of time- 1 year, 2 years, whatever- but then circumstances outside of your control force you to leave. So I'm really really uncomfortable about the idea of "making a commitment" about it. Yes, you can make a commitment to try, to put in a reasonable amount of effort in pursuit of that goal, but making a commitment to actually do it... uhhhh... Especially if you've never even traveled there before and you really have no idea what you're committing to. (*cough* like most of the students at Urbana *cough*) When you don't know how hard and painful it is to be an immigrant.

I just hate the idea that someone could spend so much time, effort, money, and emotional energy to move to another country, and then something bad happens and they're more or less forced to move back to their home country- which is a difficult situation just by itself- but then on top of that, they feel the weight of guilt because they broke a commitment they made to God. If it was me, no matter what the problem was that forced me to leave, I would feel like it was my fault, that I should have just tried harder and I could have found a way to stay. Or I would feel like my sin was in making that commitment in the first place- making a "rash vow" like Jephthah, am I right? Like it didn't matter if I'd vowed something that was actually impossible for me to do. It's my fault for not adding fine print to the Urbana commitment card.

(By the way, here is a link to the BEST POST I HAVE EVER READ about the biblical story of Jephthah's daughter. "The story of Jephthah is the story of everyone who decides that vows and codes and rules must be absolute. That way of thinking always ends in death.")

Anyway. I'm revisiting my 2012 Urbana commitment card because it's a big deal to commit to 2 years of cross-cultural missions, and that matters to me. InterVarsity keeps statistics about these commitment cards, as if they really matter and these are real commitments we are making. Look at this link- it says in 2012 at Urbana, 4248 students committed to that last option on the commitment card, 2 or more years of "long-term mission." I was one of them. I want to know what happened to the other 4247. 6 years later, where are they? Did they do their 2 years? Did they quit being evangelical, like me? What did it actually mean, that we made this commitment?


Readers: If you have experience with making "commitments" at a Christian conference, leave a comment about it! Especially if you went to Urbana.


I Didn't Count the Cost Before I Moved To China
This Is Exactly the Martyr Fairy Tale We Aspired To
InterVarsity just strained out a gnat and swallowed a camel. (I no longer support InterVarsity because of what they did to queer people in 2016.)

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