In the months leading up to Urbana I had numerous students asking me if it was really worth $800 to go to Urbana. I remember at the time really wrestling over this question. I mean I couldn’t exactly promise that it would be an amazing life changing experience and that they would receive their life’s calling (as many students might have expected). So I kept my answer simple. There is nothing else like the experience of worshipping with 20,000 people and hearing from international speakers. Yet deep in my heart I wrestled with the question, was that really worth the $800-$1000 that my students had to pay?
I remember the night before the conference, the prayer team gathered in the dome to pray for the start of the conference. About a hundred prayer folks gathered to pray and we proceeded into the dome in two lines taking turns reading the Psalms of Accent. The Psalms of Accent (Psalms 120-134) were the Psalms that the Israelite people read as the climbed up toward the temple in Jerusalem.
Walking through the empty dome was a unique experience. With no one in it, it felt HUGE, and I was filled with awe at how many people were about to fill this place. As we recited the Psalms, I was struck by how symbolic this act was. We were sharing in the act of preparation that the Israelites took as they drew near to the tabernacle, the dwelling place of the Lord.
I began to think about the later part of Exodus that gave detailed instructions to the Israelites on how to build the first tabernacle. When I was young, I use to wonder why the first part of the book was so exciting and the later half got so boring! Yet now as I thought about these text, I marvel at the incredible amount of detail that God gave in building this “dwelling place.” He specified building materials, dimensions, specific elements of worship to be included, and even job assignments for the priests working there. In chapter 31, he anointed specific artisans with”wisdom” to have a supernatural knowledge of working with metals, cloths, and other arts. I concluded in reflection that God is a very aesthetic God, who almost seems obsessed with making things intricately beautiful. And finally after they built it to specs in chapter 40 it says, “then the cloud covered the tend of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Their job was simply to build it. It was God’s job to fill it with his presence.
Reflecting on the biblical significance of the tabernacle, I began to think about Urbana. Anyone who’s been to Urbana knows how intricate and complex it is. Everything from the stage set up and visuals, to the speakers, to the ethnic/gender representation on stage, to the arts, to serving communion to 17,000 people is well thought out and fits together to create one whole experience. Urbana Staff toil over the conference for 3 years, prayerfully engaging the Lord for the vision and direction, while exercising an “anointed wisdom” of organization and administration in trying to fit it all together.
During every plenary session, I was constantly amazed at the thoughtfulness and significance of EVERY element of the convention. I was amazed at how each art piece and performance, even the lighting on the screen overhead, communicated the message to me in a different and profound way. As I sat through a 1 hour communion service filled with well planned liturgy and arts, I was moved to tears by the intricate beauty of each element of this typically ordinary sacrament. In a culture where I’m use to “experiencing God” only through music and sermons, it was as if all my senses were being awakened to His presence in a new and profound way way. At every moment I just sensed the Lord’s presence dwelling in that space in a unique way. And so as the Urbana team worked and toiled to build this “modern tabernacle,” I observed that the Lord never failed to fill it!
As I prayer walked through the dome that first night, I just felt like the Lord was there waiting and welcoming all the pilgrims that were coming to that tabernacle to seek Him. We built it, the Lord filled it. And that week as I went through the conference, I could just see God meeting us in the dome session after session. Through every element of the conference, the videos, the dramas, the talks, even the MC, God was communing and speaking to His children. And it hit me… why would someone pay up to $1000 to come to this conference? I mean there are a lot of conferences out there that are cheaper, in nicer locations, have more popular/well known speakers and worship bands… why would someone want to come to Urbana?
Perhaps it’s because every 3 years God gives a fresh and detailed impartation of what kind of “dwelling place” He wants the Urbana team to build. Perhaps its because they are painstakingly faithful to build it to spec with the expectation that God is going to fill that space. And perhaps every 3 years… God’s glory actually does fall. That the conviction from the word preaching and the healing from being in His presence is so heavy that it’s like a thick cloud pressing down on our spirits. That like the Israelites who annually made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to meet with God, Urbana delegates are like pilgrims going to St. Louis to encounter Him in a fresh new way.
So for the next Urbana, if you’re wondering if you should go or not, I still can’t promise you that you will receive your calling or that it’s going to be some life altering experience, but I can say that God will be dwelling there in a unique way. That as InterVarsity is faithful every 3 years to building His dwelling place, God truly does fill it.