In December 1970, some 12,000 college students from across the United States and around the world flooded into a remote college town in the Prairie State, where the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign had played host to the conference since 1948 and provided the moniker it has used ever since.
The challenges facing the Urbana ’70 executive planning committee were legion, beginning with the contested place of global missions at the dawn of a new decade. College students now questioned the validity of traditional missionary efforts as imperialistic overtures by a global superpower. At the close of the tumultuous 1960s, American student culture was far more concerned with the Vietnam War, poverty, racial injustice, and political corruption than Christian evangelism in far-flung corners of the world. While past Urbana conventions witnessed thousands of students commit themselves to lifelong Christian service overseas, only 8% of Urbana ’70 attendees completed the conference Decision Cards, expressing interest in global missionary work. For this generation of college students, the urgency of preaching the gospel overseas paled in comparison to compelling social and political causes at home. For Urbana ’70 attendees, the Kent State shootings were only last semester.
The Executive Committee for Urbana ’70 rose to meet these challenges. Led by Convention Director Paul Eagleson Little, longtime IVCF staffer and best-selling author of How to Give Away Your Faith, committee members began planning in November 1969, with continued assistance from the Advisory Committee. Reports and memos from both committees held in Collection 300: Records of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship reveal the IVCF’s desire to address the relevance of global missions for a new generation. In one of several “Urbana Briefs” to the executive committee [Box 344, Folder 11], Little outlines how Urbana ’70 will speak to a new decade, starting with the conference theme: “World Evangelism: Why? How? Who?” Guiding issues for the conference keynote addresses included questions of social justice, political revolution, personal discernment, and indigenous church evangelism.
Urbana ’70 boasted an impressive lineup of speakers, including convention veteran John Stott, IVCF President John Alexander, former missionary in Columbia David Howard, and Leighton Ford from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. While these speakers tackled more perennial topics, like discerning a personal call to missions, the role of student missionaries in world evangelism historically, and practical concerns like Warren Webster’s “How to Prepare for a Foreign Experience,” the executive committee turned to other figures to address thornier issues. African theologian, Byang Kato, was invited to answer the question “The National Church: Do They Want Us?” and Indian evangelist Samuel Kamelson delivered “The Local Church and World Evangelism.”
By far the most controversial and galvanizing Urbana speaker was Tom Skinner, a rising Black evangelist from Harlem, New York and recent author Black and Free (1968) and How Black is the Gospel? (1970). A former Black nationalist and gang member in his youth, Skinner’s evangelistic ministry since his conversion was marked by a prophetic call for racial unity among Christians across social, denominational, and political divides, and conviction that American evangelicals must both preach the gospel and address the social ills of their communities. His Urbana ’70 keynote electrified the audience with a blistering denunciation of evangelical indifference to social injustice. For Skinner, evangelism that ignored poverty, injustice, and racism was pitifully narrow at best and downright bogus at worst.
There is no possible way you can talk about preaching the gospel if you do not want to deal with the issues that bind people. If your gospel is an “either-or” gospel, I must reject it. Any gospel that does not talk about delivering to man a personal savior who will free him from the personal bondage of sin and grant him eternal life and does not at the same time speak to the issue of enslavement, does not speak to the issue of injustice, does not speak to the issue of inequality—any gospel that does not want to go where people are hungry and poverty-stricken and set them free in the name of Jesus Christ is not the gospel.Tom Skinner, “The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism,” December 28, 1970
For Skinner, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ required stripping the message of any cultural or political associations, an approach sadly neglected by most traditional evangelists.
The thing you must recognize is that Jesus Christ is no more a capitalist than he is a socialist or a communist. He is no more a Democrat than he is a Republican. He is no more the president of the New York Stock Exchange than he is the head of the Socialist Party. He is neither of that. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. And if you are going to respond to Jesus Christ, you must respond to him as Lord.
Skinner closed his address with a direct appeal for students to follow Jesus, who accomplished “one of the greatest political coups of all time” in his resurrection from the dead.
Keep in mind, my friend, with all your militancy and radicalism, that all the systems of men are doomed to destruction. All the systems of men will crumble and, finally, only God’s kingdom and his righteousness will prevail. You will never be radical until you become part of that new order and then go into a world that’s enslaved, a world that’s filled with hunger and poverty and racism and all those things of the work of the devil. Proclaim liberation to the captives, preach sight to the blind, set at liberty them that are bruised, go into the world and tell men who are bound mentally, spiritually and physically, “The liberator has come!”
Tom Skinner’s influence also extended to the musical lineup at Urbana ’70, which featured the talents of Bronx-based Soul Liberation, a musical group Skinner recruited to perform at his evangelistic crusades under the auspices of Tom Skinner Associates.
Aside from the speakers’ lineup, the Urbana executive committee introduced two notable features to its traditional conference schedule. First, conference organizers opted to discard afternoon plenary sessions, allowing students to browse InterVarsity Press book stalls and connect with the missions exhibit booths representing more than 90 different mission agencies. While reducing the teaching content, this decision allowed attendees more time for one-on-one interactions with conference presenters, missionaries, and recruiters, a schedule change that became permanent for following Urbana conventions.
Another element introduced at Urbana ’70 signaled a shift in traditional missions recruiting methods with the help of new technology. Convention publicity literature enthusiastically touted a computerized matching process: “A new feature this year, in cooperation with Intercristo, will speed up the process of putting you in touch with the needs and opportunities for overseas service” [Box 344, Folder 13]. Conference attendees were urged to complete a Service Interest Profile Card. Urbana organizers, using the data, could then generate a “computer-matched listing of those agencies and missions personnel who are interested in people with your background and education” [Box 344, Folder 13]. Where student attendees at previous Urbana conventions might have been urged to undergo a “discernment process” to determine a personal call from God to international missions work, Urbana ’70 worked to eliminate that uncertainty, introducing the missions curious to specific needs in exact locations in a matter of keystrokes. Six weeks after the conference, the Urbana ’70 Advisory Committee reported, “It was the general consensus of the committee that this was great and it was a clear illustration of personalizing technology” [Box 344, folder 11].
Urbana ’70 ended with a traditional Communion service on New Year’s Eve. As students returned to college campuses to begin another semester, IVCF leadership weighted the strengths and weaknesses of the convention while looking ahead to Urbana ’73, while outsiders assessed its lasting impact. For many, Tom Skinner’s challenge to middle-class, white American conceptions of Jesus Christ and a capitalist, Republican gospel remained the Convention’s overwhelming legacy. Newspaper and magazine clippings tucked away in the Urbana ’70 files [Box 344, Folder 13] discuss the convention’s significance, including a Los Angeles Times article describing the event as “In large measure the usual emphasis on recruiting missionaries was preempted by an attempt to redefine evangelism for a revolutionary age” [Richard Hauser, Jan 3, 1971] and a Christianity Today editorial, “The Liberator Has Come,” echoed Skinner’s message: “[A]s the world gropes about in the anxious seventies, the designation of Christ as Liberator seems especially appropriate” [Jan 29, 1971].
More information about the planning and impact of Urbana ’70 and other IVCF ministries is found in Collection 300: Records of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship held in the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives.