“What are you about?” and “Why are you here?” were the two most common questions we heard at the Urbana ’06 conference in St. Louis. As the days went on, these questions resonated personally as well.
Being CBE members since 1991, my wife Missy and I were excited about the opportunity to help CBE staff at a major international evangelical event in our own city. We knew it was big, we knew it was busy, but neither of us had been to an Urbana conference before.
Missy and I volunteered to serve at the CBE booth. The exposition hall was massive, containing hundreds of displays ranging from simple tables to elaborate multimedia experiences. The conference was attended by 23,000 students and a few thousand more exhibitors, volunteers, presenters, and staff.The most outstanding feature of the entire assembly was the sheer diversity of the people. Representatives of the whole body of Christ from all over the world were there.
We were encouraged by the number of CBE friends and supporters who stopped by the booth throughout the week. People thanked us for being there and asked about founders, friends, authors, and staff. They told us how they have used CBE materials and look forward to receiving the publications. Some just smiled and gave us a thumbs-up as they walked by. Many InterVarsity staff members also stopped by to thank CBE for their work.
Many of the people who visited the booth had never heard of CBE. They looked at our name, the banner behind us that read “Serving by giftedness not by gender,” and the table full of books and asked, “What are you about?” From my 30+ years of experience attending industrial shows, I knew that you only have a few seconds to “engage” someone’s interest. Boiling CBE’s message down to a few statements to pique the curiosity of a young person amid the din of a hall filled with motion and energy was the first major challenge.
Our answer went something like this: “We are an international organization committed to the biblical model of people serving as they are gifted by God, not defined or restrained by gender. We offer publications, conferences, an on-line bookstore, and memberships that advance biblical equality as we relate to one another and serve Christ and His body in the world.” The responses ran the gamut from a simple “Oh, cool.” To an enthusiastic, “YES! Tell me more.” Some were skeptical, a few were hostile, many were tearfully thankful.
The second question usually followed. “Why are you here?” From my personal exposure to CBE, I knew that context is always essential to understanding. So my response usually went something like this, “Since gender-based hierarchy is a result of the fall, it is common to all humanity. If you’re going to preach the whole gospel, you have to tell them about our reconciliation with God through Christ and our reconciliation to each other in Christ. If all the church is offering is a kinder, gentler version of what is common in all of sin-distorted humanity—more hierarchy—what is compelling about that?” No matter where the other person was on the issue that usually generated more discussion.
The stories poured out. One young woman said, “I came [to Urbana] asking God to show me a way into ministry that would use my gifts, or I was going to leave the faith and concentrate on a secular career.” After a long discussion she said she was thankful to know that God had not made a mistake in gifting her for ministry and there was a solid biblical case that supported her desire to serve. She left with literature, a book catalog, an informational CD, and a renewed spirit to prepare for whatever came next.
People kept coming back to our booth. Friends brought friends and significant others. A daughter brought her mother and a few husbands brought their wives. An engaged couple came looking for information on egalitarian marriages. Ministery leaders came looking for resources to guide the discussions in their congregations.
One minister from Africa came and asked how he could get more of TNIV Bibles. He told me there were over 5000 Christian prayer groups in his country where people read from one Bible to the whole group because they could not afford their own. He also took more of our information because he was connected to the committee working on writing a new constitution for his country and he wanted “…to get more of this kind if stuff in it.”
We knew right away when CBE president Mimi Haddad finished giving a workshop because as soon as it was over, a wave of people come to the booth for more resources. Mimi was constantly engaged with others after her workshops, at meals, and just walking around. It was also good to see a plenary speaker from a past CBE international conference, Brenda Salter McNeil, as the main speaker at an evening plenary session at Urbana. Her preaching electrified the entire stadium full of people.
It was a privilege to work alongside CBE staff member Julia Butcher and president Mimi Haddad. I was impressed all over again with their dedication, preparation, and total commitment to the mission of this organization. I know we made impressions, provided aid, encouragement, affirmation, and information to many at the conference.
We can’t wait to be part of the next Urbana conference. Helping at the booth gave Missy and me an opportunity to see the message of biblical equality resonate in a larger context than our own CBE chapter or conference experience. CBE has established a firm position on the larger evangelical world stage and it belongs there.
We have left Urbana changed by the enthusiasm for ministry of the many young people we encountered, the dedication of the mission “lifers” we met, and a renewed conviction that the mission of CBE is essential to the life of the Body of Christ in a needy world. Now the continuing question for me/us is “What am I about? Why am I here?”