A Brief History of Urban Programs

For over two decades now InterVarsity staff have used urban programs as effective discipleship training tools. Our first programs began in the mid ‘70s on both coasts, perhaps foreshadowing the fact that their use would spread across the entire country in the following years. New York and Pasadena paved the way, and the Chicago Urban Program followed soon after. By the mid ‘80s there were seven programs on record, by the mid ‘90s there were 16, and as of 2002 there were over 40 programs. The greatest area of growth has been in the addition of week long “plunges” as these events are less complex organizationally, and have provided staff teams with an effective way to involve larger numbers of their students in exposure to the city. They also act as springboards to launching summer-long internships for staff teams who want to “try it out” first.

Simultaneous to this growth has been the intentional mainstreaming of the urban programs movement into the wider InterVarsity ministry. In 1992 the first urban program consultation was convened in Portland. There, more than 20 delegates representing 10 urban programs, gathered to consider basic elements involved in directing urban programs, including fund development, curriculum ideas, practical considerations such as directors, checklists and timetables, application forms, etc. Glandion Carney led a Bible exposition, and there was much prayer and laughter throughout the week. It was at this consultation that a concern was expressed about the extent to which the urban program movement was understood and appreciated in the larger InterVarsity family. Were urban programs a legitimate form of ministry in the InterVarsity culture? Was the city competing against the campus? These questions were serious enough that program directors decided to investigate whether appointing some form of National Coordinator might be helpful to further the cause of urban programs in InterVarsity, facilitate the relationship between urban programs and InterVarsity management, stimulate participation and growth in our programs, and provide a central data base for information.

In 1993, an Advisory Committee was formed to explore that question, as well as to plan the next urban program consultation in 1994. That consultation was held in Atlanta, and included many of the same elements of the Portland Consultation. However, the primary objective in Atlanta was the formulation of common ministry values which could provide some consistency from program to program, given the diverse and multi-varied methodologies in place in carrying out these programs. Program Directors hammered out statements on six distinct ministry values (included in binder) which they felt should be inculcated into every urban program no matter how short or how long. Methodologies for carrying them out would be up to each program. These values include statements on: the urban church, lifestyle and vocational stewardship, racial reconciliation, the campus, Christian community and theology/scripture/& prayer. The Urban Program Advisory Committee then edited and published these statements during the ensuing months. Also at the Atlanta Consultation the decision to identify and hire a National Coordinator for Urban Programs was made by consensus. That appointment was accomplished in July 1995.

The 1996 Consultation was held in Chicago, and featured Dr. C. T. Vivian, a contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr., and world renowned expert on the issues surrounding race and race awareness. This Consultation had a profound impact on the program staff and directors present, and served to open the door to having Dr.Vivian’s input with other sectors of the InterVarsity ministry, including various regional events as well as with Regional Directors. Urban program staff continue to report the ways in which they are incorporating the things learned at the ‘96 Consultation into the life of their urban programs.

Today, with over 40 urban programs having taken place in 2002, there are new challenges facing this ministry. There are many new Program Directors who were not present when the initial ministry values statement was hammered out. The difficulties in gathering Program Directors and staff on a consistent basis has grown. Providing a stream of resources to new and mature Program Directors has become more of a priority, and the presence of more urban programs signals the need for greater interaction and cooperation at the regional level, given the influence they have in the regional training year.

In many ways the concerns raised at the ‘92 Consultation about whether urban programs fit into the mainstream of InterVarsity have been answered. In 2002 we held the largest Consultation in our history. Dr. Ray Bakke spoke on Shalom. The sheer growth of the movement says that more regions are recognizing the validity of these experiences. With this growth we need to ensure that urban programs strengthen the relationship to the on-campus ministry goals of our movement, as well as to the new purpose statement and especially the “four loves” in that statement.

Together, we celebrate what God has done in InterVarsity in helping to prepare students for a lifetime of commitment to Christ and faithful service in an increasingly urban world.