After the third worship song on Wednesday evening, we joined the chorus of missionaries throng towards the platform. Couple by couple, family by family, person by person, our names were announced along with our countries of mission service and the total amount of years we had served. A woman dressed in all black with a veil sat next to us. Her name and location were not mentioned due to security reasons. Don Dawson, the indefatigable director of the conference, gave the final total of years served amongst missionaries gathered – 1,072 years. Wow! What a legacy.
This last week marked the 108th annual New Wilmington Mission Conference (NWMC). It is perhaps the longest standing mission conference in the United States, dating from the days of the Student Volunteer Movement when thousands of young people were signing up to go serve as missionaries to all parts of the world. One of the early participants of NWMC was Robert McQuilken, founder of Columbia International University which has trained thousands of pastors, church leaders, and missionaries, serving all over the world. Thomas Alexander Lambie, also an alumnus of NWMC, would become a dedicated missionary doctor serving in Sudan. He would later become the first American missionary to serve in Ethiopia, where he launched the Abyssinian Frontiers Mission which would merge with the Sudan Inland Mission (SIM). He would later serve in Nigeria and Palestine. Within the last couple of decades, Harold Kurtz became a much loved participant of NWMC. He was the first director of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship (PFF), an agency which seeks to make the Gospel known to unreached peoples.
This year nearly 900 people descended upon the small town of New Wilmington (PA) to spend a week together at Westminster College – worshipping, fellowshipping, praying and playing together. Families have been coming to this conference for generations. At the golf fundraiser on Thursday, I sat across from Larry Ruby who has been coming to this conference for 51 years. He met his wife Linda here. Others have also been coming every year for decades. NWMC is geared towards the next generation. The highest proportion of participants are high school and college age. The music is loud, the spirit is fun-loving yet serious, and everyone is made to feel at home. Every evening after the benediction in the large outdoor Anderson auditorium, we would all sing “Surely the Presence of God is in this Place” while embracing those around us and swaying gently from side to side. For us it felt like a homecoming, though this was our first year to attend.
As part of the missionary staff of NWMC, we were charged with speaking to high schoolers every day for about forty minutes. We were admonished to engage with them, telling them about ourselves and our mission work. I found this part of the conference most rewarding. They had great questions and stayed awake despite a packed-out week of activity. Kristi and I also spoke to young adults, children, and we shared during the vespers-hour one evening. This conference felt like the crossroads of the Presbyterian mission world, and it was great to connect with old friends and make new ones as well.
Some may ask, “What good can come from the Presbyterian Church (USA) these days?” An easy answer is this – The New Wilmington Mission Conference. Presbyterians are serious about God’s mission and having fun. Please consider being a part of NWMC next year.